Tough-on-crime stance plays up strength of Manitoba PC government: political expert

Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government has adopted a stronger approach on crime in a supposed bid to turn its fortunes around, a political scientist said.

Public safety announcements show government keen to focus on issue: Royce Koop

Tackling crime is a strength the Progressive Conservative government, like other right-of-centre administrations, has been able to rely on, a political scientist says. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government has adopted a stronger approach on crime in a bid to turn its fortunes around, a political scientist said.

"There's kind of longstanding concerns that Manitobans have about health care, about education, but those are issues that the government is actually vulnerable on," Royce Koop, a University of Manitoba political studies professor, said.

"Crime is a newer concern, and it's a big concern of Manitobans, and this is something that the Tories are actually strong on," he said. "It's something that people tend to see parties of the right as having more strength on."

The Tories made funding announcements they say will make communities safer on five consecutive days. 

The measures include a new police unit to target violent criminals, more money for a downtown street patrol, additional staff at walk-in addictions clinics and doubling the funding for homeless shelters, and a new detention centre for Brandon.

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson, speaking at the announcement of a new integrated police unit on Thursday, says the provincial government must address homelessness, mental health and addictions while also providing law enforcement with the tools they need. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Altogether, the province is committing around $24 million to address crime, homelessness and addictions. 

And the timing is good for a provincial government sagging in the polls, particularly in Winnipeg: crime and homelessness were among the top issues Winnipeggers had entering the recent municipal election.

It only makes sense for the government to champion these issues then, Koop said.

"One of the things the parties are going to be doing is they're going to be emphasizing the issues that they're strong on," he said. "We expect the NDP to not want to talk about crime, to want to talk about education and health. We expect the opposite from the Tories."

NDP coping with potential weakness on crime

A tough-on-crime approach gives the PCs an opportunity to exploit a potential weakness of the NDP, which has yet to communicate a detailed policy response regarding law enforcement, he said.

"The NDP wins elections in Manitoba by moving to the centre, and where most Manitobans are is they're open to tough-on-crime approaches," said Koop.

"But of course, the membership in the NDP — the activists that work in the NDP, that campaign, that donate money — tend to be much more skeptical" around tougher crime approaches, he said.

Over the years as the leader of the Official Opposition, the NDP's Wab Kinew has called on the government to address the root causes of crime. The party recently vowed to eliminate chronic homelessness within two terms in office if elected in 2023. 

On Thursday, Kinew told reporters it is incumbent upon public officials to outline ways to improve public safety, citing the work of the Sabe Peace Walkers, a group that offers safe walks to people who need them in Winnipeg's Osborne Village.

Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land, a criminal justice professor at the University of Winnipeg, says a heightened police presence can destabilize the lives of people who are closest to crises. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land, a criminal justice professor at the University of Manitoba, questioned whether a tough-on-crime platform still lands with voters.

Calls to defund the police, or at least reduce their funding, have gained traction. Some Winnipeg mayoral candidates advocated to cut spending on policing. 

"I think that people have increasing awareness of the fact that policing not only doesn't make people safer, but often destabilizes the lives of people who are closest to crisis," Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land.

Dobchuk-Land said the loved ones of people struggling with addictions or mental-health issues "know intimately that a police response is not going to solve the problem."

Social services have been starved, she said. More people are poor, houseless and have few public places to gather, given the city has cut hours for places such as libraries.

People wearing green hats are standing on a sidewalk talking to a group of people.
The Downtown Community Safety Partnership, a downtown patrol that started in 2020, received a $3.6-million grant from the provincial government. (Darin Morash/CBC )

"This increases the stress in the lives of people who are on the brink of crisis and who, when they have crises now at this point are less likely to be able to access resources to help them, and are more likely to encounter police who are gonna use the tools that they have in their toolbox, which are arrest, imprisonment, criminalization."

She said previous NDP governments have portrayed themselves as tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, but adds the party also governed amid a massive spike in the number of Indigenous people behind bars — 8,740 admissions in 2000-01 rising to 20,068 in 2015-16, according to Statistics Canada data.

An admission refers to a person who was arrested and incarcerated, but the number of admissions may include people who were taken into custody more than once.

The NDP "don't see themselves as the party of imprisonment and so they need to figure out how that happened," Dobchuk-Land said. "I'm happy to chat with them about it.

In the meantime, the PCs have no problem pointing out a distinction between itself and the NDP on matters of policing.

"We defend the police, they defund them," Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen said during question period on Thursday while speaking of the government's commitment this week to develop a policing unit that tracks down violent offenders and takes them into custody. 

Goertzen has been pushing the federal government in recent months to toughen up the Criminal Code. He wants to make it more difficult for people charged with crimes involving a knife and modified bear spray to obtain bail.

Koop suspects the next election, scheduled for on or before Oct. 3, 2023, won't be won on crime alone, though it would be an issue the political parties will need to define.

"What we know is people are concerned about crime. They have concerns, Koop said. "They want politicians to address those concerns."


Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. You can reach him at