Manitoba

From a manhunt to the Grey Cup, the news stories that defined Manitoba in 2019

We cheered when our long-suffering football team lifted an elusive trophy, mourned when the homicide record was broken and watched in shock as police searched northern Manitoba bush country for two teenage killers. We saw it all in the news stories that defined Winnipeg and Manitoba in 2019. 

A freak snowstorm, frequent liquor store thefts and a forced election

A horde of RCMP officers descended on Gillam, Man., where the burnt-out vehicle used by the two B.C. homicide suspects was found. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

We cheered when our long-suffering football team lifted an elusive trophy, mourned when the homicide record was broken and watched in shock as police searched rugged bush in northern Manitoba for two teenage killers.

We saw it all in the news stories that defined Winnipeg and Manitoba in 2019. 

There was the freak snowstorm that downed power lines. There were liquor thefts that it seemed every Winnipegger either saw for themselves or knew someone who did. And between it all, we voted in not one but two elections.  

Here's a look back at the year that was, and some of the biggest stories that mattered in the past 12 months. 

Public engrossed by hunt for murder suspects

Why would two friends senselessly kill a young couple in love and a university professor, and then lead scores of police on a massive cross-country chase?

It is a question without an answer. 

In a series of videos, Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod admitted they were responsible for three killings in northern British Columbia, but provided no motive and showed no remorse, RCMP said. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Canada's most-wanted fugitives — Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod — confessed to the three killings in videos recorded days before they killed themselves, but provided no motive. 

"They were cold. They were remorseless, matter of fact," RCMP Asst. Commissioner Kevin Hackett said of the videos that police are not releasing.

The pair travelled from northern B.C. in mid-July and planned to march to the Hudson Bay, hijack a boat and head to Europe or Africa.

But they never got there. They met their end in the dense, unforgiving terrain of northern Manitoba.

The bodies of B.C. homicide suspects, Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky, are loaded onto a plane after they were found dead in the dense bush outside Gillam, Man., on Aug. 7. (CBC)

The cross-country manhunt captivated the country and the world. Police narrowed in on the fugitives when their torched vehicle was found near Gillam, Man., but few signs of the pair's whereabouts would be spotted for days.

On Aug. 7, the bodies of McLeod and Schmegelsky were found. An autopsy confirmed they died by suicide. 

Blue and Gold triumphs

A Grey Cup drought reached its merciful end under a shower of blue, yellow and white confetti.

Under a flurry of confetti, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers celebrate winning the 107th Grey Cup over the Hamilton Tiger Cats. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers lifted the elusive chalice on Nov. 24 for the first time in 29 years, thanks to a 33-12 victory over the favoured Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

They did it on the backs of a homegrown MVP Andrew Harris running for two touchdowns, Justin Medlock kicking six field goals and the Bomber defence sacking quarterback Dane Evans six times.

From the stadium in Calgary to Portage and Main, Winnipeg's long-suffering fans breathed a sigh of relief. Delirious fans stormed the city's famed intersection and hollered when the newly-crowned champions brought the Grey Cup to Winnipeg in two pieces

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers take the Grey Cup for a ride in downtown Winnipeg with 10,000 of their biggest fans. 1:11

At a rowdy championship parade, a shirtless quarterback draped in a fur coat and chugging beers became a star.

"I'm lit right now," Chris Streveler shouted at the rally. "You're lit right now."

Winnipeg's deadliest year

The year 2019 will forever be marred in Winnipeg by a grim milestone.

The city recorded more homicides — 44 — than in any year in history, breaking a record of 41 homicides set in 2011.

People drum at a vigil for Hunter Straight-Smith, the three-year-old who was stabbed as he slept. He was later taken off life support at Winnipeg's Children's Hospital. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

The dubious distinction was hit on Dec. 18, following many disturbing killings that rattled Winnipeggers, including a three-year-old boy stabbed to death in his sleep and a 17-year-old teenager killed in a random home invasion

"Every homicide brings a grieving family, an impact on the community and a significant amount of work," Winnipeg police spokesperson Const. Jay Murray said. 

"Just a single homicide can have a profound impact on the community. It's awful."

As well, Winnipeg has been reeling this year from a rash of violent crime, liquor store thefts and a police force overtaxed by methamphetamine-related calls.

Anti-Semitism attack a hoax: police

It was called the most brazen act of anti-Semitism that Winnipeg has ever seen. 

A woman was assaulted and BerMax Caffé and Bistro, a restaurant owned by a Jewish family, was defaced with discriminatory graffiti, smashed glasses and flipped tables. 

Signs of support were left outside the BerMax Caffé and Bistro on Corydon Avenue, before police said they believed the alleged hate crime was actually a hoax. (Warren Kay/CBC)

The evidence of a crime on Apr. 18 was obvious, Winnipeg police said days later.

But it wasn't a hate crime — police said the whole thing was staged.

"I am hugely disappointed and frankly angry that this family has used hate and racism in such a disingenuous way," police chief Danny Smyth said. "In doing so, they have allowed cynicism to creep into this discussion, cynicism that trivializes genuine victims of hate."

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman called the alleged fabrication disgusting, while Ran Ukashi of B'Nai Brith Canada said it was a betrayal. 

Alexander Berent, 56, Oxana Berent, 48, and Maxim Berent, 29, are facing charges of public mischief based on what police saw in traffic cameras, but they're pleading their innocence. 

The Jewish family that owns a Winnipeg restaurant deny police allegations that they staged an anti-Semitic attack at the establishment last week. They spoke to host Ismaila Alfa on CBC Manitoba's Up to Speed on Wednesday. 1:20

Oxana insists she would never invent a story about an anti-Semitic crime.

"My grandmother's family, they died in the Holocaust. Just her and her little brother survived, the whole family," she said on CBC Manitoba's afternoon radio show, Up to Speed, often speaking through tears. "We don't joke about that."

Mystery surrounds ouster of Chinese researchers

A prominent Chinese researcher was escorted from an infectious disease lab in Winnipeg for what's been described as a possible "policy breach." 

Dr. Xiangguo Qiu, her biologist husband Keding Cheng and some students from China were removed from Canada's only level-4 lab on July 5.

Dr. Xiangguo Qiu, seen at the Governor General's Innovation Awards at Rideau Hall in 2018, has not returned to work at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, after being escorted out in July. (CBC file)

The Public Health Agency of Canada has been tight-lipped on the circumstances surrounding the ouster from the National Microbiology Lab, only describing it as an "administrative matter" involving a possible "policy breach" it referred to the RCMP. 

The University of Manitoba has since severed ties with Qiu and Cheng and told faculty members to eschew unnecessary travel to China.

The ouster came at a time when relations between Canada and China are strained. China retaliated for the arrest of a Huawei executive by arresting Canadians on espionage charges, sentencing a man for drug expenses and shutting down the import of Canadian canola and meat.

The RCMP's probe into the lab researchers' conduct is continuing. The duo have yet to return to work.

Ex-soldier tied to neo-Nazi group

A former military reservist with ties to a global neo-Nazi terrorist group is considered missing after his participation in an organization that promotes hate was exposed. 

Master Cpl. Patrik Mathews disappeared at the end of August as he was being fast-tracked out of the military for his alleged links to The Base, a right-wing extremist group.

Patrik Mathews, shown here in a photo from 2015 as an army reservist, has been investigated for potential links to the neo-Nazi group, The Base. (Courtney Rutherford/CBC)

His truck was found abandoned on a rural property in Piney, Man., near the U.S. border, prompting speculation the 26-year-old entered the United States.

RCMP swarmed Mathews' home in Beausejour, Man., on Aug. 19, after his identity was revealed by the Winnipeg Free Press. No arrests were made. 

One of The Base's stated goals is for its members to join the military to receive training and spread hate, said Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. He said the organization idolizes mass killers and wants to carry out terrorist attacks to accelerate what they see as a coming race war.

Tories win election convincingly

The re-election of Brian Pallister's government was never really in doubt.

Despite harsh criticisms over his cost-cutting measures, the Progressive Conservatives took a decisive 36-seat majority win on Sept. 10. The NDP came in second, expanding their footprint in the legislature to 18 seats.

The loss of four seats was disappointing, Pallister said, but hardly an admonishment of the controversial decisions made in his first term, like slashing the number of emergency rooms in Winnipeg from six to three. 

Manitoba PC leader Brian Pallister celebrates winning the Manitoba election in Winnipeg on Sept. 10. His party has been in power since 2016. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

"[I] think it would be wrong to suggest that getting close to half the popular support in back-to-back elections was anything resembling a rebuke," Pallister said, moments after his victory speech.

By many measures, his government did what it set out to do. He reversed a scorned PST hike and charted a course that will wipe out a deficit approaching $1 billion under the previous NDP government.

Pallister also reined in spending by freezing the wages of public servants and ordering Crown corporations to cut staff. 

Pallister forced an election a year earlier than necessary for reasons not entirely clear. His justification shifted over time, from saying a vote would distract from the Manitoba 150 celebrations in 2020, to his later argument that he needed a refreshed mandate to accomplish new goals.

A month later, Manitobans went to the polls again, but for a federal election. The Liberals clung to power, but lost three of their seats in Winnipeg.

Snowstorm pummels trees, power lines

Thousands of people went without power for days following a freak dumping of heavy, wet snow over the Thanksgiving weekend.

The moisture-laden snow weighed on power lines and branches still covered in leaves, snapping them and pulverizing the electrical network in southern Manitoba.

Power lines were taken down by trees all over Winnipeg after the early-season snowstorm. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The Manitoba government and many First Nations called a state of emergency. Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes and at one point the entire city of Portage la Prairie was powerless

Manitoba Hydro called in reinforcements from neighbouring jurisdictions. Staff worked as long as 16 hours a day to restore power. It's estimated the recovery effort cost the utility more than $110 million.

In Winnipeg, around 30,000 city-owned trees, and many trees on private property, were damaged by the storm.

Liquor store lawlessness

If it seemed like thieves were brazenly stealing every day from Winnipeg's liquor stores, you'd be right — it was happening 10-20 times a day, in fact.

An epidemic of thefts from government-run liquor stores became the talk of town, with videos circulating on social media of people walking into stores, stashing bags with liquor and simply walking out.

And they kept doing it, while store workers and security officers, who are discouraged from intervening, looked on.

The rash of thefts came to a head on Nov. 20 when three liquor store employees at a Tyndall Park store were assaulted in an unprovoked attack. One employee, Randi Chase, was punched in the head and knocked out.

Watch video of the Tyndall Park store robbery here:

In a video obtained by CBC News, two people with their faces partially covered can be seen assaulting three employees at the Tyndall Park Liquor Mart on Keewatin Street and Burrows Avenue. 0:41

"I couldn't do anything because I was afraid that I would get fired or I would be disciplined for protecting myself, because I would've provoked him," Chase said, in a video she posted to Facebook.

"So here I am behind the counter, so helpless, and then minutes later, unconscious," she said through tears.

The night of the assault, Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries announced it would fast-track heightened security measures. All Winnipeg stores will have secure entryways and require a photo ID to enter.

And for something offbeat

Amid the triumphs and tragedy, there was no shortage of unusual stories to tide us over in Manitoba.

There was Justin Smerchanski charged almost $6,200 on a booking website for a simple night at a small-town hotel.

We scratched our heads when Kevin Freedman recalled stealing someone's car — by mistake — because he thought it was someone else's. Twenty-one years later, he wanted to apologize to the stranger he accidentally wronged. 

And we couldn't forget Eli Boroditsky thinking he had an injured dog in his back seat — but it was actually a coyote.

A well-intentioned act to save an animal hit by a car had a surprise ending when the dog turned out to be a coyote. 2:10

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files from The Canadian Press

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