Manitoba·CBC Investigates

Shooting deaths soar as Winnipeg sees record number of homicides

A record-breaking year for homicides in Winnipeg also includes a major shift in the weapons used to kill, a CBC analysis of nearly two decades of homicides reveals.

CBC analysis of homicide data since 2003 shows sharp spike in gun-related killings

A police car blocks the far end of a street that has police markers lying on it.
Winnipeg police investigate a homicide involving firearms at Citizen Nightclub on Nov. 2. It was one of the 16 homicides in the city this year that were the result of a shooting. (Rachel Bergen/CBC)

A record-breaking year for homicides in Winnipeg also includes a major shift in the weapons used to kill, a CBC analysis of nearly two decades of homicides reveals.

On Wednesday, Winnipeg police said they are treating a man's death following an Oct. 31 house fire as a homicide. That means Winnipeg has already seen 42 homicides in 2019 — more than any other year. Seven of those homicides remain unsolved, police said, meaning no suspect has been arrested.

Nearly 40 per cent of those 42 homicides were the result of a shooting — a notable change in a city where stabbings and physical assaults tend to lead to more violent deaths.

Using police media releases, independent investigator reports and court records, CBC News gathered details on every homicide investigated by the Winnipeg Police Service since 2003.

That analysis shows that the 16 shooting deaths in 2019 far surpasses the 12 in 2008 — the year with the next highest number of gun-related homicides in the data CBC looked at. Last year, by way of comparison, there were three homicides that involved shootings.

While police say no single underlying issue is driving the number of gunshot deaths this year, a review of the 2019 homicide cases shows at least nine are confirmed to involve some form of connection with gang activity.

'Just a loud popping sound'

Lifelong North End resident and Bear Clan citizen patrol member Holly Thompson says she's noticed the rise in gun violence.

In recent years, hearing gunshots ring out at night has become such a common event that she has become somewhat desensitized to the problem.

"Just a loud popping sound. Very distinctive, you can't miss it," she said.

"There's times where you'll hear one, but most of the time it's multiple [shots].… Maybe a few minutes later you'll hear a police siren."

Holly Thompson lives in Winnipeg's North End and is a patrol member with the Bear Clan. She says hearing gunshots in her neighborhood has become all too common. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

While this spike in gun deaths is being felt in 2019, former Winnipeg police chief Jack Ewatski says the trend has been years in the making.

Ewatski, who was chief of the city's police service from 1998 to 2007, says the emergence of street gangs and organized crime in the late 1990s caused a rapid escalation in the use of deadly weapons on the street.

"Organized criminal activity has increased in the city. And I would say that it's based on the illicit drug trade," he said.

"When you have groups of individuals who are involved in that type of criminal activity … they go to extremes sometimes to either protect their own turf [or] to protect their own enterprise."

Both of Ewatski's sons are police officers, and he says that in their relatively short careers to date, they have likely seized more firearms than he did in his 35 years with the service.

Most unsolved cases involve guns

An analysis of homicide trends also shows that all seven of the unsolved killings in Winnipeg this year were shootings.

Since 2003, there have been 485 recorded homicides in Winnipeg. Forty-two remain unsolved. Of these open cases, 60 per cent involve shootings.

University of Manitoba criminologist Frank Cormier says most homicides in Winnipeg are "irrational," often involving a person in a fit of anger or under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and perpetrators in those cases "tend to use whatever happens to be at hand."

The involvement of a firearm may suggest a level of premeditation, though.

"When we see firearms involved, then it tends to be a little more of a planned sort of event," said Cormier. 

"So if there is a gang competition where they are fighting with each other or they shoot someone in retaliation, there's a turf war. Those do tend to be more rational in a way that there is a specific purpose to them being carried out.

"And with that planning, then often a firearm will be used."

Homemade guns

Another emerging trend Winnipeg police said they're seeing in an increased use of homemade guns.

On Tuesday, police said they are seeing a certain type of homemade gun appear with more regularity in the city, and they are now focused on finding out whoever is responsible for crafting them.

By September of this year, police had seized 70 homemade guns. Last year, that number was 52.

Police say they are seeing many homemade guns, like this one they displayed at a Tuesday news conference, showing up in Winnipeg. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

In the fall, police Chief Danny Smyth told reporters the emergence of homemade firearms and so-called "straw purchasing" — when licensed firearms owners divert legally obtained firearms onto the black market — has added a new element to enforcement.

Combined with the prevalence of drug trafficking, driven by methamphetamine, the conditions are ripe for violence, Smyth said.

"[It's] a dynamic that we haven't really been able to comment before on beyond [the] anecdotal, and now we actually have evidence," he told reporters in September.

Police statistics show that in the last four years, crimes where a firearm was involved increased by 66 per cent in Winnipeg — up from 192 in 2014 to 319 in 2018.

Of these incidents, three-quarters were robberies and just over a fifth were shootings.

In response to the escalation of gun violence, the federal government announced $2.3 million in funding last April to help Manitoba law enforcement agencies fight gang and gun violence.

Ottawa also previously announced efforts to keep firearms from coming into this country illegally, with $51.2 million earmarked for the Canada Border Services Agency over a five-year period that started in 2018-19 to help curb smuggling.

Meanwhile, Holly Thompson says despite some of the positive change she's witnessed in her Winnipeg neighbourhood during her patrols, she feels there is now a greater sense of unease.

"A lot of people are fearful. I know my neighbours are," she said.

"A lot of them are older people on my street, people with families, so we stay inside. Once it's dark, everybody stays inside."

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