Winnipeg: Is the bad rap deserved?

How dangerous is Manitoba's capital? It's a question raised anew by Air Canada's decision to pull flight crews from a downtown hotel.
Winnipeg police attend the scene of a fire on July 16. A number of arson-related fires this summer resulted in firefighters dubbing it 'the summer from hell.' (John Woods/Canadian Press)

A commenter posting on an online chat forum perhaps best summarizes the prevailing sentiment about Winnipeg.

"How scary is Winnipeg … really?" the user asks. "Online reviews are all over the place, from 'no problem, it's wonderful' to 'it's like Dawn of the Dead out there, you'll be lucky to get out alive.'"

It's a question raised again by a controversial decision by Air Canada to pull its flight crews from a downtown hotel due to safety concerns after an apparent spike in crime in the area.

An internal Air Canada memo publicized over the weekend points the finger at an influx of 1,000 displaced people from rural Manitoba and states that "instances of public intoxication" have resulted in several downtown locations being "susceptible to crimes of violence and opportunity."

Though the company has since apologized for moving its crews from the Radisson Hotel in the heart of the downtown to lodgings near the airport, the news immediately put Winnipeggers on the defensive.

"I'm extremely disappointed," said Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak called it surprising and racist. (About 100 of those displaced by spring flooding are First Nations people.) Even the head of the Air Canada Pilots Association called the decision "simply ridiculous."

Winnipeg may have a widespread reputation as a crime-ridden, dangerous city — and for years, the downtown core has borne its share of problems — but is it justified?

What the stats say

"If you look at the statistics, yes, we do have a very high violent crime rate, but it actually hasn't changed very much and it's gone down in a few areas in recent years," says Michael Weinrath, chair of the justice department at the University of Winnipeg.

A look at the numbers reveals what Manitobans know to be true: that the capital city and province as a whole hold several ignominious honours.

Among them, according to a Statistics Canada study on police-reported crime in Canada in 2010, are:

  • Winnipeg is the country's violent crime capital.
  • Manitoba has the highest amount of violent crime of all provinces.
  • Manitoba had the highest homicide rate for the fourth consecutive year.
  • Winnipeg has the country's highest rate of robberies.

But those figures are tempered by other statistics that show Winnipeg is indeed improving. In the same period, there was a seven per cent drop in the total crime rate, a 13 per cent drop in robberies, a three per cent drop in break-ins and a whopping 20 per cent drop in motor vehicle thefts.

Then again, the full statistics for 2011 are not in yet. The summer saw a slew of arsons that prompted firefighters to dub it "the summer from hell." A string of gang-related crimes, including fire bombings, kept police busy. With three months remaining in the year, the city is also just shy of its 2004 record of 34 homicides in a single year.

"Winnipeggers have a fragile psyche about this stuff," says Weinrath. "This stuff happens in Vancouver or Edmonton and they kind of shrug their shoulders.… Winnipeggers, something like this happens downtown and they just go, 'Oh woe is us!' and 'Downtown is just not that great an area.' "

At the core of the problem

While statistics paint a broader picture of the city and province, few are available that compare the downtown core to other neighbourhoods or to other cities' downtowns.

Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, a business advocacy group, says a breakdown of Winnipeg Police Service statistics show that less than 10 per cent of the city's assaults happen in the downtown core — a small proportion considering the tens of thousands of people visiting or living in the area.

A survey of downtown businesses by the group showed that 95 per cent said that the media focus on downtown crime had a moderate to strong impact on public perceptions of downtown.

It's a negative perception even the business group's new recruits of "ambassadors," who patrol the neighbourhood's streets to ensure safety, have before starting the job, says the group's manager of safety and development, Rick Joyal.

"The stories [people] hear about our downtown when they get here are horrendous," says Joyal. "Then when they get here … they say, 'I don't know where they're getting their information from.'"

Joyal stresses that the patrolling ambassadors say there are fewer instances of public drunkenness and assaults, counter to Air Canada's claim.

The 'tipping point'

For years, Downtown Winnipeg BIZ and other groups have been part of a push to return the deserted downtown core to its former glory.

Air Canada's announcement comes at a time when Winnipeg appears to be on the cusp of turning its downtown fortunes around.

The province is in the throes of newfound civic pride with the return of an NHL team, the Jets. The 15,000-seat MTS Centre, located in the heart of downtown, promises capacity crowds for the next three years. And many once vacant stores along Portage Avenue, where it is located, now have tenants.

Nearby at The Forks, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is under construction and set to open its doors next year.

"So there's lots of great things happening in the downtown but here's what's happening: it seems like we've reached a tipping point where people don't want to hear about these things," says Weinrath. "They don't want to hear that the crime rate's gone down. They just want to talk about every time there's a crime committed, you know, how awful things are."

With all the facts laid bare, the situation has some musing aloud whether some other issue is at play in Air Canada's decision.

"For all I know, this could be about cost savings," said Katz, "but I certainly would like to know the truth because two key reasons given have already been proven false."