25 years after Beeper Spence was murdered, his mother says little has changed

Twenty-five years after her son was shot in Winnipeg's North End, Joseph "Beeper" Spence's mother says the community is no safer now than it was then.

Nancy Flett would like to see more investments in inner-city programs, 25 years after son's death

Twenty-five years after the death of her son Beeper Spence, Nancy Flett says that things have gotten worse in the North End. (Lenard Monkman)

Twenty-five years after her son was shot in Winnipeg's North End, Joseph "Beeper" Spence's mother says the community is no safer now than it was then.

"It's sad. It breaks my heart thinking that I lost my son … because of this stupid gang violence, and this stuff is still happening," said Nancy Flett.

On July 23, 1995, 13-year-old Beeper was shot and killed on Flora Avenue. His death shocked the city when it happened, because it was still uncommon to see such a young victim of a violent crime.

"A lot of things haven't changed from 25 years ago when Beeper was taken away," said Flett.

Beeper was the oldest of Flett's three children. She describes him as the protective big brother who was always looking out for his sisters, as well as a joker and an athlete who loved to be outdoors.

His sister, April Spence says her teenage son, Dominic, closely resembles him and loves to play baseball, just like Beeper. That resemblance has created a special bond between Dominic and his grandmother Nancy.

A family photo of Beeper in the middle with his sisters April (orange sweater) and Tracy (grey sweater) (Submitted)

"I just feel like that's his way of connecting to the kids, especially my oldest son," said April. 

In the week leading up to the anniversary of his death, Flett said she's been fighting back tears and suffering from flashbacks of the night he was shot.

She still lives in the North End, just a few blocks away from where the shooting happened. 

Fewer cultural institutions in the North End

About six years after his death, Flett and her daughters, April and Tracey, helped launch the Lighthouse program at the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre in Winnipeg. She says youth-specific programs like Lighthouse helped keep young people in the community out of trouble.

"It was created after Beeper passed away to give youth a safe haven — a safe place to be and to meet people," Flett said.

In 2011, the drop-in centre dedicated to her son closed because of a lack of funding. In the past few years, other cultural institutions like Neechi Foods and the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre closed as well, she said.

The friendship centre had management issues forcing it to close down. The closure left a void for Indigenous people living in the inner-city, Flett said.

"The friendship centre belonged to the community," said Flett. "We need something that the community has ownership of, where it's a part of them." 

Helping the community

Community advocate Mitch Bourbonniere has dedicated his career to helping young Indigenous people at risk of gangs and crime. As someone who has been working in the North End for 35 years now, he remembers what it was like when the shooting happened.

"It was the biggest news ever in the North End at the time," said Bourbonniere. "It was brewing for a long time and it scared a lot of people."

Bourbonniere says it's stressful for people living in the North End when they have to deal with violent events, like a random attack with a hammer on a 15-year-old in June. 

But he says a lot of changes have come from the residents who live there despite the violence.

"What  I do think is better than 1995 is the grassroots activities that are now happening in the North End by the people, for the people," said Bourbonniere, pointing to things like the Bear Clan Patrol and Meet Me at The Bell Tower, a Stop the Violence movement. 

"There's still the element of gangs and danger and stress and poverty, but there's also a lot of cool resources that we didn't have back then, and lots of them are led by the community and community members," he said​​​​​​.

Mitch Bourbonniere, a community outreach worker and anti-gang activist, has been working in the inner-city for 35 years now. He says changes are coming from North End residents. (Gary Solilak/CBC )

When Flett thinks back to the '90s, she feels there was more programming available for families in the inner city. She also thinks that today, things like leisure and recreational activities are out of reach for low-income familes because they've become too expensive.

"There's nothing around here anymore," said Flett. "Things are so costly for families, like back then a lot of times things used to be free for kids to join or maybe a low cost."

She would like to see more support from government for inner-city youth.

"They can start by offering them jobs at a younger age," said Flett.

Flett said she has seen her neighborhood and the people who are living there change over the years and believes that it has caused friction in the community.

Nancy said that Beeper loved to play baseball and that he had dreams of being a stunt driver. (Submitted)

She would like to see a better understanding that people are often moved into the neighborhood without resources, and would like to see the newcomer and Indigenous community come together to learn more about each other.

A City of Winnipeg spokesperson said in an email the city offers support to programs like the Winnipeg Aboriginal Sport Achievement Centre and the Sports Program in Inner City Neighborhoods (SPIN). 

City council has also adopted a newcomer welcome and inclusion policy and framework, and work will continue to develop a poverty reduction strategy, the spokesperson wrote.

The family plans to mark the day by visiting Beeper as they do every year, by having a picnic and sharing stories about what about the family has been up to.

About the Author

Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He is the co-founder of Red Rising Magazine and has been an associate producer with the CBC's Indigenous unit since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1