Ross Holden is vice-president of Indigenous Governance and Self-Determination at the Institute on Governance.
Heartbreaking. That’s the only word to describe the news out of Winnipeg about three-year-old Hunter Straight-Smith, who was stabbed on Oct. 30 and died days later as a result of his wounds. His mother’s ex-boyfriend has been charged with second-degree murder. A few days before Hunter was stabbed, an assailant at a Winnipeg Halloween party stabbed and killed a 14-year-old girl and sent an 18-year-old woman to hospital in critical condition. Another man that was shot and killed on Nov. 4 put Winnipeg one death away from reaching its 2011 record of 41 murders.
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman has declared the city in crisis and is reaching out to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Brian Pallister to explore ways to better work together to build a healthier community and address the root causes of crime in Winnipeg.
That this recent spate of violence comes a full five years after the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine at the Forks is equally gut-wrenching. After Tina’s death, Maclean’s controversially named Winnipeg “Canada’s most racist city,” and in response, Winnipeg City Council approved a reconciliation-based Indigenous Accord that recognized the importance of creating a “more equitable and inclusive society by closing the gaps in social, health and economic outcomes that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.”
Winnipeg is very much a city of two solitudes. It is one of the most economically diversified and robust major metropolitan regions in Canada, experiencing a growth in gross domestic product of 3.1 per cent in 2018, almost twice the Canadian average. Between 1996 and 2016, its population increased by 16 per cent, in line with other major cities in Canada. During the same period, Winnipeg’s Indigenous population almost doubled, making it the largest urban Indigenous population in Canada. But many Indigenous people have not shared in Winnipeg’s prosperity; the city’s North End, where it is estimated 20 per cent of residents identify as Indigenous, contains some of the lowest-income postal codes in the country. The city has the highest rate of violent crime in Canada and four out of five people incarcerated in Manitoba prisons are Indigenous.
Chief of Police Danny Smyth has stated that much of the violent crime is linked to the methamphetamine and opioid crisis currently gripping the city. But the roots of the crisis go much deeper: residential schools, the Indian Act and reserve system, dislocation from lands and resources, loss of language and culture, and systemic racism have all taken their toll. It’s no secret that Winnipeg’s North End and other neighbourhoods are the destination of First Nations and Métis youth from surrounding reserves and northern settlements looking to escape the conditions in their home communities. They arrive without the education or skills to succeed in the city, only to be preyed upon by gangs.
Given the scope and complexity of the crisis, only a co-ordinated, long-term and multipartner strategy to address the real root causes has any hope. This should involve all levels of governments – federal, provincial, municipal, First Nation and Métis – as well as support from local and national service organizations. They could all play a role in supporting community-based policing and health services, cracking down on gangs and drugs by targeting leaders for arrest and prosecution, and allocating more resources for intervention and diversion away from correctional services for low-level offenders, implementing a comprehensive approach to investing in the well-being of First Nations and Métis communities, and promoting the academic fields and careers most likely to lead to success in the 21st century: science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
Above all, to ensure its success, the strategy should be cemented with a formalized partnership among all levels of government, long-term commitments to funding, effective co-ordination and accountability for outcomes. Without such an intervention, the prosperity and security of Indigenous people in Winnipeg, and Manitoba more broadly, will continue to decline beyond the crisis point at which it has arrived.
That there is a risk of this happening in light of Canada’s 2016 pledge of full support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the many calls to action of both the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation and the 2019 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls commissions, is appalling. The death of little Hunter and the fate of all the other victims of violent crime in Winnipeg, is a tragedy not just for their families or the city, but for the entire country.
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