Canada

Dousing a city’s flames

After suffering through a two-year wave of arson, Winnipeggers take action

John Nicol January 17 2000
Canada

Dousing a city’s flames

After suffering through a two-year wave of arson, Winnipeggers take action

John Nicol January 17 2000

Dousing a city’s flames

Canada

After suffering through a two-year wave of arson, Winnipeggers take action

John Nicol

North Winnipeg has many of the characteristics of sought-after city neigh-bourhoods. Majestic elms line the streets, providing summer shade and colourful autumn canopies for the turn-of-the-century homes. Garages are conveniently tucked away on back lanes; as a result, the houses are close to each other and the street, making it easy for people to interact with pedestrians and neighbours. But many of the homes that were once castles for waves of Ukrainian, Polish and German immigrants earlier this century have been neglected. And the neighbourhood became known for its prostitution, filth, crime and, most

recently, arson—fires in abandoned homes, vacant lots and large garbage bins that line the back lanes. Even a few of the elms have suffered.

Yet the residents of the North End are now feeling more hopeful. Because of Winnipeg’s war on arson, which began 10 weeks ago, the fires have decreased dramatically. Along with that has come a cleanup effort in the North End to remove potential kindling and to show arsonists that someone cares about the community. Abandoned properties and back lanes have been swept clean, graffiti has been erased or painted over, and dilapidated houses have been properly boarded up, some awaiting the wrecking ball, others renovation. “Everybody

had such a negative attitude before,” says Margaret Chartrand, 43, who has lived in the neighbourhood for 20 years. “Now we feel it’s safe to walk around most times of the day.” Much of that has been thanks to local volunteers. “If you have pride, you can have a neighbourhood again,” says Darrell Warren, who has lived in the area for 33 years and who now participates in volunteer foot patrols in the community. “We here in the North End, we will rise from the ashes.”

Those ashes have been the result of a surge in arson over the past two years— the rate in Winnipeg ballooned from 26 incidents per 100,000 people in 1997 to 63 in 1999, while the number of arsons the police investigated shot up from 348 in 1998 to 428 in 1999. These figures, coupled with the severity of the blazes set at churches, cultural centres and businesses as well as garages, have been giving Winnipeg a reputation as Canadas arson capital. But the city administration has now cracked down. In 10 weeks, workers have collected 1,500 tonnes of garbage from 900 properties, and inspected 27,000 homes and businesses, identifying 800 of them as fire hazards. Winnipeg’s Arson Strike Force, a joint police-firefighter effort, has conducted 284 investigations, made 62 arrests and laid 376 charges for arson, some in cases dating back to 1997.

Three-quarters of the suspects are youths, so 15 school gyms, three public swimming pools and two recreation centres have extended their hours to keep children off the streets. An intensive school education program also began last week, but authorities already feel the effort has been a success: December, the second month of the onslaught, saw a 23-per-cent drop in deliberately set fires. “We’ve made a huge difference,” Winnipeg fire Chief Wes Shoemaker told Macleans, “but we’ve only just begun. A lot of the conditions that have led to this situation have taken decades to develop, and will likely take us some time to overcome.”

The city’s efforts were spurred on by the realization that arson was, in fact, a city-wide problem. As well, some of the blazes of 1999 were hard to ignore. The year began with the Jan. 16 torching of the vacant, 115-year-old Leland Hotel next to City Hall. A fire was also set in an antique store in the historic Exchange District, and several churches suffered damage from arson, including the 146-year-old St. James Church, the oldest wooden chapel in Western Canada. Then on Nov. 21, four weeks into the anti-arson campaign, a $1-million blaze destroyed four businesses in Osborne Village, a trendy section of town near the home of Mayor Glen Murray and around the corner from federal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy’s constituency office.

City officials take issue with the “arson capital” label— unlike some other Canadian cities, they note, Winnipeg includes garbage-bin fires in its arson statistics. They do admit, however, that inner-city social conditions—housing problems, unemployment, poverty

and a large transient population—have provided a breeding ground for young arsonists who strike back at their despair with flames. “My peers right across North America tell me the problem of older neighbourhoods is fairly universal,” says Marc Proulx, a firefighter who now interviews and educates youthful arsonists as part of the city’s Youth Fire Stop program. “Regardless, we have some pretty heartwrenching stories out there.”

In his caseload, Proulx is currently dealing with more than a dozen firestarting youths under 12. Among them is one five-year-old whose brother and father have both, in the past, been arrested for arson, and an 11-year-old who has been sexually abused for most of his life. Prouix’s goal is to direct the youths into proper treatment before they graduate from igniting garbage bins to setting buildings ablaze. So far, the rate of recidivism among youths

who have gone through the seven-year-old program is only two per cent. “In most cases, nobody has taught them the dangers of fire,” says Proulx. “Often, they live with a single parent who is so busy trying to make a life, no one is there to teach them right from wrong. In a crisis, the kids become so frustrated and angry, unable to articulate their problem because their schooling is limited, that they light fires to be discovered. Most of these kids I come across readily admit to it. They’re more than happy to give information, anything you want to know. They show no remorse.”

The depth of the social problems is why Wayne Helgason, executive director of the city’s social planning council, feels the anti-arson campaign is a good first step—but one that must be followed by much more. “Manitoba has Canada’s highest child poverty rate for children under 6, and we have more than double the national rate of children in the care of the province,” Helgason told Macleans. “We’ve had so many cutbacks over the 1990s, maybe it’s time to reinvest in our youth.” The current effort has already involved a hefty price tag: Gail Stephens, Winnipeg’s chief administrative officer and the catalyst for the anti-arson campaign, says the city has spent more than $2 million of taxpayers’ money on the initiative. But with annual damage estimates for arson hovering around $31 million, she considers it money well spent.

Next month, she will bring together 150 community groups to determine what is working—and where the city should further invest its money. “I hope the final long-term strategy will include all three levels of government and the residents,” says Stephens. “I think the city of Winnipeg has been well-known for its sense of community, our ability to marshal 20,000 volunteers for Pan-American Games, our ability to fight the flood of the century. That’s why I think the arson can be beaten.” So far, there does indeed appear to be reason for optimism. EH