Street Gangs and Random Violence: Winnipeg Becomes Murder Capital

Julius Strauss, Globe and Mail (Toronto), Oct. 17

WINNIPEG—By all accounts, Philippe Haiart was a lovable young man. Friends described the 6-foot-3, 220-pound 17-year-old as easygoing and the life and soul of a party. In his spare time he liked to eat, sleep and watch hockey. On his shoulder he carried a tattoo spelling out the initials of a friend who died suddenly of a heart disorder.

A week ago today Mr. Haiart was walking though an empty parking lot 15 minutes from his home when a bullet fired from a house across the street hit him in the stomach.

He staggered nearly 100 metres down a main road then collapsed in front of a pizza shop. Within hours he was dead.

“I got back to our apartment,” his girlfriend, Isora Van Dreser, said yesterday. “I was watching the news and suddenly there was a picture of Phil. I started screaming and shaking and crying.”

Mr. Haiart was the 22nd homicide victim in Winnipeg this year.

According to a report by Statistics Canada, the city is now the country’s murder capital—it has the highest per capita murder rate of Canada’s nine largest urban areas.

Shootings and other violent crimes have become so commonplace in Winnipeg, especially in the impoverished northern and central parts of the city, that some streets are empty at dusk.

Many people from middle-class suburbs avoid entire neighbourhoods, even during the daytime.

Most of the victims of violent crime are aboriginals, Third World immigrants, gang members, homeless people or transients. Their deaths often pass without much notice.

But Mr. Haiart was the son of a well-known Winnipeg surgeon and recent graduate of the up-market St. John’s-Ravenscourt School. His death has sent a shiver of fear through Winnipeg’s mostly white middle class.

Ms. Van Dreser’s mother, Susan, a Unitarian minister, said: “Society becomes sick when there’s constant violence. We don’t want to live in fear and anger all the time.”

According to those who live in Winnipeg’s West End, where Mr. Haiart died, the area has long been in thrall to a gang known as the Mad Cowz, made up mostly of young African immigrants, many in their teens.

Last year the gang reportedly split and a new faction, which styles itself the African Mafia, started pushing drugs on their turf.

Police believe that the death of Mr. Haiart, and the wounding of another unidentified man who was walking near him at the time, came after gang members opened fire on rivals and missed.

Officers raided the house from which the shots were fired and later arrested two young men, aged 17 and 19. Both appeared in court last week and the older one has been charged with second-degree murder.

At the scene, broken glass showed the spot the bullets were fired from. Opposite a hole in the wall of an Italian restaurant marked the spot one of them had hit.

Interviews with local residents and workers paint a chilling picture of a neighbourhood living in fear.

In the Phat Cat video store, whose parking lot Mr. Haiart was walking through when he was shot, the owner, 27-year-old Donnie Cat, wears a bulletproof vest when he works evening shifts.

“It’s rough around here,” he said. “You can’t escape the violence.”

Henry, a 41-year-old aboriginal who works as a builder in the area, was one of several people interviewed scared to give their family names for fear of retribution. “I used to live here but it’s too crazy now,” he said. “I moved my kids out to the reserve. It’s safer there.”

Mike, who owns the pizza store outside which Mr. Haiart collapsed, said he lives in terror.

“Gang members come to eat at my place,” he said. “You can tell if the guy is covered in jewellery and cellphones that he’s a drug dealer. I just try to be polite even if they start wrecking the place.”

A few blocks down the street you’ll find Rev. Harry Lehotsky, of New Life Ministries, who has been working in the area for 23 years.

He said that in a poor area the status and financial rewards of joining a gang are often too seductive for teenagers to resist.

“It’s the roll of twenties a thousand dollars thick. It’s the sports jersey. The camaraderie. Its walking with five or six buddies down the street watching people crossing over to avoid you and feeling like you own the place,” he said.

“The ultimate is to feel the cold steel of a gun in your belt and that feeling that nobody can touch you because you’ve got this piece. The illusion is that they’re carving out a piece of turf and what they don’t realize is that all they are carving out is a piece in the cemetery.”

Mr. Lehotsky believes that to defeat the scourge will take an overhaul of the major agencies involved. He thinks that police need more powers and that child-welfare officers ought to be retrained. But most of all he blames judges for being too lenient.

Harsher sentencing is a call that resonates with Ms. Van Dreser.

She mentions the case of a friend, Morgan Trudeau, who was beaten to death with a baseball bat two years ago in Winnipeg. The killer has already been released from prison.

Mr. Haiart, too, had previously been a victim of crime. Last summer he was sitting in a car smoking a cigarette with a friend when a man with a gun jumped in the back.

First the man took their money and then he demanded that they take him to a cash machine where he emptied Mr. Haiart’s account.

After dating for two years, Ms. Van Dreser and Mr. Haiart had moved in together this summer when Mr. Haiart finished school. They lived about a kilometre south of where he was killed.

He got a temporary job as a roofer; she began waiting tables. The two were planning their future. They wanted to travel to Nicaragua this winter where Ms. Van Dreser’s father lives.

“Every day I have to think about how he was taken away from me,” Ms. Van Dreser said, tears rolling down her face.

“Kids shouldn’t have access to guns. It’s time to hold some rallies. To get some laws changed. I’m going to go as high as I can. I want people to know what I’m feeling right now.”

Muder capital

According to a report by Statistics Canada, Canada’s homicide rate jumped in 2004 after reaching a 30 year low in 2003. Five of the nation’s largest census metropolitan areas accounted for the majority of last year’s increase. Winnipeg has the highest per-capita murder rate among the county’s nine largest urban areas. Homicides by census metropolitan area per 100,000 population.

Winnipeg

4.89

Edmonton

3.39

Vancouver

2.58

Calgary

1.91

Toronto

1.80

Montreal

1.73

Ottawa-Gatineau*

1.14

Hamilton

1.30

Quebec

0.84

*refers to the Ontario part of Ottawa-Gatineau census metropolitan area

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