Activist reformer Sel Burrows leads in bringing safe streets to an old riverside district.
By 2015 standards, Sel Burrows briefly had a busy time keeping the peace in Point Douglas last month. In a single week, just as the heat wave settled in, five or six problems surfaced: a couple of out-of-control, noisy parties, a drug dealer who had taken up residence, and one or two other offenders whom Sel had chosen not to discuss.
Which means the last year or two aren’t like the old times, when Point Douglas was known as a tough and dangerous district, beset by criminal gangs and criminal activity, and strewn with bawdy rooming houses and abandoned, derelict dwellings, its inhabitants cowed by their seeming inability to make things better, and in fact the hopelessness of trying.
Tidied up, neatly painted and tranquil, Point Douglas appears transformed from the demeanor and mood of those days, vastly changed from its situation 10 years ago when Sel and his wife Chris took up residence on Grove Street in the heart of North Point Douglas.
In that first week:
- An upset neighbour, Sel reports, threw “a boulder” through a window in a house across the street from the Burrows’ new home. The intended victim was known to be selling methamphetamine, a drug.
- A nearby rooming house was operating as a brothel and crack house – a criminal pastime that’s hard to track to its source. Police were constantly seen visiting – and there was probably an ambulance or two. Locating actual offenders in such houses was never easy; police often couldn’t be sure who was behind the locked bedroom doors.
Clashed with the gang
- Sel, trying to help a neighbour, got into a clash with a member of the Crazy Eight gang, which had long operated in the neighbourhood. That 15-year-old youth smashed Sel’s eye, shattering the bones around it.
Sel, holding his damaged eye and grabbing the young gangster with his other arm, waited for the police, who were summoned by his wife Chris and some anxious neighbours.
“Within three days of moving in my wife and I had realized we were surrounded by criminals. We knew we had to do something to change the situation,” he says gently. And they did.
Sel, then 64, had long experience working within the criminal justice system, in government and in outside social services. He understood how these systems worked. Important to this process, he believed in people and their basic worth, and in Chris, he had an experienced and able partner as backup.
And sure enough, things would soon begin to change in Point Douglas. There would be a far-reaching, and rarely- achieved learning process that would involve the community on the one hand and, on the other, the people who operated and ran some of its key systems.
Yes, there were crack houses and brothels and problems with school dropouts and poor housing, to name the salient concerns “When we first started,” Sel recalled the other day, “the community was so demoralized. ‘If there is crime on the streets, or anywhere else, what is the point of calling?’ they wanted to know. ‘They never do anything. Unless somebody’s bleeding, they don’t even bother to come.’
“We had a huge job convincing the population they could be effective,” Sel recalls.
As the situation started to turn around, it was former police chief Keith McCaskill, who in Sel’s words, “played a huge part in making this a success. He spoke to the senior people here and said, ‘Look when these guys call, pay attention.’”
That didn’t happen overnight. There were meetings early on between Sel and officials in the province’s justice department, and meetings with McCaskill, who hadn’t yet received his 2007 appointment as police chief. Sel and McCaskill, became good friends, and the learning process went on as, with their spouses, the two went out for breakfast every couple of months.
“We really learned the kind of information the police need and what they’ll respond to more quickly,” says Sel. “We’ve learned how to work with the police, and they have learned how to work with us.”
Other key players at the official level were Peter Degraff, the city’s bylaw enforcer, who led the massive effort of getting Point Douglas’ slum housing renovated or removed. “We would report on houses that are not up to standard,” Sel tells us. “He’d send out inspectors every six months, and there would have to be action. We have no slum houses in Point Douglas now and it’s because of him.”
Boosted judge’s powers
Gord McIntosh, as minister of justice, introduced them to a little used piece of legislation called The Neighbourhood and Community Safety Act, which enabled a judge to accept camera evidence obtained by an undercover agent as proof that an individual is selling crack, and thereupon evict them from the community.
With that law, and a populace on the watch for transgressions, Point Douglas was able to rid itself of the 32 crack houses operating there. Periodically now, a new drug enterprise comes along. But none have survived.
Sel proudly points out that Point Douglas was the first community in Canada to seriously use the Safety Law process. Today, Sel says, it is in regular use across the country. In the past, it could take investigators months to gather the required evidence of a drug sale.
After a busy post-retirement career as president of the residents committee, the seniors association and a host of other jobs, Sel Burrows today has just one official position, as head of the community organization they named Powerline, a voluntary body made up of Citizens on Watch (or COWs).
These volunteers are the other half of the equation: the people, over 100 in all, whose eyes, ears and general watchfulness have turned Point Douglas into the relatively safe community it is today. (Sel gives no numbers, but suggests it has about the same moderate crime rate as Wolseley district.)
There are no meetings. The people work anonymously. “All we ask is that they keep an eye open around their own homes and neighbourhood. If they see some criminal behaviour, or garbage not picked up, or children not going to school, any of these social issues, that they phone us – Powerline – and we know who to phone. That might be the police or the justice department or the school superintendent or school principal.
The caller could be any one of the volunteers. Chances are good, though, that it will be one of the four aboriginal elders attached to Powerline who, in Sel’s words, “just wander around” the area, watching. They hate crack dealers, they hate gang members and, as a good COW should, they give genuinely helpful information. All volunteers aspire to do this.
It was still early days in this anti-crime effort, when Michäelle Jean, Canada’s previous governor general, came to Winnipeg and was handed a letter from grades 5 and 6 pupils at local Norquay School telling of their fear of going out into the streets of Point Douglas and the anguish of living in that district. The adult community was stunned. They did not know their children were suffering in that way.
They resolved firmly then to take the initiative in cleaning up their community, and quickly went to work. A group of women went to their park, approaching a group of crack dealers with warnings. Tracking the guilty down with the help of their dogs, they succeeded in getting four dealers evicted from their community and a fifth, who carried a gun, arrested.
On the heels of these events, Powerline took shape, Point Douglas began to visibly change and the word began to spread that its streets were safer and the criminal elements were not wanted.
Sel pauses in his narrative to explain: “We’re not keen on throwing people in jail. For minor crimes it’s worse because they get mixed up in the gangs. But we use eviction.
“Our elders tell us this is very much like the aboriginal tradition,” he says. “Banishment. When people broke the rules of the band, they’d be kicked out of the community and have to live in the woods for six months or whatever.”