Portage la Prairie mayor calling on province to add resources to fight drug crime

Mickey Dumont

The Portage Citizen

Portage la Prairie Mayor Irvine Ferris listens during a council meeting to Ashleigh Laperle explain about a peaceful march to draw attention to drug violence. Mickey Dumont/Citizen photo

Portage la Prairie Mayor Irvine Ferris doesn’t want to play with numbers — he knows they’re bad — he wants to bring provincial partners to the table to discuss how his central Manitoba hometown can shake its bad reputation.

Statistics Canada Monday released its annual Crime Severity Index (CSI) in which Portage la Prairie once again ranked as the fifth dangerous city for violent crime in Canada with populations over 10,000. The CSI index reported a 15 per cent increase over last year and the worse statistics ever measured for Portage la Prairie.

In an exclusive interview with The Portage Citizen Wednesday afternoon, the mayor of this pleasant city of about 13,500 admitted, “it’s a meth (methamphetamine) problem. It’s cheap. It’s readily available and it’s causing a lot of problems” he said.

On Monday Danny Smyth, Winnipeg’s chief of police again took to the media to warn Manitoba’s largest city is in a meth crisis and it’s taking its toll. Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman is calling on Premier Brian Pallister to recognize the drug crisis and take immediate steps. Provincial help is needed now to help Winnipeg and other Manitoba communities suffering in the onslaught of a drug problem that is stressing resources beyond all possibilities to cope.

Wednesday’s interview with Portage’s mayor was the first time The Portage Citizen heard anyone other than private citizen declare this small city is in a drug crisis.

Portage la Prairie sits on Hwy. 1 in between Winnipeg and Brandon, Manitoba’s two largest cities. It’s likely these large centres are where the drug trade is controlled from. It’s not hard to believe there are rival and competing drug factions in those cities and the drug trade in Portage is up for the taking, possibly through violence.

Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Cliff Cullen

Portage la Prairie’s worst kept secret has spurred the mayor to seek a face-to-face meeting with Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Cliff Cullen.
“I’m not even going to try and interpret (number)s. This doesn’t come as a huge surprise.

Fifth worse is pretty bad,” Ferris said.

The Portage mayor recently met with a group of retail business owners — independently of the Chamber of Commerce — “and their main concern was shoplifting (up again in this year’s CSI index over last year) and it is brazen bold shoplifting. We’ve all heard stories of shoplifting at the liquor commissions and what is going on there and some of the examples they gave me were similar.”

The mayor heard the retail business owners are worried about financial losses, “but also frustration in many cases when it gets to court, charges are staid, dropped or the offender is let out on bail.

“The RCMP is frustrated with this,” the mayor added. “There is one case where an individual facing five charges had all of them staid. It wasn’t challenged by the crown prosecutor. In cases where bail is granted often the offender doesn’t show up in court so a warrant is issued and the RCMP is spending more resources apprehending the same person they had already apprehended. Some of these business people have talked to the crown attorney. There was, in their words, no understanding of what they were going through. We’ve been requesting for over two weeks a meeting with Minister of Justice Cullen. We want to meet with him and discuss what is going on in the court system and in particular in Portage. And make him aware of some of the challenges our business community is facing. A lot of this is, the RCMP will tell you, driven by the affordability and popularity of meth in our community, like in many communities,” Ferris said.

Three weeks ago community members held a peaceful march to draw attention to drug violence in Portage la Prairie and area. About two weeks ago one citizen initiated a Facebook group where citizens could post security camera footage showing others involved in property crimes.

Business owners are also taking increasing measures to protect themselves and their businesses.

“Retailers I hear are taking a number of steps from upgrading their security, posting films on the internet to identify suspects and there is a fear that this will escalate,” said Ferris. “There is a fear for safety for staff and themselves at times and a high level of frustration in the community around this issue,” he added. “We’ve taken a number of steps, the business community has taken a number of steps…we have organized the HUB (The program is late in its self-mandated deadline to report to the community following its anniversary) program in the last year , we’re organizing the Bear Clan, the RCMP have commenced downtown foot patrols this week, but we need the province to step up,” Ferris said.

While the city is dealing with the meth crisis, positions have been cut at the only local treatment program. The Compass program run by the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba (AFM) and located at Southport saw its program cut in the last year as the meth crisis was deepening in Manitoba. “I’m told by people in the school system there will be fewer resources this fall. AFM will have fewer resources in the high school for addiction counselling…this doesn’t make sense when we’re going through what we’re going through here. Not only are we not maintaining what we have in terms of resources, but there’s also actually cutbacks.”

The mayor argues the province needs to recognize it’s a crisis — he calls it a health crisis — and ensures addictions and related counselling resources remain intact and expand in step and scope with the problem.

“Many times these are repeat offenders. They need to be taken off the street, put into some treatment and helped. You can’t keep turning them back. Many times you are dealing with the same people over and over again. I don’t know if it is true, but there’s a perception that there are no consequences.”

It’s a frustrating merry-go-round leaving communities with the understanding the province doesn’t understand how its actions/inaction are affecting them.

The requested meeting Mayor Ferris requested two weeks ago has so far fallen on deaf ears. There has been no response from the minister’s office for a meeting in Portage.

“He (Cullen) needs to be made aware of what the business community, especially retailers are dealing with right now and what we’re dealing with in terms of our resources’ they’re stretched and they’re stretched pretty much to the limit.

“We need our partners to step up,” Ferris said.

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