Late last month, Arthur Desjarlais, a 38-year-old Indigenous man, was sentenced to 110 days in jail for six separate thefts from Manitoba Liquor Marts over the past year. He had just finished serving a sentence for liquor store thefts when he was arrested again in April.
Desjarlais is a child and grandchild of residential school survivors. Diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), he was abused as a child and spent a great deal of his youth in foster care. Three of his eight children have died, including one who was struck and killed by an off-duty police officer who was intoxicated at the time.
Despite full knowledge of this background, the judge sentenced him to jail, concluding “I’m afraid that we’ve been saying that for so many years that now everybody just thinks I can walk in and steal because the courts don’t think it’s that important. I don’t think that’s the message I can send out. I do think a jail sentence is appropriate.”
This sentencing occurred a week after a 16-year-old Indigenous boy allegedly wielding a machete was shot nine times by police outside a 7/11 store in Winnipeg, and a 15-year-old boy was arrested and charged for attacking three Manitoba Liquor employees.
Each of these incidents — the incarceration of a man suffering from intergenerational trauma and disability, the police shooting of a teenager in crisis, and a violent rampage by an even younger boy — are representative of a deeply sick society that has abandoned the most vulnerable with brutal austerity, relentless cuts to community services including resources for mental health and substance abuse, and ever-growing police power. Together, they are emblematic of how colonialism, capitalism, and incarceration decimate communities and advance white supremacy.
As Friedrich Engels and Rosa Luxemburg so aptly put it, our choice is between socialism and barbarism. Regrettably, the Manitoba NDP and the province’s unions have opted for barbarism.
A history of violence
The close relationship between the NDP, unions, and the police is nothing new.
Having been in government for the majority of the last two decades, the ostensibly social democratic party is largely responsible for Manitoba’s outsized carceral system, with the province home to the highest per-capita rate of prisoners in the country (roughly 70 percent of adults in custody are Indigenous). While in power, the NDP introduced a bail breaches policy and an Integrated Warrant Apprehension unit while also welcoming the Harper government’s draconian Bill C-10, which among many things introduced mandatory minimum sentences for many offenses.
In a debate with the Conservative corrections critic, [NDP minister of justice Andrew] Swan bragged he was building more jail cells than any conservative government. In fact, Swan and the NDP are building four times as many jail cells in Manitoba as the Harper Conservatives.
Similarly, the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU) has long represented prison guards, like the ones who killed Errol Greene by repeatedly denying him necessary epilepsy medication while he was being held in the Remand Centre in 2016.
Almost nobody in the institutional left in Manitoba speaks publicly about these atrocities. In effect, they are swept under the rug: if mistakes were made, they are well in the past. The provincial NDP is now led by Wab Kinew, an Anishinaabe man, while many unions brag about their progressive credentials and dedication to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
Yet, as always, actions speak louder than words.
There’s an old sheriff in town
In response to the surge in liquor store thefts and property crimes more broadly, the NDP and unions have doubled down on explicitly racist and costly “law and order” responses.
During Tuesday’s Question Period, NDP MLA Bernadette Smith demanded three consecutive times that armed police officers be placed in all liquor stores. She also advocated for the hiring of more “loss prevention officers” and the acceleration in construction of “enhanced security entrances.”
Smith’s calls echoed pleas made by another NDP MLA, Adrien Sala, in late November, who tweeted about the need for “peace/police officer at every store immediately and construction of secure entrances.” Sala’s tweet was retweeted by the official Manitoba NDP account. Another NDP MLA, Tom Lindsey, also attempted to shame the PC government after the attacks by the 15-year-old boy: “It seems this government has waited until somebody got hurt before they decided to implement new security measures.”
Liquor Mart employees deserve to feel safe in their workplaces and should see timelines for response measures. Need peace/police officer at every store immediately and construction of secure entrances should be highest priority @JeffWharton4MLA @MGEU_Pres https://t.co/bEdcOGs6j6— Adrien Sala (@AdrienLouisSala) November 29, 2019
It can be safely assumed that this idea of placing police in liquor stores is Manitoba NDP policy. MGEU similarly responded to attacks and harassment of liquor store workers by demanding a “summit” between all levels of government, law enforcement, public and private retailers, unions, and social service organizations.
MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky said in a press release about liquor store thefts that they “hope that the announcement of Operation Safe Streets will bring about meaningful change.” Operation Safe Streets is an initiative of the PC government that will be fulfilled by police and security to effectively introduce bounties on drug dealers, provide more support to the Winnipeg Police’s SWAT team, and expand the province’s civil forfeiture process.
There is no doubt that these dystopian policies — more police, security, and increasingly severe prosecutions of alleged thieves — will lead to increased surveillance, harassment, and racial profiling of poor Indigenous people. The securitized entrances, requiring mandatory ID scans, have already come under fire from civil liberties organizations. Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, told CBC in a recent article: “There’s no way that they should be able to swipe people’s ID cards or driver’s licences, because then they’re going to be getting data that goes way beyond whether or not the person is the legal age.”
The PC government has appointed a special prosecutor devoted to prosecuting liquor store thefts, while a new Manitoba Police Commission report recommended the installation of CCTV cameras with facial and behaviour recognition software. This will mean that increasing numbers of already marginalized Indigenous people will be surveilled and forced into the carceral system. The possibility of adding more police into the picture is an incredibly dangerous one for Indigenous and black and brown people given that the Winnipeg police officers have shot and killed seven people in 2019 alone, including at least three Indigenous men and one man from South Sudan.
The NDP and unions know this full well but do not seem to care. They are playing an exceptionally cruel and foolhardy game of politics to appease voters and members without doing any of the work of understanding why liquor store thefts are happening and promoting meaningful alternatives to policing.
A city going wild
But it’s not just liquor store thefts. The NDP and unions have continually cosied up to police in response to other concerns, going far beyond a desire to not rock the boat.
After the 16-year-old boy was shot by Winnipeg police officers nine times outside of a 7/11, Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew tweeted: “I hope the officers and public are safe after the shooting at the 7-11. It’s hard to shake the feeling this city is going wild.” There was no mention in the tweet of the young victim of police violence — yet the party leader somehow found time to include a shout-out to the “officers” who used lethal force before making any effort to de-escalate the situation in a non-violent manner.
The party has continually collaborated with the Winnipeg police to host community events, going so far as to invite chief Danny Smyth to an NDP-hosted forum on public safety. One observer of the event wrote afterwards about the forum: “Several of the people promoted things like vigilante violence, having cops raid rooming houses, blaming people who use drugs and accusing people who use drugs of being murderous.” In mid-November, NDP MLA Lisa Naylor joined members of the Winnipeg Police Service for a “neighbourhood watch meeting,” a notorious type of congregation that typically attracts white homeowners with carceral fantasies.
To be sure, the NDP has made occasional gestures to the importance of addressing the “root causes” of crime. But so long as the party continues to promote and collaborate with the police — a rapidly militarizing institution that exists to criminalize and incarcerate — there’s no serious hope of that ever happening.
Also in November, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) local publicly called for more police officers in grocery stores, accelerating a recent trend that has seen off-duty police officers hired by retailers like Superstore to stand at the shop entrances. In an interview with CBC, UFCW Local 832 president Jeff Traeger bemoaned the fact that shoplifters had stolen televisions, as if he represents Loblaws (which owns Superstore) rather than its workers.
On Monday, a Facebook post chronicled how two customers who had purchased about $10 worth of items from a Winnipeg Superstore were rushed and grabbed by police officers standing by the store’s Liquor Mart alleging they had stolen items. The customer wrote: “At this point, we feel in shock, traumatized, upset, angry, and are humiliated with this experience. As I write this, my sister is in tears for being handled like that. We aren’t bad people, we don’t steal, have run-ins with the police or crime, so why make us feel like we had to prove we were so innocent over what? 8 dollars??? Even then why didn’t they stopped me after I left the self checkout and ask proof?”
Of course, the policy recommendations of the NDP and unions will result in far more of these encounters. To this point, they have rejected any adherence to leftist principles of social justice and community empowerment, instead choosing to promote racist right-wing policies of policing and incarceration.
Choosing different paths
The alternatives to this trajectory are abundantly clear and well within grasp. They are more affordable, promoting of community health, and easily researchable. Since the NDP and unions seem incapable of taking advantage of the latter, below is a list of what they should be doing and which efforts they ought to be building campaigns around.
- Far less policing and security — and far more workers trained in de-escalation, conflict resolution, mental health, and harm reduction. Stop and remove the installation of the highly invasive and likely racist “enhanced security entrances” at liquor stores, as well as the security screening measures at the Millennium Library. Learn from all the community-based social services in Winnipeg and elsewhere that work with people who use substances or have mental health issues who do not rely on militarized security. The proposed safe consumption site in Saskatoon, for example, doesn’t plan to use security but will instead “have support officers who can de-escalate conflicts before they become security issues, and can direct people to services and counselling.”
- Apologize for long-standing complicity in the building, maintenance, and expansion of the racist institutions of policing and incarceration. Commit to no longer speaking in the language of needing both police and social services: every example we have proves that police directly undermine the work of community organizations by using massive amounts of funds, surveilling and policing poor and unhoused people most in need of resources, and further entrenching the ‘war on drugs’. Understand that police are not members of the working-class: they exist (and always have) to suppress working-class movements including union organizing.
- Push for harm reduction in all its forms: advocating for safe consumption sites, a state-provided safe supply of drugs, decriminalization of all drugs, and the widespread training of Naloxone administration.
- Broaden the definition of harm reduction to include public housing, 24-hour safe spaces, low-barrier shelters, accessible resources for mental health and substance use, public transit, libraries, food justice programs, and income supports.
- Understand that “crime” is defined by the ruling class and weaponized to physically remove and detain vulnerable people for capitalist goals like increasing property values and triggering gentrification. Those most prone to be swept up by draconian developer subsidies include people who are unhoused, using criminalized drugs, performing sex work, living with untreated mental health issues, and caught in cycles of incarceration and unemployment. Buying into the narrative of “public safety” as determined by private companies like True North or organizations like the Downtown BIZ is tacit acceptance that some people (affluent white homeowners) have a right to the city which justifies the trumping of those same rights for others (poor Indigenous people).
The chances that the NDP and unions will adopt any of the above suggestions are incredibly slim. Doing so would defy the trackrecord of their respective histories — and more importantly their recent trajectories. The leaders of these organizations are civic figures with political ambitions. At this time, we should be looking to build and support militant working-class movements and organizations, such as Millennium for All, 13 Moons Harm Reduction, Winnipeg Police Cause Harm, Manitoba Harm Reduction Network, the Winnipeg Transit Users Solidarity Coalition, and People Over Profit — as well as organizing with rank and file members of unions including MGEU and UFCW to demand change in leadership and priorities.
These struggles will be long and difficult, but as the province’s NDP and unions have expertly demonstrated over the last month, they are exceedingly necessary.
James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is a frequent contributor to CD, and has also written for Briarpatch, Passage, The Narwhal, National Observer, Vice Canada, and the Globe and Mail. James is the author of the recently published book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books). He organizes with the police abolitionist organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm. You can follow him on Twitter at @james_m_wilt.