WINNIPEG — Three years ago, Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean was shocked to hear children in north-end Winnipeg telling her about the gangs, guns and drugs they encountered on the streets.
On Wednesday, Jean returned to the area and paid tribute to the citizens who have taken back their neighbourhood and chased gangs away.
“I had never, ever come across anything as powerful and effective as the strategy you implemented to uplift North Point Douglas,” Jean told some 200 people crammed into a community hall.
“There are communities across Canada that are struggling to tackle some of the same issues you have so effectively addressed. They need to be inspired. They need to know that citizens have the power to bring about change.”
North Point Douglas is a stone’s throw from the dive bars along the roughest stretch of Main St. The compact neighbourhood of 3,000 had dozens of crack houses in 2007, and many residents simply stayed indoors at night, resigned to living in a high-crime area.
All of that changed when a group of neighbourhood children told Jean about the fear they felt everyday as they walked to school or played outside.
“Her conversation with the kids was literally a kick in the ass,” said Sel Burrows, a neighbourhood crime-fighting activist.
“It really showed us that somebody had to pick up and do something about it.”
Armed with a new provincial law that allowed police to close houses used as drug dens, neighbours targeted four houses in the weeks following the meeting.
It worked, so more houses were targeted. Eventually, a total of 32 crack houses were closed.
A neighbourhood watch was set up to report any suspicious activity to police. Criminals soon found it easier to go elsewhere.
“We knew we had won once the average … person in the community was saying ‘I’m taking part in cleaning this up,”’ Burrows said.
Jean said the success story has left her “blown away.”
“You chose to listen to the young people of Winnipeg and to follow up,” she told residents. “You could have ignored their plea for help and their concrete recommendations. But you opened your hearts and listened.”
The area still faces many challenges. Many people are poor and gangs still try to infiltrate the area. One gang started spray-painting their logo on fences just a few weeks ago, Burrows said, but residents made sure the gangs knew they were being watched and they soon went away.
The community thanked Jean Wednesday by renaming a park in her honour. She put several ceremonial shovels of dirt around a small oak tree as residents applauded.
Jean’s trip to Winnipeg is to continue Thursday with a visit to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the official opening of a new contemporary art centre.