With crime rate 4 times Manitoba’s average, Swan River calls on all levels of government for help
Linda Bird trembles every time a customer knocks on the door of her clothing store in the small town of Swan River, western Manitoba.
Among the many security measures she has taken at her Work & Casual World store are locking the doors and putting up a “knock to enter” sign after an armed robbery shattered her sense of security two years ago.
“It’s very scary. I’ll never recover from it,” Bird said.
Bird also added an alarm system, set up motion sensors and surveillance cameras, installed window bars, and began closing her store early because she feels unsafe leaving it at night.
She is not alone. Many stores that line the city’s main street have metal bars on their windows and signs telling customers to ring the bell to enter the store.
Swan River has seen increasing levels of serious crime over the past five years, making some business owners and residents in the town of 4,000 nervous.
According to Statistics Canada data for 2021, the city’s crime severity rating — a measure that takes into account how many crimes are reported and how serious the offense is — was 503, a more than 50 percent increase from five years earlier.
It is also more than six times the national average and almost four times the crime index for the province of Manitoba.
That points to a marked difference from the family-centric and safe community Bird remembers during her nearly four decades at Swan River.
“The last few years have been a real struggle,” she said.
For small business owners like her, the security costs add up, as do the losses.
“A lot of our shops in town are small corner shops like mine. So if you lose a product, it’s like taking it out of my wallet.”
“Catch-and-release program” to blame: CAO
Swan River CAO Derek Poole says the city is witnessing the unintended consequences of the federal government’s attempt to modernize criminal justice laws in Bill C-75 in 2019.
The law codified a “principle of restraint” reaffirmed in a 2017 Supreme Court case, meaning police and courts have an obligation to release detainees at the “earliest opportunity” and under “the least onerous conditions.” “ release circumstances of the case.
Poole believes the rise in crime in Swan River is a direct result of the changes.
The city’s crime severity index numbers have plateaued before the law, he said, but since 2019, intelligence gathered by the community suggests the rise in crime is being driven by repeat offenders.
“The catch-and-release program has allowed them to get away with these petty crimes, sometimes violently, and go unpunished,” Poole said.
“We are working with the province to find a long-term solution for addicts and people who want help.”
Derek Boychuk, who owns local movie theater Star City Cinema and Backstage Gym on Main Street, helped set up a WhatsApp group for shopkeepers to share information about crime.
Businesses are encouraged to report crimes to police, but they say they sometimes feel it “falls on deaf ears,” Boychuk said. There are several dozen repeat offenders in the community who are known to the companies, he’s heard.
Silver City Cinema owner Derek Boychuk and other local entrepreneurs are working to find solutions to prevent crime in Swan River. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)
Boychuk, the community, businesses and others are attending a meeting scheduled for Monday night to address crime in Swan River and share the steps the city and businesses are taking to curb crime.
“We’re looking for things we can do ourselves,” he said.
“No silver bullet”
Mayor Lance Jacobson says crime has reached a point where it’s beyond what businesses can handle on their own.
One solution the city is considering is a grant for local businesses to install surveillance cameras on storefronts. A reserve of US$50,000 is available to fund the program.
Swan River Mayor Lance Jacobson says provincial and federal governments need help to reduce crime. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)
But the municipality has very limited powers to address the situation, he said, making provincial and federal support essential.
Swan River has approached the federal security and justice ministers and is working with the provincial justice minister on some initiatives, he said, but getting the attention of higher levels of government has been “slow.”
Ultimately, Poole said there are no quick fixes to crime and a multi-pronged approach is needed.
“There’s no silver bullet that’s going to stop this,” the CAO said. “There’s a limit to what we can do.”
Instead, the city, like the entrepreneurs, is trying to focus on short-term solutions.
Denise Ashcroft’s Salon Hair Mechanics, located in the heart of downtown Swan River, recently experienced its first break-in in 25 years in the community.
After the nocturnal burglary last summer, she installed an alarm system – which was triggered in the event of a second burglary.
A suspect was caught and police used fingerprints to determine he was also responsible for the first burglary, Ashcroft said.
Even so, both burglaries cost them thousands of dollars.
Denise Ashcoft has taken multiple security measures at her Hair Mechanics salon following two burglaries. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)
She says more needs to be done to deter criminals because police are busy in the city and cover a large area, making it difficult for them to get to each crime scene quickly.
She hopes all levels of government will find ways to help business owners not feel alone in fighting crime.
“Someone has to help us,” she said. “The government has to do something.”