Downtown Winnipeg: Personality sketches iii

This is the third in a series of sporadic reports about criminally-involved people who habitually inhabit and wander downtown Winnipeg.

There’s a lot more to them and their lives than I’d bet most care to realize.

These are true stories. 

“He stated that he is “a city boy” and will remain in the City of Winnipeg.” 

It wasn’t until only recently that C found out how old he was.

He made the discovery after a prison guard read the 41-year-old his date of birth off a corrections report.

But then, C’s ignorance about what are (to many people) simply routine facts of life maybe shouldn’t be all that surprising from a man who says his mother consumed so much liquor, solvents and hand-sanitizer that he was “drunk at birth.”

He hasn’t heard from her in three years.

Dad — his namesake — was only introduced to him for the first time at age 16 during a chance encounter at the Manwin Hotel.

Dad is blind in one eye because of the amount he drank. He and C don’t keep in touch.

Accounts of how C’s made-in-Winnipeg journey led him to a federal prison cell for the next six years vary even when recounted by him.

“Confirming the account of his life is difficult as he has disjointed thinking which he accounts to his FASD,” a report states.

But it’s safe to say that since he was 9, C’s been largely ‘living off the land,’ as it were.

That is, wandering Winnipeg neighbourhoods on foot, with the Main Street strip — and its characters and dangers and urban angels — being the constant backdrop of C’s public life, mostly lived on the streets.

He had to grow up fast, he says.

 “I know know from the age of 7 to 40 on Main Street there was only pain and suffering,” he said in a recent letter to a probation officer. “When I was 8-9 year of age I felt like I was 15-16 year already. I know it sounds nuts but that part of my life.” (sic)

Then there’s also the good chunk of time C has spent occupying space in provincial and federal jail cells, youth and adult, over the years.

In his fourth decade, the FASD-diagnosed Salteaux/Cree man finds himself HIV-positive, recovering from a recent gall bladder infection that nearly killed him and a blood clot in his lung.

He’s also been labeled a convicted sex offender who took damaging advantage of a young relative introduced to him at a medical clinic in 2008.

He’s assessed at a very high risk to reoffend.

C was recently convicted of aggravated sexual assault after impregnating his 14-year-old, drug-addicted and CFS-involved niece during a 2.5 month-long criminal “arrangement.”

The two would share needles and he’d ply the girl with pills, booze and cash in exchange for sex.

C says he thought of the girl as “a stranger” and was so intoxicated for the entire year that he didn’t remember abusing her. He told a report writer he didn’t have a full understanding of the court proceedings, and had hoped to get a sentence of “time served.”

C’s criminal record is somewhat storied at this point, having amassed more than 40 convictions over his lifetime.

The vast majority of them, however, relate to his street-assimilated “trade” (his word) of “boosting” (stealing) other people’s stuff and reselling it for cash.

But when you’re 9 years old and already living on the streets — likely still bruised and broken from being frequently beaten by a stepdad’s belt and mom’s broomstick, you do what you gotta do.

Simply surviving could be said to be a daily miracle.

Reporting the domestic abuse did him no good, he says. He was “slapped in the face and discredited.” When the violence was directed at his sisters, he tried to step in and was beaten for that, too.

“He was consistently told that he was ugly, wasn’t wanted and that he should’t have been born, which led to suicidal thoughts,” he told his PO.

His six step-sisters each turned to the sex trade. His nine step brothers haven’t fared much better, with many also being locked up — at least one for murder.

By age 8, C’s already thinking of killing himself.

But C? He’s a survivor.

And he says he found at least some safe harbour from the very people who had once likely been mired in similar circumstances as he then found himself.

“He was helped out by various prostitutes and drug dealers who showed him how to live and survive in the elements of Winnipeg. He had people who showed him how to deal drugs and make money ‘boosting’ goods to sell to others.”

He also made some cash by working as a casual at a scrap yard — an arrangement that continued into his 30s.

So that’s what he did. Life on the streets, year after year. The grind.

Somehow, C managed to complete Grade 8.

At 16, CFS punted him to an independent living program and he just stopped going.

He was often kicked out of school for fighting and once — in elementary — expelled for stabbing a classmate with a pencil.

C’s first sexual experience also came at age 9, the same year he started doing drugs, eventually developing a problem with Talwin and Ritalin.

His partner was a 21-year-old prostitute with whom he somehow wound up staying with.

He says they had sex after she gave him a bath one day.

“He reported feeling weird, but believed he was “the man” as he heard people talking about sex but wasn’t sure what it was,” according to a provincial report. “He questions why people make a big deal about it.”

Other sex partners over the years included sex-trade workers, one of whom C married.

A report states they had “up to” four children, all now wards of CFS.

The five-year marriage, as one might imagine, was destructive.

“Their time together was barely a relationship as she was a prostitute that used intravenous drugs, ingested solvents and drank.” As for his part, C admits he often “hid in beer.”

It was his wife who gave him HIV.

She ultimately left him after he was jailed on a prior conviction.

His lineage hails from a reserve north of Regina, but he’s only been there once in his life — for a funeral.

He says he has found some solace with a North End mission, who’s executive director he describes as being “like a mother to him.”

He has expressed hope to change with the help of community groups he’s come in contact with in recent years.

C says he has no connection to his aboriginal heritage. He has no plans to return to his home community when he gets out of prison. That’s his choice.

That leaves us pretty much back exactly where we started.

“The subject enjoys traveling around the city, exploring different neighbourhoods. He presented how this allows him an understanding of how he thinks and other people’s journeys. He commented how he is trying to leave his criminal life of boosting things to sell others behind him.”

 “He stated that he is “a city boy” and will remain in the City of Winnipeg.”

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Downtown Winnipeg: Personality Sketches II

This is the second in a series of sporadic reports about criminally-involved people who habitually inhabit and wander downtown Winnipeg.

There’s a lot more to them and their lives than I’d bet most care to realize.

These are true stories. 

(Arson rates, Winnipeg, click for larger image)

Downtown Winnipeg tales #2: George Leslie Guimond, 54 (*See note at bottom*)

Garbage bin fires are a big deal in Winnipeg and have been for years, regardless of how one feels about their stature on the overall arson hierarchy.

Look at it from a firefighter’s point of view: He or she doesn’t care that the blaze began in an Autobin or a recycling blue box. It has the potential to spread quickly and become lethal. They’re treated as emergencies.

They cost real dollars to extinguish and are potentially very dangerous. That’s the bottom line.

In the chart provided to city council just a few months ago, you can see that rushing out to trash can fires outstrips other Winnipeg Fire Department emergency calls by not just a long shot — but a long, long shot.

George Guimond sets garbage bin fires.

From the information I have before me today — largely collected in 2005 and 2006 after cops tediously tracked an arson spree of his and linked him to 16 trash fires over four days — Guimond doesn’t know or particularly care why he sets them.

He just does it. Last time, in August 2011, it was because a housecat caught his ire for some unknown reason and he light a blue box alight in a Langside Street lane.

The damage was exceptionally minimal — $100 — but that’s not really the point.

His history is the point.

Guimond is 54. He’s homeless and has been homeless and transient for years. But he’s one of us, a citizen of Winnipeg.

He has the equivalent of a Grade 6 education. In 2005, he couldn’t say who the Prime Minister of Canada was at the time — and Mayor Sam Katz was “that baseball guy … after Glen Murray.”

Guimond appears hopelessly addicted to sniffing paint-stripper fumes.

“Mr. Guimond also acknowledged that he has, in the past, experienced visual hallucinations and blackouts, both ‘when high,” a forensic psychologist wrote to the provincial court at the time, when his mental fitness to stand trial on 16 arson-related counts was in question.

Guimond also appeared to understand the mental damage his huffing could cause, but appeared not to care all that much.

“Mr. Guimond was adamant that ‘no one can stop me, I get lots of it on Main Street,’ and firmly expressed his intention to continue using such substances.”

In terms of his understanding of crucial elements of the legal system: his defence lawyer was the guy whose job was to “get me out.” The prosecutor: “trying to get me to do time.”

He’s childlike and vulnerable judging from reports and his demeanour in court.

At the time it was years since he had a stable place to live.

But for me, here’s the tragic kicker of Guimond’s life: He’s messed himself up so badly sniffing laquer fumes that there may be no coming back from it or assisting him.

What I mean by this is: there was no programming for him because his mental illness isn’t a “diagnosed mental disorder” by which he could access assisted-living programs and possibly get right.

Hell, when probation services called an agency (name wasn’t given) to try and get him involved in some kind of “mentor” program that may have been of great help, the agency didn’t even bother to call the officer back.

Then again, in 2005-06, Guimond wasn’t exactly amenable to being helped when it came to trying to find himself a permanent home with the help of Manitoba’s probation services.

How he ended up on social assistance and wandering the streets of Winnipeg’s downtown and West Broadway while high out of his mind (and often locked up in the drunk tank) is hard to say.

Born in Fort Alexander to parents Margaret and Alfred, Guimond says he was never involved in the CFS system and never sexually, physically and emotionally abused. His parents only occasionally drank liquor. He has 15 siblings who live in areas across the country.

For some reason, as a youngster, he says he spent a lot of time away from the home but wouldn’t divulge why.

Dad died in the mid-90s.

Guimond says he’s never been married, but says he was once involved with a woman named Flora whom he had lived with for five years. Asked to give up her address or phone number, he couldn’t.

Guimond also said he had two adult kids with a woman named Margarita years ago, possibly when he worked as a painter in the 1970s for the Logan Heights company, or on railway boxcars that — like himself — pass quietly and lonely through our city, largely unnoticed.

The kids, they don’t live in Winnipeg, Guimond said. He couldn’t say where they’re at or when he last saw them.

His friends, Guimond said at the time, were pawn shop employees.

Sadder still is that those pawn workers apparently didn’t know that.

“The (probation officer) contacted ‘Joe’ from Broadway Pawn. Joe [did not want to provide last name] informed the subject has come into the pawn shop to sell some movies but does not know the subject personally and therefore can not provide any relevant information,” the PO says.

Another name offered — a Robert Chartrand who worked for the government — didn’t pan out either.

All of this is not to say that Guimond hasn’t taken steps to deal with his problems. He faithfully attended a full-time, month-long detox program in 2004 at Pritchard House.

The problem, however: Although he attended and participated in the treatment regime, the concern was he simply didn’t understand any of it; he lacked the mental capacity to apply what he learned to his life.

Now, as we so often see in the justice system, it falls to a judge to try and sort out this mess, to balance what’s best for society with what’s best for the offender, George Guimond.

There’s more to his story to come, however.

Judge Sid Lerner has kept him behind bars as probation services takes another kick at the can of trying to figure out the apparently confounding problem that is George Leslie Guimond, repeat garbage arsonist and citizen of Winnipeg.

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Important note to the reader: Many of the details here are taken from court ordered reports authored in 2005 and 2006. A new, updated report is in the works. Now, while it should be said there appears to have been a lengthy gap in his fire-setting or other criminal behaviour from 2007 to August 2011, the underlying social issues that have plagued him don’t appear to have changed. I can’t stress this enough: at the time of the August bin fire, Guimond was witnessed leaning up against an AutoBin clutching a pop bottle filled with a murky brown/yellowish liquid. He had two cigarette lighters on him at the time. 

It also must be said that although that great amount of time had passed, his defence lawyer presented no new information about any material changes to Guimond’s life or circumstances on Friday, if that’s an indication of anything. 

Mr. Bear goes to downtown Winnipeg

(James Hope Howard/Slurpees and Murder)

William Bear’s penchant for getting whacked out on sniff and wandering around downtown Winnipeg scaring people because of the large knife he carries in his pants likely saved his life.

The irony of existence sometimes amazes me. So does its cruel sadness.

Such was the case of the 34-year-old chronic substance abuser, who, (setting aside his criminal record) has racked up 53 documented Intoxicated Persons Detention Act arrests in his relatively short adult life.

He was picked up on Fort Street after a frightened member of the public called 911 to report a weirdo was walking around downtown in broad daylight with the weapon. Police rush into the area, and find Bear, staggering around.

In the plastic shopping bag he was carrying was a king can of beer.

Given his long and dated history with Winnipeg’s finest (and the fact he was out on ‘supervised’ probation), Bear’s locked up and spends the next 33 days behind bars.

A few days after he’s nabbed, the Austin Street rooming house he once called home is firebombed — allegedly by a woman looking to get payback on a relative but missed the target, killing five people Bear likely knew.

Bear’s arrest “might have saved his life,” Judge Fred Sandhu heard today.

In any event, Bear’s released soon after the fatal fire and picked up again just recently causing a disturbance outside the Main Street Project. Cops note he’s got a black rag soaked in paint thinner on him.

In the plastic shopping bag he was carrying was a can of beer.

By Friday, Bear, who hails from Berens River, is likely going to be back in the city.

But — despite his truly awful personal circumstances — he could be considered one of the lucky ones. He’s obtained help from a program to get him into housing and is on the waiting list for the Bell Hotel on Main Street.

For his part, Bear swears he’s headed straight from jail to a detox program, but said he wasn’t interested in staying at the Sally Ann in the interim due to some issues with drinking and drugs on its doorstep.

He was carrying the knife in his pants because of the brutal assaults many shelter-less people experience in the city, he said.

“This city’s kind of rough,” the soft-spoken Bear said. “People carry guns, people carry knives.”

Sandhu expressed worry that Bear — with his history of getting out of his mind on sniff — could end up harming or even killing someone without really realizing what he was doing.

However, given the nature of the charges he pleaded guilty to, there’s little Sandhu could do to keep Bear locked up.

“If you’re walking down the middle of the street and there’s nobody there, might be a couple of panhandlers … or somebody that you think [is] selling drugs, how do you feel? Normally, you’d think, ‘this is not very safe,’” Winnipeg police Chief Keith McCaskill told the Winnipeg Sun’s editorial board on Wednesday.

Perception of safety downtown is just as important as the reality, McCaskill said.

If people perceive they’re unsafe, then it’s really the same effect is if they’re actually unsafe.

The goal is to get more people — including cops — into the area on a permanent basis.

McCaskill said he believes having the police headquarters right in the heart of downtown will help as more cop cars will be around, and more officers will be in the skywalks and on the ground as they go about their days.

For example, crime — especially vehicle break-ins — drops noticeably when a Jets game is on, he said yesterday.

The equation: more people, more activity equals fewer problems. Better perception. Better perception of safety.

The police service is already involved a crime prevention through environmental design study in the area, and has pledged more cops and bike patrols for 2012.

But it must be said: as efforts to continue to try and get more people into the beleaguered area, we as a society have to do more to help people in circumstances like Bear’s get right — if they want the help.

Barring that, we need to implement a system to keep the chronically drunk, high or vagrant out of the downtown proper — no matter the time of day.

Loitering in front of MEC? Off you go. Camped out in front of Portage Place or Giant Tiger? Sayonara.

It’s the only way downtown will ever have a chance to truly change its image and make it a truly genuine option as a place to live in Winnipeg.

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