"Burn Me Next."
This bit of graffiti spray-painted across the vacant house at 311
Manitoba Avenue, in Winnipeg's North End, adjacent to one already
torched, gave new meaning to the phrase "handyman's special."
But where many Winnipeggers saw another arson waiting to happen,
Ron and Anne Hupp saw an opportunity.
They bought the house and restored it. Today they are renting it
to a family of eight.
Winnipeg has received a lot of ink and air time recently as the
"arson capital of Canada." But renovations like this are an early
indicator that the situation is turning around. They are like the
first green blades of renewal that shoot up after a prairie grass
City officials are very careful not to be overly optimistic,
however. Arsons are down sharply, but that may be just a reflection
of the weather. "Minus 20 keeps a lot of people off the streets,"
says Randy Hull, the city's emergency-preparedness coordinator.
"It's too early to say we're making great strides against arson. I'm
curious and excited to see what April and May will bring."
Officials are also very careful not to concede that this city
ever has been the arson capital of Canada. But a visitor sees a lot
of plywood here, on boarded-up structures not only in the North End
but on the main business streets - and in the close-in Exchange
District, a veritable museum of early 20th-century commercial
Last year the city set up an arson strike force involving the
police and fire departments. Neighborhoods were cleaned up to get
derelict cars and other potential targets off the streets. Enhanced
sports programs were offered to keep young people out of trouble
during school vacations.
With over 80 arrests made since the strike force swung into
action - about two-thirds of suspects 18 years old and under, and,
poignantly, some too young to be charged even as juveniles - the
police feel they have "cleared" about 80 percent of their arson
The arson crisis developed within a complex urban ecology. The
Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics reports that for 1998, the
latest year available, Winnipeg's arson rate was 53 per 100,000
inhabitants, compared with 17 for Toronto, and 41 for Vancouver. The
agency also noted that Manitoba's arson rates jumped by 63 percent
in 1998, while those of other provinces remained "relatively
But there is some statistical confusion. Winnipeg officials point
out that they track fires differently: Here, even small blazes, in
garbage cans, count as "fires." And any fire without a known cause,
a lightning strike, for instance, is counted as arson.
Dale Kein, an executive with Insurance Bureau of Canada, blames
over-zealous reporting in the local press for the perception of an
arson wave, leading to "more people wanting to be on the front page
and wanting to start their own fires."
Many in the business community see arson primarily as an economic
policy problem, not a crime problem. The remedy, they say, is to
drop the rent-control regime - in place in Manitoba since 1981. Over
the past four years, rent increases have been capped at 1 percent
"Everybody knows that utility bills are going up higher than
that," says Karl Busch of London Property Management Ltd. …