Burning like it’s 1999

Anyone who’s been outside this week knows that we are deep in the difficult throes of Winnipeg’s winter. But this week has been difficult for another reason: fires.

Since Monday, there have been at least four major fires in Winnipeg. The first was a massive blaze at a construction site for a condo complex in East Kildonan. On Wednesday, three fires broke out: one in the historic Kirkwood Block building at Portage and Langside, another on Pritchard Avenue and a third on Logan Avenue.

If it seems like there have been more fires than usual lately, that’s because there have been. In October, Global News reported that fire crews had been called to 133 fires in the first 10 months of 2021, a sharp increase from 82 in all of 2020.

That’s still a far cry from the late 1990s, when Winnipeg was known as the “arson capital of Canada.” In October 1999, CBC News reported that Winnipeg had about 3,500 fires a year, 42 per cent of which were deliberately set.

1999 was the end of 11 years of governance by the Progressive Conservatives under premier Gary Filmon, who oversaw a regime of austerity that slashed public jobs and services, rising unemployment and a vote-splitting scandal by PC insiders. The latter was especially damning. In 1995, the PCs ran a scheme in which they paid a handful of Indigenous Manitobans to run as independent candidates in an attempt to “split the Aboriginal vote” in rural ridings previously held by the NDP and improve the PCs’ chances.

At the time, unemployment and poverty were blamed (along with juvenile delinquency) for the fires, which led to community efforts to improve neighbourhoods with high rates of arson.

As of right now, none of the four fires this week have been determined to be arson (the Logan Avenue fire is suspected to be accidental). But I’m certainly feeling a certain sense of deja vu.

Published in Volume 76, Number 16 of The Uniter (February 3, 2022)

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