This is Eishia: Teen Liquor Store Theft and Indigenous Poverty in Winnipeg

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The 16 year old girl’s body was sprawled on salt-strewn Manitoba Highway 59 on Wednesday 8 April 2020, on the stretch where it passes through the city of Winnipeg and is renamed Lagimodière Boulevard after the husband of the first woman of European descent to venture into the Prairie province. The teen was one of five, accompanied by two boys and two girls, all 15-16 year olds, who had just lifted bottles from a provincial liquor store and made their getaway in a stolen SUV, which they crashed into other cars during the ensuing police chase along the divided highway. The police probably shot her as she exited the vehicle; their actions should be clarified by the Manitoba Independent Investigations Unit (IIU).


The shooting culminates a teen crime spree targeting the city’s Liquor Marts. The thefts, which began over a year ago, now number 20 a day. Hooded 15 and 16 year olds have been entering domains they are not even old enough to be in, grabbing bottles of alcohol before making a hasty exit. The liquor is reportedly resold for cash or used for barter.


While brazen, the shoplifting is usually carried out swiftly, with the slight, Ninja-dressed kids quickly packing bottles into their backpacks and hastily departing as puzzled patrons look on. And the thefts from the government owned and run stores do not present as much of a hardship as they would to a small business owner; in fact, the value of most liquor is minimal, only driven up by the high taxes imposed upon it. Even in terms of retail prices, Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries (MLCC) announced their losses were small at only 0.2% of total sales.


But in one incident last November, two teens were particularly aggressive and three employees were hurt. The attacker in that incident was, again, 15 years old. In another incident, in November as well, a 16 year old attempting to rob a convenience store was felled by police in a hail of bullets. He had been using a heavy object to break the store’s protective glass and was holding it above his head when he was shot.


Still, the broader community’s reaction to the thefts is extreme, considering the age of the perpetrators, what the courts would deem petty, and the lack of direct impact to most residents. But as the press is referring to the crime wave as “the darkest time in Winnipeg history,” liquor store witnesses seem more likely to express disdain if not racism. In this video, customers jeer a skinny teen laid flat in the snow by two officers, with bystanders fearlessly coming in close with their phones to catch a video or snapshot of the arrest. A single bottle of fortified wine or malt liquor is carefully displayed by an officer on the ground nearby, completing the tableau.


In Canada, youngsters cannot be named publicly, in accordance with the Youth Criminal Justice Act. But Eishia Hudson, the indigenous, two-spirit girl shot and killed by police on Wednesday, was identified by her parents when they eulogized their daughter on Facebook and spoke to the press. The girl’s funeral will have to be curtailed to comply with Covid-19 restricions.


In Canada, 46% of young males in criminal custody are indigenous, with the number rising for girls to 60%, though indigenous peoples, such as First Nations, Inuit and Métis, make up only 8% of Canada’s youthful population. But in Manitoba, the percentages are an astounding 81 per cent for boys and 82 per cent for girls; in neighbouring Saskatchewan, it’s even worse at 92 per cent for boys and 98 per cent for girls. Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, has a population of 800,000 and is 10% indigenous.


According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, First Nations people commit suicide at twice the rate of other Canadians, and among Inuit the rate is six to 11 times higher. The suicide rate of indigenous teens is 8 times that of other Canadians, with rates in some Inuit communities 40 times higher.


The poverty rate of indigenous children in Manitoba is 62%, rising to 76% for children living on reservations. There are 63 First Nations communities in Manitoba.


Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister urged citizens not to sympathize with the youthful offenders, saying, "I come from a poor background but I didn't choose to engage in criminal activity. Stop making the false assertion that someone who is poor has an excuse for stealing from other people. They don't."


But Nahanni Fontaine, opposition party NDG’s Critic for Justice, and Spokesperson for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit people (MMIWG2S), responded with this statement:


 "If we don't deal with people's trauma, if we don't deal with the fact that people are growing up in abject poverty, we're never going to be dealing with any of these issues on a very substantial level."


These are the children of parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who endured the Gradual Civilization Act and were interned in residential schools, the last of which was not closed until 1996. When as many as 98% of youth detainees are indigenous, it’s as if the residential schools never ended.


These are the children whose cultures were cut off at the knees, religions and languages punished, uprooted from their homes to places in which they had no bearings. Perhaps there is a sense of agency in turning alcohol, one of the dominant society’s traditional weapons against them, into a source of income, organization and cooperation rather than descending into isolation and self-destruction.


Indigenous. Aboriginal. Native.

First Nations. Inuit. Métis.

Cree, Inuktitut, Ojibwe, Nehiyawewin.

Algonquin, Ashinaabe, Blackfoot, Chippewa, Dene, Mi’kmak, Sioux.
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