Edmonton’s murder belt

It's been a banner year for homicides, especially in the northern fringe of downtown

Edmonton’s death belt

Perry Mah/The Edmonton Sun/QMI Agency

The 2011 homicide counter started clicking early in Edmonton, and it has not stopped. Just three hours past midnight on New Year’s, police were called to an Ethiopian restaurant on Edmonton’s 107th Avenue—the “Avenue of Nations,” where East African immigrants are following the earlier footsteps of the Vietnamese boat people. On reaching the scene, investigators found 23-year-old Somali man Mohamud Mohamed Jama dead from a gunshot to the head.

A wounded witness refused to co-operate, and other patrons clammed up too. Fellow Somalis declared the victim a “typical Canadian young man” who “wasn’t involved with gangs or drugs.” But Jama died nine days shy of his sentencing for a 2007 aggravated assault; he had pleaded guilty of stabbing another Somali man eight times.

Jama’s unsolved murder struck a wearisome chord for Edmontonians, from the north-central crime scene to the frustrations of the cops trying to pry loose information from clannish Somali-Canadians reluctant to trust police. Yet the bloody big picture of Edmonton in 2011 defies neat categories or models. For reasons that remain obscure, a working-class city has exploded this year into unrelenting, record-breaking levels of violence.

As July turned to August, Edmonton recorded its 33rd homicide of a calendar year just 29 weeks old; a young male rushed toward a middle-aged homeless man sleeping on a bench outside the Boyle Street Community Services building and, with no apparent pretext or excuse, stabbed him. Eric “Dexter” Janvier died without even sitting up. The bench he died on is less than a mile from the lounge where Jama was shot.

Both locations lie in a band of blight and lawlessness that contains most of Edmonton’s quantum of murder in any given year. (The 31st homicide, the outcome of a knife fight in a small park near the Remand Centre, had struck the same death belt less than 48 hours before.) Edmonton is bisected almost perfectly by the broad North Saskatchewan, but only two of the year’s homicides are known to have occurred south of the river—as if an invisible force field were confining the violence to the north fringe of the downtown.

If there is a force field, it appears to protect Calgarians as well. Calgary’s first homicide of 2011 happened at almost the same moment as Edmonton’s, just after midnight on New Year’s Eve. But the entire city has had only two killings since, by the official count. A revived cold case—the asphyxiation of an infant in May 2010—would make Calgary’s total four.

If the Eskimos were to beat the Stampeders on the football field by a score of 33-4, sportswriters would not hesitate to declare a blowout. But Edmonton’s defenders try to downplay Edmonton’s 2011 homicide total, which is leading all Canadian cities. (The toll in Toronto, whose city limits encompass 3½ times Edmonton’s population, stands at 28.) Edmonton boosters try to write off the violent year as a “statistical anomaly,” but it’s precisely this anomalousness that demands an explanation. Given 37 homicides in two cities with equal overall sizes and propensities for murder, the likelihood that 34 or more would happen on one side by chance alone are about one in 16 million.

A verdict, however, is elusive. Edmonton is generally more violent than Calgary, but not by an order of magnitude. (From 1999-2008, according to Statistics Canada, metro Edmonton averaged 31 homicides; Calgary, 21.) The capital faces inherent socioeconomic conditions that its southern rival doesn’t—many of which are also reflected in Edmonton’s ongoing syphilis scare. Edmonton captures a floating population of young Aboriginals from poorer, rougher Indian reserves than those near Calgary. It also serves as a fly-in recreation venue for deracinated, bored oil-patch workers.

As Grant MacEwan University criminologist Bill Pitt pointed out in a controversial July 30 tirade delivered to the Edmonton Sun, Edmonton is a slightly poorer, less well-educated place than Calgary. (“Everybody in this city is armed,” Pitt raged.) According to census figures, Edmonton has more high school dropouts and considerably fewer individuals with university degrees or college diplomas. The problem is that these factors prevailed just as much in 2008, when Edmonton barely edged Calgary in the homicide “contest” 39-34, and in 2007, when the cities ended in a 36-36 tie. They can hardly account for this year’s signal.

Indeed, it is hard to see what might. Gary Mar and Alison Redford, both frontrunners for the province’s Conservative leadership, engaged in a bit of political Punch-and-Judy over Edmonton violence this week. Mar blamed Redford, the former justice minister, for “falling short” on crime. Redford, meanwhile, pointed to declining violence in Calgary, conjuring a timely endorsement from the head of the Calgary Police Association. The Calgary Police have succeeded spectacularly in reducing gang and barroom violence year-over-year, using a data-driven high-tech approach to predict trouble spots. Edmonton has certainly had a few homicides that fit these types, including the four with Somali victims. But the vast majority of killings seem to result from random street fights, and the city has witnessed incidents of every imaginable kind: the possible revenge killing of a pedophile, the apparent poisoning of a Sikh wife, a woman found in a bathtub full of blood at a hotel, a septuagenarian couple dumped in the countryside after perhaps borrowing money from the wrong people.

Such a panoply of drama—concentrated, as it mostly is, within a few acres of madness—is too remarkable to be reduced to a grocery list of impugned categories that might leave everybody outside feeling safe and complacent. The 33 homicides do, however, include two cold cases from previous years; they also include two instances of police shooting armed assailants and one killing that was ruled self-defence. At press time, Edmonton was on pace for an annual total of 55 homicides. The city’s record total of 39 (2005) seems almost certain to topple, but the record for a metropolitan area in a single year, Toronto’s landmark 111 from 2007, is safe. Probably.

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