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. 

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