With the final show and shine at the Grant Park Pony Corral last Sunday now in our collective rear-view-mirrors, the cruising season has officially come to an end for another year.
Typically, this is a time when I wax poetic about what a tremendous year it's been, beaming about a summer filled with overflowing car shows and an endless cavalcade of chrome-laden machines.
But, this year, that simply wasn't the case.
While a good number of die-hard cruisers continued to attend every event possible, many more decided not to weather the storm of controversy and scrutiny that stemmed from the ongoing vehicle inspections orchestrated by Manitoba Public Insurance and the Winnipeg Police Service.
It's true that the inspections which threatened to put an end to our cherished hobby were less obtrusive this year than in the past. But, if the smaller number of participants in local cruising events was any indication, it appears the damage has been done.
Many folks I spoke with this summer had mothballed their classic cruisers, or even sold them, rather than risk the scrutiny of a roadside vehicle inspection that would surely find fault with their prized machines, regardless of how insignificant the infraction. They simply chose not to be hassled.
Many more opted to travel outside city limits to attend car shows in more cruiser-friendly jurisdictions. Shows in Gimli, Beausejour and Steinbach were buzzing with activity. They were also welcomed with open arms, not only by the communities but by local RCMP and politicians who easily recognized the benefits of holding car-related events in their towns.
These benefits, of course, go beyond goodwill. They include an influx of money as cruisers shop, buy fuel and dine in their towns, as well as the considerable sums raised for local charities and an overall boost to tourism.
But what about Winnipeg? The easy answer -- that it's all a cash-grab orchestrated by a money-hungry bureaucracy -- is (pardon the pun) a bit of a cop-out. It would be naïve to suggest the only reason police and MPI targeted classic and special-interest cars was to raise money. They initially had a mandate to rid the streets of unsafe vehicles and keep a close eye on scofflaws who felt they could drive any vehicle they wanted, any way they wanted. I think it's fair to say those people got the message.
The problem is that long after this message was delivered loud and clear, the powers-that-be continued to appease a public outcry that was never there in the first place. In my opinion, they simply barked up the wrong tree, and kept barking until a perfectly healthy tree died a slow, agonizing death.
While I certainly haven't crawled under every car at every car show I've attended, I can say with a huge amount of conviction that the cars which populate Winnipeg's cruising scene are well maintained, with any modifications done with considerable thought and often considerable money. Pulling over a young driver whose tires are a bit too fat is not a valuable way to use our police resources, and only serves to erode the relationship between the WPS and law-abiding citizens.
So, instead of dissecting this issue to pieces again, how about looking for a solution?
I think we may have found him.
I'd like to introduce you to our new chief of police. His name is Devon Clunis and, if you ask me, they could not have picked a better man for the job. I've known Clunis casually for more than 25 years. Back in the 1980s, when I worked the door at a gone-but-not-forgotten bar in the Exchange District called DeSoto's, Clunis was a rookie beat cop. We shared a few mutual friends and he always stopped in to warm up and say hello.
Truth is, he was probably keeping an eye on me and my buddies, but he never made us feel that way. Aside from a few football coaches, he was among the first police officers I ever met who made me feel good about myself and challenged me to be an upstanding member of society.
A few years later, when I became a corrections officer at the Winnipeg Remand Centre, I ran into Clunis on occasion and was always impressed with his community-minded approach to policing. He's a good guy that even the bad guys like. Spending just a few moments with Clunis always rubbed off on me in a positive way. He understands that just because he's a police officer doesn't mean he can't be a nice guy and express his faith in his fellow man whenever possible.
All this got me thinking that I should reach out to Clunis and let him know how I and many others in the local car hobby feel about our current relationship with the WPS.
So, here's an open letter to the new chief.
Dear Chief Clunis,
First off, congratulations. As a long-time supporter of your refreshing approach to police work, I can't tell you how proud I am to be from Winnipeg today. When I was a kid from the hood, trying to find my place in this often-turbulent city, you made me feel like someone special every time we met. I'm certain you have had that same influence on countless others.
When I was a young man, one of the key things that kept me out of trouble was my love of cars, specifically old cars. You may recall we first met many years ago at a bar I worked at called DeSoto's -- that was my old Pontiac parked out front every night. Through my love of old cars I began attending car shows, and it was there, in the heart of our vibrant car scene, that I truly found my identity. No one cared where I was from; they accepted me with open arms and treated me, from day one, as one of their own. Sure, a few times I squealed my tires, but the older dudes made a quick point of letting me know I was ruining it for everyone else, and I listened.
I write to you today in hopes that in your new position as Chief of Police you can help repair the fractured relationship that has surfaced in the last few years between the WPS and the local car scene. There has been considerable effort by the WPS to curb our hobby by conducting roadside inspections in conjunction with MPI. These inspections would be fine if they were as "random" as we have been led to believe. But when I see a line-up of classic and special-interest vehicles pulled over on Main Street on a Sunday night, and no rusted minivans in sight, it makes me wonder. If the real reason for these inspections is to rid city streets of unsafe vehicles, why do they so often occur at times and locations frequented by folks in the car hobby?
I've yet to see a line of cars being inspected after exiting a grocery-store parking lot, but you only need to take a walk through these lots to spot countless infractions, ranging from cracked windshields to bald tires and rust holes the size of my head. If the real reason for these inspections is to rid the streets of unsafe vehicles, shouldn't they occur everywhere?
Until a couple of years ago, the cruising community in this city was considered to be tops in the entire nation. Thousands of people were spending millions of dollars enjoying this hobby and also generated huge revenues for many charitable organizations. With the help of the cruising community, my friends and I have raised more than $100,000 in support of the Children's Rehabilitation Foundation. Countless others have also taken the initiative. It would be impossible to put a price-tag on how much this hobby has benefitted the citizens of Winnipeg.
Many police officers at vehicle inspections have told me they are simply following orders and would prefer to let us cruise without scrutiny. In fact, many tell us how nice our cars are while they issue farcical tickets that would surely be thrown out if challenged in court.
Today, I ask you to deeply reconsider the position that high-ranking WPS officials have taken in the past with respect to our cruising community. All we ask is that you let us cruise. We need your support and blessing.
I'm looking forward to hearing from you and would like to extend an open invitation to you and your family to attend a cruising event in 2013 so you can see first-hand the community-friendly atmosphere our hobby offers.
Your friend, Paul "Willy" Williamson
If you're a member of the local cruising community, do our hobby a favour and send Chief Clunis a short note about your experiences with the WPS and their relationship with you as a cruiser. You're also encouraged to clip out this article and mail it to him.
Chief Devon Clunis
Winnipeg Police Service.
Box 168, 151 Princess Street
Public Safety Building
Winnipeg, MB. R3Z 2Z7