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Point Douglas residents felt ‘like prisoners’ due to Winnipeg pink crack cocaine network, activist testifies

A longtime community activist in a Winnipeg neighbourhood that was home to a drug network known for selling pink crack cocaine says the operation made people living in Point Douglas feel “like prisoners in their own homes.”

“Neighbours would never be sure when there would be an influx of customers — sometimes over 200 in a day. Community residents didn’t know who to trust and felt intimidated and afraid to speak out about the drug dealing,” Sel Burrows told court Wednesday, reading from a community impact statement during the sentencing hearing for the woman who ran the operation.

“The neighbours felt totally unsafe. People feared for their children. The majority of people living in North Point Douglas, particularly on Lisgar [Avenue], had nothing to do with drug use or drug sales.”

Sandra Guiboche, 60, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to traffic cocaine in September after admitting to being the head of a drug trafficking organization she helped build. It was headquartered at several homes she owned in Winnipeg’s Point Douglas area.

She was among more than 20 people arrested in 2021, following a five-month Winnipeg police investigation into her operation dubbed Project Matriarch.

Court heard the drug operation involved turning powdered cocaine into highly pure crack rocks — which were dyed a signature pink colour so customers could tell them apart from her competitors’ products.

Police officers enter a white home, while a police vehicle is parked in front.
Winnipeg police enter a home in Point Douglas in March 2021 as part of an investigation dubbed Project Matriarch. Sandra Guiboche was one of more than 20 people arrested in connection with a drug trafficking ring. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Guiboche owned 10 homes in the Point Douglas area, including one on Lisgar Avenue that federal Crown attorney Kate Henley said was known as a “crack shack.”

Burrows said Guiboche’s customers often took taxis to the places where the drugs were sold, which jammed up the streets and back lanes in the area.

Some residents felt forced to move away, he said, while those who stayed sometimes had car windows smashed or items stolen.

“Because of the danger felt from addicted, high customers, residents often felt like prisoners in their own homes,” Burrows said.

“It’s hard for people to understand how intimidating a drug dealing operation can be to ordinary people. There is violence associated with the drug trade — it was there, all around us, for many years.”

Guiboche, who is not in custody, sat in her wheelchair in court alongside family during the hearing. Prosecutors are asking she be sentenced to 10 years in prison, while her lawyers intend to seek a lower sentence.

Defence lawyer Saul Simmonds said that’s in part because of Guiboche’s age and health issues, which include mobility concerns following a 2011 stroke and an ongoing heart ailment.

He said while Guiboche had previously struggled with addiction and been incarcerated for drug-related offences, she later got back into that world not only out of economic interest, but also out of a desire to provide untainted drugs as she saw people around her getting sick or dying from drugs cut with things like fentanyl.

“It’s hard to imagine that there is an element of altruism anywhere in a drug operation, but I’m going to tell the court that there is in these particular circumstances,” Simmonds said, calling Guiboche an “anomaly” who also paid for addictions treatment for people around her who wanted it.

“It certainly causes an eyebrow to go up, because it just is unusual,” he said.

“She is, in a bizarre way, a caring individual who wants to actually help other people.”

Similar to ‘drive-thru window’: judge

Simmonds said that explains why, in wiretapped phone calls intercepted during the investigation, she reacted with anger about people in her operation selling other products or bringing in tainted material.

Prosecutors argued the calls show Guiboche ruled over her operation with violence.

“I’m not going to tell the court that that’s something that, again, should put a badge on her chest, but it gives the court some insight into why we find ourselves in this situation in the first place,” he said.

The defence lawyer said Guiboche’s anger likely stems from the trauma she experienced as a child, including being sexually abused. He said Guiboche, who is Métis, also took on caring for her family at a young age as her mother struggled with alcoholism. 

There was also a hesitancy to get authorities involved out of fear involvement with child and family services would follow, Simmonds said.

“It’s a common theme throughout Indigenous offenders that we see in the courtrooms, day in and day out,” Justice Champagne said, as Guiboche nodded in the gallery. “That when you’re brought up and you’re exposed to violence in your own home, frequently that’s how you respond.”

Simmonds also said though there were discussions of violence in the intercepted phone calls, there was never any indication guns were used — which he said “tells you something” about the operation.

Dismantling Guiboche’s operation appears to have been a “be careful what you wish for” situation, since the vacuum left by her absence seems to have been filled with people selling methamphetamine, he said.

Court of King’s Bench Justice Ken Champagne at one point noted how sophisticated Guiboche’s operation seemed to him.

“She had all the makings of a Fortune 500 company. She had personnel to deal with human resources, to deal with disgruntled employees and disgruntled customers,” the judge said.

“She had economic advisors, she had a finance department. She had everything she needed to run a business.”

Simmonds said the business model seemed to him more simplistic than sophisticated.

“McDonald’s has made a lot of money in the simplicity of running their operation,” Champagne replied. “The drive-thru window — I think this was very similar to that.”

Guiboche’s lawyers are expected to continue making submissions later Wednesday.

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