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Vancouverites say city election was about communities making their voices heard, not Left versus Right

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When given a choice between an incumbent mayor declaring Vancouver safe or a challenger asserting the opposite, Vancouverites chose the latter in a landslide this month.

It was the first sign of a growing trend that voters may be turning their minds to public safety and casting ballots for politicians who reflect those concerns.

“We basically took an approach to policymaking that was: what are the facts saying? What does the science say? What does the data say? What are moms and dads saying? What are teachers saying? And let’s just do those things,” says Kareem Allam, the campaign manager for A Better City.

ABC is the Vancouver municipal party founded by Ken Sim, a local businessman who narrowly lost to Kennedy Stewart in the previous 2018 municipal election. In the Oct. 15 rematch, Sim bested the NDP-backed Stewart. Sim and ABC won, respectively, the mayoralty and majorities on city council, as well as the school and park board. 

One of ABC’s biggest promises during the election was hiring 100 new officers for the Vancouver Police Department (VPD), and 100 new mental health nurses. Violent crime in Vancouver has spiked considerably compared to 2019, with a 35 percent rise in serious assaults, while robberies and assaults against police officers were both up by over 20 percent.

ABC’s triumph was celebrated by federal Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre as a defeat of the political Left, comparing the “fired” Stewart and his policies to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

However, Allam says portraying the Vancouver election as a Left versus Right contest misrepresents ABC, and that provincial and federal political allegiances were left at the door when ABC was formed. 

“We wanted something that was truly free of anything other than what individual communities in Vancouver wanted to see at the municipal level,” says Allam. 

Lorraine Lowe is the executive director of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, located in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown neighbourhood. She says the Chinatown community felt unheard during the tenure of Stewart, who insisted Vancouver was a safe city even as violent crime rose in the neighbourhood. 

“We can’t necessarily say it was just him, it was we just didn’t feel heard…we were left to the wayside,” says Lowe. 

Stewart is a drug decriminalization advocate who supports “safe supply”, which entails providing addicts with toxic-free narcotics, or narcotic replacements. 

During Stewart’s mayoralty, he called on lawmakers to abolish street checks by police officers, while the school board voted to end the VPD’s school liaison officer program

Anti-Asian hate crimes and random assaults became frequent in Vancouver’s Chinatown during the pandemic, with seniors often being the victims. Although the city’s large Chinese-Canadian community lives in every part of Vancouver, Chinatown is home to many older Chinese-Canadians and business owners. 

Random assaults, such as an 87-year-old in Chinatown being attacked with bear spray, occurred as the homeless encampment, located at the nearby intersection of Main and Hastings, exploded in size over the last two and a half years. The sale and open use of narcotics like heroin, meth, and crack cocaine are commonplace there. 

Post-electoral surveys that emerged since the election suggest some of Stewart’s heaviest support in his unsuccessful re-election bid came from the Downtown Eastside. Nearby Downtown areas voted heavily for Sim, as did many of Vancouver’s most culturally diverse neighbourhoods

“We went into the community, we went to the quarters of the city where people felt they didn’t have a voice, we recruited their leaders,” says Allam. 

As an example, Allam points out that ABC recruited park board candidates from the rugby community, who felt unheard of by the former incumbents at city hall. In what became one of the election’s most controversial moments, the Vancouver Police Union (VPU) endorsed ABC, the first such endorsement ever made by the VPU.

Relations between Stewart and the local police were described as “strained” in 2021. Allam says ABC was honoured to have the VPU’s endorsement. 

“Our view was that it wasn’t the VPU that decided to politicize the police,” says Allam. “The police were politicized by the actions of the previous administration to the point where the police felt that they had no choice but to get active in politics.” 

The day after the election, the VPU released a statement congratulating Sim. 

“This was a campaign focused on change at city hall and voters recognized we couldn’t afford to continue down a path that led to an unlivable and unsafe community,” read the statement

Other cities in Canada are also confronting these trends. On Oct. 19, the Ottawa Police Association publicly criticized Catherine McKenney, a mayoral candidate in Monday’s municipal election. McKenney has publicly voiced support for defunding or diverting funding from the Ottawa Police Service and ultimately lost to Mark Sutcliffe, the centrist candidate, by 13 percentage points.

Violent crime rates in other cities across Canada are rising as well, and Lowe says concerned residents should look at Vancouver as an example of what happens when governments are soft on crime. 

“Is this what you want with your city, and what do you want in the future?” asks Lowe 

Sports betting ads are dominating broadcasts. What does that mean for gambling addicts? 

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If you have a gambling problem, watching a hockey game has become a stern test of your willpower. 

Single-game sports gambling was legalized in 2021, and a deluge of commercials followed. Dr. David Hodgins, a University of Calgary psychologist and research coordinator at the Alberta Gambling Research Institute, says it’s too early to tell if the ads will lead to more people developing gambling problems. He suspects, however, they will “probably complicate the gambling problems of people who already have gambling problems.” 

The challenge in fighting addiction is avoiding relapses. These tend to be stimulated by cues; if you’re trying to quit drinking, you avoid bars. “We know from interviewing people who have overcome gambling problems that they often do something to reduce their exposure to gambling,” Dr. Hodgins says. “Undoubtedly the dramatic increase in advertising is a factor affecting people who are struggling to not gamble.”

It’s still reasonable to advertise alcohol, but gambling commercials and their promise of free bets have become the equivalent of beer companies coming to your house and offering you a drink. The influx of prop bets, which allow you to wager on quick results ranging from which team scores first to whether a specific player accrues certain statistics, offer immediate results and a constant source of stimulation. This, Dr. Hodgins points out, is the easiest way to get hooked. 

“That makes the experience more continuous, and we know that continuous types of gambling are more addictive. Slot machines are highly addictive because you can gamble many times a minute. Whereas very few people get into problems with lottery tickets because you have to wait a few days for the outcome. Sports betting is not the most addicting in its classic form, but there’s a concern that with the new ability to gamble more continuously that it’s more problematic.”  

Online gambling in particular has a higher association with problem gambling, and American data shows it attracts (and hooks) 18 to 24-year-olds. You’re sitting on your couch, your phone is right there, it sure looks like Auston Matthews is destined to complete his hat trick, and ads keep tempting you with profit. Why not make it interesting? 

The psychology of gambling commercials is, in some ways, obvious. There’s not much subtlety to a flashy ad where an attractive person promises you easy winnings. But sports gambling, Dr. Hodgins points out, preys on the assumption that we know more than we do. 

“It’s the same phenomenon as poker. There’s a large chance element to it, but you can be a bit better than others. Humans have a natural tendency to see chance outcomes as outcomes we can influence. Even something clearly random, like throwing a pair of dice, people trying to get ones tend to throw the dice much lighter than if they’re looking for sixes, where they’re much more aggressive. With sports betting, knowledge is helpful but the outcomes are pretty random. People believe they’re skilled, but they’re too difficult to predict.” 

In April Dom Luszczyszyn, a writer for The Athletic, documented the “incredible high” and “complete rock bottom” of his routine betting. If someone whose career is based on the statistical analysis of sports can suffer a mental health crisis thanks to gambling gone awry, amateurs should be wary about thinking they can consistently beat the house. 

The ease of online gambling does, in theory, also make it easier to limit risks. Sites can allow you to ban yourself, and gamblers can pre-commit what they’re willing to lose, a technique Dr. Hodgins says has been effective when made mandatory in other jurisdictions. 

“You’re separating the decision-making from the heat of the moment. We know that people will often chase their losses, which of course typically leads to further losses. Those decisions are prevented if someone has to pre-commit. But it’s most helpful if it’s mandatory as opposed to voluntary. The people who need it tend to be reluctant to use it.” 

Proactivity helps. Dr. Hodgins contributed to a 2021 study in Norway where, like most Canadian provinces, gambling is a government monopoly. Some of the country’s biggest gamblers were sent a letter telling them how much they were spending, others were called, and others were ignored. While some could afford to eat their losses, those contacted by mail reduced their gambling a little, and those spoken to on the phone reduced their gambling a lot. Dr. Hodgins called it a “minimal customer service act” that led to no complaints. 

“If you proactively contact people and provide them with support, we know that people appreciate that kind of intervention. You’d think people might be irritated and say their expenses are none of your business, but, generally, people like it because they feel like someone is taking care of them.” 

But when provinces provide both a service designed to be addicting and the treatment for that addiction, a dilemma emerges. 

“Provinces have generally provided some supportive features. There is a reluctance to make them mandatory. The assumption is that the public wouldn’t want it. The reality is that these responsible gambling features reduce expenditure, which then of course reduces gambling revenue because it’s people with gambling problems who gamble the most.” 

Dr. Hodgins points out that all of this knowledge is there; it’s up to provinces to use it. 

“The unfortunate part is that there are lessons that can be learned from other jurisdictions, we don’t have to learn everything ourselves. That was less true for cannabis, there weren’t a lot of details from other jurisdictions. With gambling, some jurisdictions stand out as doing a good job of protecting the public.” 

The good news is that all of this advertising may eventually die down. Dr. Hodgins pointed to cannabis, where the advertising rules became sterner over time, and the fight for market share reached a conclusion. In the meantime, some provinces are educating the public on the risks of gambling, and the resources available to help addicts. And the irony of online gambling becoming ubiquitous is that it’s also easier to link people to support. 

“We tend to just provide a link somewhere, often a little bit hidden. But we can do it more proactively when people are clearly gambling in a problematic way.” 

Provinces have become both bookies and therapists, and now they need to decide which role they’ll take more seriously. So far, advertising budgets have superseded addiction services funding. But Canada may learn painful lessons that other countries have already processed about what happens when the government creates the very addicts it’s supposed to protect.