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It’s not just Toronto. Violent crime is a national problem

News

What week has not gone by lately without disturbing news of another Toronto resident being slashed, hacked, or otherwise attacked on the TTC? 

The Toronto Police Service have deployed dozens of officers to patrol the city’s transit systems, and Mayor John Tory’s sudden resignation has led to calls for a law and order candidate to run to replace him. 

While the threats to public safety in Canada’s largest city have made many recent headlines, smaller cities across the country have been dealing with declining public safety for years, making it a truly national phenomenon.

No federal commission has been called to investigate any links between these issues and violent crime, but politicians at all levels of government have not been shy to comment.

Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has called for action from the federal government to curb what MP Raquel Dancho has described as a “violent crime wave“.

Last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put the onus on the cities and provinces to solve the issue, but said that he was paying attention to it.

“If there is a role for the federal government to step up, we will no doubt step up,” Trudeau said. “It’s something we are happy to partner with provinces and municipalities on.”

Experts have suggested it’s an aftershock of the pandemic, during which over 12 percent of the paid Canadian workforce was laid off, people struggling with mental health were subjected to prolonged physical and social isolation, shelters cut the number of beds available, and outdoor homeless encampments grew from Victoria to Halifax.

Whatever the cause, the issue has quickly become a top priority for Canadians, according to recent polling, and many Canadian cities are experiencing some version of this crime wave.

It is becoming more common in downtown Edmonton for storefronts to be smashed with bricks and pedestrians to be accosted or assaulted, sometimes fatally. The situation has led to the deployment of the provincial police, the Alberta Sheriffs Branch, to Edmonton early this month to downtown Edmonton to reinforce the city police’s patrols in the core. 

“Edmonton is not an anomaly, it’s cities across North America (that) are struggling with the impacts of the pandemic on their downtown cores,” says Alexandra Hryciw. “There’s been a heightened safety issue that Edmonton’s been addressing just in terms of houselessness and mental health and addictions.” 

Winnipeg faces similar issues, owning the grim distinction of having Canada’s highest homicide rate for a city with more than 500,000 people in 2020. In July, it was reported that Winnipeg had seen gun violence rise by 27 percent over five years. 

That same month, a rise in reports of violent attacks at The Forks, a popular Winnipeg neighbourhood, was described as “not new” by the city police chief, who noted that it was worse in other areas of the city. 

Police and city government officials in Toronto and Vancouver have reported the majority of random attacks taking place in both cities are perpetrated by people suffering from mental illness.

Research in B.C. suggested that while violent crime decreased in Vancouver’s more affluent areas, it increased in downtown Vancouver, the most densely populated part of the city and where most of the city’s homeless population lives, even if research showed just a 3.9 percent increase in assaults across Vancouver in the first half of 2022, and a 5.6 percent increase in violent crime overall.

In December 2022, the Toronto Star reported that violence on the city’s transit system had increased, and in 2021, reported a 10 percent increase in assault, sexual assault, robbery, and harassment in the city.

Statistics compiled by the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) found that people with mental illness were twice as likely to suffer from addiction. CAMH also reported that addicted persons can be up to three times more likely to have a mental illness. 

Hryciw says addiction and public safety are intimately connected, and that the absence of so many workers from downtown during the pandemic made the situation worse. In 2022, crime rose in Alberta’s capital for the first time in 3 years.

Hryciw is the chair of Edmonton’s Downtown Recovery Coalition (DRC), which was founded in September 2022 to address the city’s problems. The DRC advocates for a more visible police presence to improve public safety, revitalizing the city’s infrastructure, increasing spaces for homeless people, and long-term recovery spaces for addicted persons. 

Last December, the social services organization Homeward Trust Edmonton estimated that approximately 3,000 homeless people lived in the city, nearly double the 2018 population. 

According to Hryciw, the 2016 opening of Rogers Place, the Edmonton Oilers’ home arena, brought a lot of foot traffic back to downtown, but the core still struggles on non-game days. 

A survey from last October found 56 percent of residents in the Winnipeg core felt more unsafe than they did the previous year, while roughly half of all surveyed Winnipeggers felt the same. 

In 2011, Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz and Air Canada got into a dispute when the airline ruled out allowing their pilots to stay overnight in downtown hotels. In 2010, only 42 percent of polled Winnipeggers felt safe downtown, a plummet of more than half from 85 percent of respondents who felt that in 2008. 

Like in Edmonton, deadly drug overdoses in Winnipeg have been surging since 2020, with over 400 such deaths being reported in Manitoba in 2021. 

B.C. liberalized its drug laws. Will that stop it from becoming ‘hell on earth’?

News

New Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim had his first spat with a federal politician when he recently criticized Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre for labelling the city’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) as “hell on earth.”

Poilievre placed the blame on the NDP and the Liberal federal government for making it that way and, however politicians choose to describe it, the area has become a magnet for disorder.

Even at the Vancouver intersection of Granville and West Georgia, a crucial transit hub several blocks away from the DTES and home to several corporate banking towers, people openly smoke crack cocaine.

The B.C. government has received a legal exemption from the federal government to decriminalize possession of up to 2.5 grams of cocaine, along with opioids and methamphetamines. As for the drugs themselves, the B.C. government has explicitly stated they remain illegal.

“Decriminalization is not legalization. This is not the same as what the federal government did with cannabis,” read a statement from Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s Minister of Addictions. “The safety of young people is our top priority as we implement this exemption. Possession of illegal substances on K-12 school property and at licensed child care facilities by anyone of any age will continue to be a criminal offence.”

The experiment came into effect on January 31, 2023, and is expected to last until January 31, 2026.

“Together, the federal and provincial governments will be working closely to evaluate and monitor decriminalization to ensure we’re meeting the desired outcomes and to ensure there are no unintended consequences,” said Whiteside.

Toronto is forging ahead with its own request for a similar exemption, but the situation in Vancouver could provide a blueprint for what policymakers in the GTA should expect. 

About a 15-minute walk away from Granville and West Georgia, street drugs are primarily sold on the DTES. Anybody can find the DTES without a map by following the near-permanent sound of ambulance sirens heading towards the latest overdose victim there. 

In 2021, it was estimated that two out of three homeless persons in B.C. had an addiction. In 2022, at least 2,272 people died of drug-related deaths in the province,Of that number, 70 percent of those dying were aged 30 to 59 and 79 percent were male. and the number of assaults grew. 

The B.C. government’s official reasons for decriminalization include reducing the stigma of drug use and the barriers to support services, which includes the provision of toxin-free drugs, now widely known as “safe supply”. Decriminalization has been labelled by the provincial government as a  critical step in combatting the overdose crisis. 

Julian Somers is a Distinguished Professor of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, specializing in homelessness, substance use and mental health, clinical psychology, and health-care reform. When writing about the failure of the War on Drugs in 1990, Somers concluded that punitive measures against drug users were ineffective and counterproductive.

However, Somers is a vocal critic of the provincial government’s approach to decriminalization and so-called “safe supply.”

“B.C. is the only place in the world that has recommended decriminalizing drugs and providing a publicly funded supply to people at risk,” said Somers over email. “Many countries and regions have reversed poisonings, and none did so by providing drugs to people.” 

One of the most-cited models for advocates of harm reduction is that of Portugal, which was once the European capital of drug addiction. While Portugal did decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs in 2001, it also invested heavily in rehabilitation and recovery. Tens of thousands of people were enrolled in rehabilitation programs.

Portugal introduced its safe supervised injection site in 2018, but only after nearly two decades of drug policies that reduced the number of heroin users by 75 percent

In 2022, the B.C. government announced a $430 million investment, equivalent to about 0.6 percent of its expenses for that year, to escalate its response to the province’s drug crisis. 

Somers pointed to a 2022 publication from the Stanford-Lancet Commission, which was formed to study North America’s growth in drug-related deaths, which stated that intoxicated people will come into contact with the criminal justice system regardless of the legal status of drugs. 

A peer-reviewed analysis of decriminalization co-authored by Somers citing the Stanford-Lancet Commission’s publication pointed out that alcohol remains legal and is associated with more violence and crime than all other drugs. According to a spokesperson for the Vancouver Police Department, decriminalization is not likely to significantly affect how its officers enforced previously illegal low-level drug crime. 

“In that sense, decriminalization of small amounts of drugs for personal use will not impact the way we operate,” said the spokesperson over email. “Instead, we will continue to focus our energy by targeting the violent and organized crime groups that produce and traffic the harmful street drugs that continue to fuel the overdose crisis.” 

The spokesperson noted the VPD is sympathetic to the challenges faced by drug addicts. 

“Decriminalization, along with safe supply and public health supports, has the potential to address harms associated with substance use, reduce stigma, prevent overdose deaths, and increase access to health and social services,” said the spokesperson. 

Another publication featured in the analysis Somers co-authored studied California’s softening of drug-related convictions and suggested that a reduction in drug-related convictions was accompanied by an increase in physical altercations among certain segments of the population.

Random violence has risen in Vancouver since the COVID-19 pandemic began, mostly on or around the DTES. Yet Vancouver is not the only city in B.C., nor is it the only one affected by the consequences of the province’s long-term surge in illegal drug use. 

Almost 1400 kilometres north of Vancouver is the small town of Terrace. Homeless and drug-addicted persons light campfires at night beside environmental consultancy offices, while others smash the storefronts of the city’s small business community. Garbage, cracked crack pipes, and used needles often litter the streets. 

All of these developments in Vancouver, Terrace, and many other B.C. cities and communities occurred without the decriminalization of drug possession. It is not an embellishment to write that many Vancouverites have seen a dead body in an alleyway on the DTES, or even on the sidewalks of busy streets like East Pender. 

Despite what Pierre Poilievre says, the DTES is not hell on earth as it’s too chilly and wet at this time of year. 

That description can be revisited in about five months when smoke from summer wildfires turns the sky orange and statistics can demonstrate if decriminalization has made Vancouver and the rest of B.C. a better place.