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Canadians are worried about violent crime and Conservatives see an opportunity


In the depths of winter in Toronto a rash of violent attacks shocked the country and put pressure on the Liberal government to do something beyond its controversial gun control legislation that had spiraled into a political problem for an embattled prime minister.

The year was 2006, not 2023, and Liberal leader Paul Martin was struggling against a revitalized Conservative coalition in an election campaign he would ultimately lose.

The shooting death of 15-year-old Jane Creba, who was shopping with friends on Yonge Street on Boxing Day, and the ensuing uproar would become emblematic of the country’s fixation on crime and public safety during the 2006 election.

The Conservative “tough on crime” message found a receptive audience as Toronto set a record for gun-related killings in 2005 and Stephen Harper led his party to victory in that election, governing the country until 2015.

A litany of recent headlines about violent attacks in Toronto and polling data showing Canadians are worried has new Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre seeing a similar opportunity.

In Calgary on Wednesday, Poilievre targeted the government’s reluctance on bail reform as a key factor in rising violent crime rates across the country.

“Here in Calgary, we’ve seen a whole spate of violent crimes targeting innocent people that are the direct result of (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau’s broken bail system and the ridiculous catch-and-release policies that he’s implemented,” said Poilievre.

A video released this week by Poilievre bucks his usual style of talking directly to viewers and simply shows news clips of violent crimes in Canada with the headline “After 8 Years of Trudeau.”

Trudeau told reporters recently that his government is looking into bail reform, after an Ontario Provincial Police officer was killed in December, but the prime minister also said he was worried about “challenges around impacts, particularly on Indigenous or minority groups.” One of the OPP officer’s alleged killers was denied bail in an assault case but was later released.

Public safety and crime is a tricky issue that can transcend ideology because Canadians train their ire at whoever is in charge at the time, said Shachi Kurl, the president of Angus Reid Institute.

“The thing about crime is it’s kind of ideology-proof. At people’s very basic essence, they want to go out of their house and walk on the street and not be worried about if something bad is going to happen,” said Kurl.

Kurl said that many of the violent incidents Canadians are seeing on the news don’t directly involve the federal government and that issues of local policing are governed at the municipal level. In recent weeks, Trudeau has preferred to talk about being “happy to partner with provinces and municipalities,” rather than proposing federal solutions.

“But as the justice minister or the prime minister, you can’t be like, ‘Oh, well, this is technically not my jurisdiction,’ or ‘This is technically not my problem.’ They’ve got to say something,” said Kurl.

Conservative MP Raquel Dancho, who is the party’s public safety critic, said it’s rare to see such a unified front as the one that has coalesced around bail reform.

“Police are united on this, big city mayors in Ontario are united on this, and certainly every single province and territory is united on this. I can’t think of another situation where those three groups were all united in saying, this is a bail problem, and it’s in the federal authority to fix it,” said Dancho.

In recent years, polling shows that Canadians are getting more fearful about crime and are losing faith in their police forces. According to an Angus Reid Institute survey from October, Canadians are now twice as likely to say there has been an increase in crime in their community than in 2014.The Angus Reid Institute conducted an online survey from Sept. 19-22, 2022 among a representative randomized sample of 5,014 Canadian adults who are members of Angus Reid Forum. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/- 2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The number of Canadians who say they have complete confidence or a lot of confidence in the RCMP has fallen from 67 percent in 2014 to 47 percent in 2022.

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


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.