Ethan Bespflug had just left his friend’s house and was busing back to Surrey’s main subway station to get a ride home from his mother when a young couple began harassing him. The 17-year-old texted his mom that he was going to get off at the next bus stop in order to avoid a confrontation, but as he tried to exit they approached him and the young man stabbed him, according to his family.
When her son went incommunicado, his mom pinged the GPS co-ordinates for his phone and found he was across the Fraser River at a hospital in neighbouring New Westminster, where he was pronounced dead Tuesday evening, his aunt Andrea Van der Gracht said.
“His mom is still in that stage where she’s still waiting for him to get off the bus,” said Ms. Van der Gracht, who is co-organizing a crowdfunding campaign to cover the costs of the teen’s funeral.
His gruesome killing is the latest in a string of outbursts of violence on transit systems across Canada. On Thursday morning, a man was randomly stabbed in the back while sitting at an Edmonton bus stop; another man was taken to hospital in life-threatening condition Wednesday after a shooting on a Calgary Transit bus.
Mr. Bespflug’s death also has echoes of the fatal stabbing of 16-year-old Gabriel Magalhaes at a Toronto subway station last month, which heightened anxiety over increased public disorder. And two weeks ago, another passenger on a Surrey bus was seriously injured when their throat was slashed with a dull kitchen knife by a man who was later charged with terrorism offences and attempted murder.
In response, police in Surrey, Toronto and Calgary have stepped up patrols of rapid transit routes.
Politicians from across the country have also commented on these incidents this week. B.C. Premier David Eby expressed his horror at Mr. Bespflug’s killing and pledged that new teams of prosecutors, police and probation officers will fan out in a dozen cities in the province next month to target a small number of people – most of them dealing with homelessness, mental-health issues and addictions – who continue attacking strangers.
Federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre highlighted some of these shocking deaths at a news conference in Edmonton on Thursday, where he laid the blame for the violence on his political opponents. He brought up Vancouver, blaming Mr. Eby’s NDP government for tent cities, issues around illegal drugs and random violent attacks.
“The worst disorder, drug abuse, crime and chaos are in places run by woke NDP, Liberal mayors and premiers,” Mr. Poilievre said.
Among provinces, Manitoba and Saskatchewan had Canada’s highest crime severity rates, according to Statistics Canada data for 2021 released in August, 2022. Canada’s territories had higher rates. The index measures the volume and severity of police-reported crime in Canada.
Benjamin Perrin, who was an in-house legal counsel and policy adviser on criminal justice and public safety to Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, said that these recent killings are heinous, and that Mr. Poilievre’s tough-on-crime messaging has long been a winning formula for politicians of all levels in Canada. But, he said, research from Canada, Britain and the United States shows that hiring more police and sending more people to prison does not lower crime rates.
“It enacts very financially costly and socially costly, retrograde and retributive measures that don’t actually make us safer,” said Mr. Perrin, who teaches at the University of B.C.’s law school and recently wrote a book on major gaps in the Canadian justice system.
Mr. Perrin, who competed against Mr. Poilievre when they were teens on rival debate teams in their hometown of Calgary before joining forces at their local university’s debate club, said the Conservative Party’s approach to enacting more punitive laws has mostly been rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada or panned by criminologists studying their effect.
Ms. Van der Gracht says she and her extended family don’t believe police when they say it is safe for the vast majority of people to take transit. Still, for now, she said, she needs to stay positive for her brother and his family, who spent one night in their home before moving in with her for the foreseeable future.
“Now as a community, we have to get behind the victims and the victims’ families and we have to show them the world isn’t as dark as they’re being led to believe it is.”
With a report from Ian Bailey in Ottawa