Earlier this week, new Vancouver mayor Ken Sim gave a state-of-the-city address at the Board of Trade.
Mr. Sim and his ABC (A Better City) Party ran a triumphant campaign last October, winning seven of 10 seats on council. The party’s electoral success was largely attributed to its focus on public safety, with a rash of random stranger assaults having unnerved the citizenry.
ABC promised to hire 100 psychiatric nurses and 100 additional police officers to help deal with issues arising from people experiencing mental health problems.
After Mr. Sim’s speech, there was a question-and-answer session. The moderator wanted to know when the city could start to see the fruits of ABC’s public-safety pledges. Mr. Sim paused before answering.
“You know,” he began, “that’s something I can’t answer. I can give you colour but I can’t wave a magic wand and say that by Oct. 15 of this year, everything is going to be fine.”
Because that would have been a lie.
The city’s growing public safety concerns are not going to be solved for a long, long time, if at all. And Toronto, if you’re listening, neither are yours, especially as they pertain to random acts of violence.
The country’s attention was seized this week with the news that a woman in her twenties had been stabbed multiple times on a Toronto streetcar by another woman in her forties, who police believe was not known to the victim. This incident, along with a series of others just as inexplicable, prompted Mayor John Tory on Wednesday to call for a national summit on mental health.
“There are people who are timid about drawing a connection between some of the incidents we’re seeing and mental health,” the mayor said on CP24 Breakfast. “I’m not timid about that.”
While Mr. Tory’s appeal for federal intervention might have sounded good to any Toronto viewers watching the show, it was largely performative (as was the Toronto Police Service’s announcement Thursday that it would deploy 80 additional officers to the TTC daily). The issues that underlie the problems Toronto is experiencing are no different than the ones plaguing Vancouver and other major metropolitan areas in the country.
In fact, Mr. Tory could read a report based on a four-and-a-half-month study looking at the public safety challenges posed by repeat offenders and random violence in B.C. that was issued last fall. Written by psychologist Amanda Butler and Doug LePard, former Vancouver Police Department deputy chief, it found that there were a number of factors responsible for the violence being witnessed in this country, not the least of which was drug supply.
“Changes in drug patterns and the toxic illicit drug supply are contributing to unpredictable, and sometimes violent, behavioural patterns,” the pair wrote. “People are now becoming violent who we have never seen act violently in the past.”
The report noted that in Vancouver, random stranger attacks in 2020 and 2021 increased by 35 per cent compared to 2019, prompting some to blame the pandemic. But many believe drugs are still the biggest culprit in this phenomenon.
When popular street drugs like meth are laced with other poisons, it can have a damaging effect on the brain, making people highly paranoid. This is why those with a deeper knowledge of random violence have been advocating for a safe supply of drugs for addicts.
An idea not all are comfortable with, especially political parties of a conservative bent.
One of the ideas behind the outreach teams the Vancouver mayor is advocating for is that they might help identify people suffering mental health breakdowns before their problems manifest in random, violent ways.
Perhaps. But that seems like a long shot with a low success rate.
The NDP government in B.C. has made historic investments in mental health and addiction and yet they have not had a demonstrable impact on reducing the random violence being witnessed on Vancouver streets recently.
And likely won’t for years.
This isn’t a comforting thought for people, I know. But we must deal with reality. “People are terrified,” Vancouver Provincial Court Judge Ellen Gordon told her courtroom last November while sentencing a man for a random attack.
Indeed, they are, and sadly the best advice for many, in Vancouver, Toronto or elsewhere, is simply: Be on your guard. Travel in pairs when possible. Avoid situations where you’re alone at times of the day when you might be most vulnerable. (Many stranger attacks, however, take place in broad daylight in front of others.)
This is an intractable problem that seems peculiar to our times. There are no easy fixes. And the situation is having a profound impact on how people view their cities and their level of personal safety in them.