Editor’s note: This column originally appeared on Medium.com.
The current state of discourse about public safety in Victoria is preventing us from resolving complex problems. The prevailing perception that the city is to blame for what we see in our parks is a deeply flawed diagnosis that is preventing progress, but that serves certain political interests.
As well, the notion that all police are evil or that all unhoused people are dangerous is as provably false as the notion that all police are ethical or that all unhoused people never behave dangerously. Engaging in this kind of absolute thinking, upheld by anecdotes, is driving us apart.
There’s a difference between a private member of the public engaging in this type of rhetoric versus a publicly-funded institution, like the Victoria Police Department, leveraging a sizable communications budget to drive perception. Indeed, they issued over 500 press releases in 2020— up from 186 in 2019.
This comes across as engaging in a campaign to advance their desire for more tax dollars, ostensibly to address societal issues that should not be in their purview in the first place. Already, Victoria funds more officers per capita than any other municipality in Canada.
Accepting that police are the appropriate vehicle for addressing homelessness, addictions and mental health is a result of decades of centre-right narratives about austerity: the notion that we don’t have enough to take care of one another. (We do.) Ignoring the history of how we ended up here helps perpetuate this thinking.
We’ve been led to believe that recently elected Victoria councilors caused the problems now manifesting as impoverished people camping in parks. Yes, Council allowed them to shelter in parks during the pandemic, awaiting interventions from the province. They made a controversial decision that made visible the failings of our society just where we seek to escape with a “walk in the park.” We are much more comfortable when they are out of sight.
However, it is decades of short-sighted policies of provincial and federal governments that led us here, alongside deepening inequality even as the country on the whole has grown its GDP.
In 1994, Canada became one of few developed nations without a national housing strategy when the federal Liberal government of the time cancelled investments, effectively killing the program.
In 2001, shortly after being elected, B.C.’s Liberal government cut taxes for the richest people resulting in a $4B gap in the budget. They proceeded to drastically gut social programs, including housing, youth and mental health supports, under the guise of this fabricated need for “austerity.” They also allowed foreign investors to gamble with B.C.’s housing sector, driving prices up. Unsurprisingly, we’ve seen homelessness triple since then.
If solutions are what we are after, you would think those feeling fearful and angry would passionately lobby those levels of government with the responsibility and resources to solve these issues systemically. Instead, public ire about this situation has been nearly exclusively directed at the City, encouraged by which local stories are being told or obscured.
It is true some people currently unhoused have severe addiction and mental health struggles that are untreated. It is true they can be a danger to themselves and to each other especially, and to the public occasionally. It is not true that we are now less safe on the whole, even if it is the case that many feel less safe.
The Victoria Police Department’s own crime data tells a different story than they are endeavouring to convey anecdotally, and Statistics Canada shows a marked decrease in crime rates in the past decade. However, studies show that while we have been objectively safer in recent times, people may feel less safe thanks to a 24 hour news cycle making incidents of crime more visible, driving a perception of increased danger.
In Victoria, add to this a well-resourced campaign by a police department looking to encourage that perception, and we inevitably see the effect of increased fear and anger. That fear is real, and individual experiences of danger are real. Just as individual experiences of feeling safe and having positive interactions with those camping in the park are real. So, how can we make sense of the situation we find ourselves in? The same way we expect all public agencies to ground their decisions: through the pursuit of sound data.
How people are feeling is valuable to consider when making policy decisions, but feelings alone, biased in one direction without data, is a dangerous foundation to make decisions on.
As a political organizer, I would never poll only the supporters of my issue or candidate to guide my decisions. It would provide useless data. So, too, will asking only those who feel unsafe in Victoria to speak up, as the executive director of the Victoria City Police Union recently did in a Times Colonist article. This is a wrong-headed approach to objectively learning about the state of affairs in order to drive decisions, but it is a brilliant strategy if your aim is to develop propaganda in service of your predetermined direction.
Several years ago, my home — just blocks from Beacon Hill Park — was broken into. I have not been broken into since people have been sheltering in the park. Therefore, I was less safe before people were camping in the park. Of course, that is a ridiculous conclusion, just as any conclusion that the Victoria Police Department draws from biased anecdotal research will be.
Sonia Theroux is a political organizer and community advocate living in Victoria, B.C.
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Correction: An earlier version of this column stated that the Victoria Police Department asked those who feel unsafe in the city to speak up. In fact, the person issuing that statement was the executive director of the Victoria City Police Union, not the department itself.