Questions about public safety prompted by the stabbing death of a Surrey teenager sparked a sharp exchange over the causes of crime between governing New Democrats and the Official Opposition inside and outside the legislature’s main chamber Tuesday morning (April 18).
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said during Question Period that his government is trying to undo 16 years of policies when BC United, governed the province in responding to charges that the current government is soft on crime.
“The last time (BC United) was in government, they made those cuts to health care, to mental health services,” he said. “They made those cuts to mental health services. They made cuts to sexual assault centres. They did irreparable damage to the social service sector, which provides the supports that they now want to see in place.”
He made these comments after BC United’s Shirley Bond, Shadow Minister for Health, Seniors Services and Long-Term Care and MLA for Prince George-Valemount, had questioned the government’s concern for public safety.
“When will the Premier end the lip service, acknowledge that there is chaos reigning in British Columbia and that it is squarely on his shoulders, as a former Attorney General, and the now Premier of British Columbia? When will he stand up and do something?”
When Black Press Media asked Farnworth whether his responses blaming BC United was an attempt to change the narrative, Farnworth said he answered the questions as the opposition put them to him.
“(When) an opposition (member) asks a question on the root causes of crime and they have that record that they did, where they made those cuts that impacted in terms of the social service network … then the price you pay is down the road,” he said. “So when they ask those kinds of questions, you are darn right, I’m going to hit back.”
Farnworth also accused BC United of putting forward specific proposals to address public safety.
“Transit is safe,” he said. “There are significant safety procedures on transit,” he added, having pointed to additional patrols and other safety measures following the teenager’s death.
Farnworth said Premier David Eby will join Canada’s other premiers on April 21 to discuss public safety with police chiefs from around the country, which are also dealing with public safety issues.
“So we are committed to doing additional measures,” he said.
He also pointed to promised changes to federal bail legislation and provincial measures announced last week in Nanaimo to create 12 regional hubs targetting repeat offenders.
Moments later, Surrey-South MLA Elenore Sturko, Shadow Minister for Mental Health, Addiction, Recovery and Education and among the sharpest critics of the government, rejected these arguments.
“He (Farnworth) can be standing up in Question Period and yell at me all he wants,” she said. “(But) the reality is that this is a two-term government, six years almost into their governance of this province, we are seven years into a public health emergency related to drug toxicity in this province.”
Health care spending actually went up every year that BC United governed, she added. “There has been nothing that would excuse this government’s failure to act and to address these underlying root causes of the issues that we are seeing day-in, day-out on the streets.”
Sturko acknowledged that social changes do not happen overnight. “But we have never seen (public safety) as bad as we currently see it,” she said.
She also rejected Farnworth’s lament that BC United lacked specific policy proposals to address public safety and accused government of “spinning their wheels” in talking about meetings with Ottawa.
“Frankly, it’s time for this government to recognize that their soft-on-crime policies, their revolving-door-justice goes beyond the court room,” she said. “We are talking about unaddressed, underlying root causes that can’t be solved by the criminal code.”
While BC United has made a public safety a central issue of Question Period before and after the recent Easter Break, often using prominent NDP figures like Nanaimo’s Mayor Leonard Krog as witnesses, the issue has since gained even more attention.
BC United opened Tuesday’s Question Period with comments from Metro Vancouver’s Transit Police Chief Dave Jones, who had said that the justice system needs “bit of a reset” and that is has lost sight of victims.
Farnworth countered this argument by quoting Jones as saying that transit is safe and that crime numbers are down. According to published figures, transit police recorded 1,572 “crimes against persons” in 2022, down from a high of 2,056 in 2016, but up from 1,376 in 2021 and 1,456 in 2020. Reported crimes per 100,000 transit passengers between 2021 and 2022 dropped, but passenger boardings were up by 45 per cent.