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Council candidates near consensus on mental health support and safe supply—and divided on involuntary treatment

At a forum attended by 15 candidates, public safety discussions exposed a wide gulf in plans and priorities

City Hall
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Council candidates near consensus on mental health support and safe supply—and divided on involuntary treatment

At a forum attended by 15 candidates, public safety discussions exposed a wide gulf in plans and priorities

Candidates met in discussion groups to allow more time for discussion. Photo: Blaire Aramenko / Capital Daily
Candidates met in discussion groups to allow more time for discussion. Photo: Blaire Aramenko / Capital Daily
City Hall
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Council candidates near consensus on mental health support and safe supply—and divided on involuntary treatment

At a forum attended by 15 candidates, public safety discussions exposed a wide gulf in plans and priorities

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Council candidates near consensus on mental health support and safe supply—and divided on involuntary treatment
Candidates met in discussion groups to allow more time for discussion. Photo: Blaire Aramenko / Capital Daily

Fifteen candidates running for Victoria council went head-to-head on Tuesday in an after-hours event at KWENCH. The event was hosted by the Canadian Mental Health Association and moderated by Capital Daily reporters. 

Candidates representing a broad spectrum of views attended, from veterans like incumbent councillor Ben Isitt, former six-term councillor Chris Coleman, and James Bay Neighbourhood Association stalwart Marg Gardiner, to political neophytes like Krista Loughton and Khadoni Pitt Chambers, to two candidates from VIVA Victoria, a slate with ties to the People’s Party of Canada that was accused this week of sending an email campaign masquerading as Island Health.

The candidates were divided into three groups, and each group covered three topics—mental health and substance use, housing and homelessness, and community safety. Candidates had a short time to answer each of two questions, followed by time for responses and free discussion.

The substantive discussions between the groups occasionally veered into uncomfortable territory. In one exchange, William Scott, who himself lives with bipolar disorder, argued in favour of involuntary care for people suffering from acute mental health disorders. Pitt Chambers responded that their mother suffered from schizophrenia, and, “There was never a point where I would have thought that I would have wanted my mother to be taken away and forced into involuntary care, under any circumstance.”

In the “lightning round” that preceded the candidates dividing into smaller groups, candidates had to answer a series of questions by holding up signs that read, “yes,” “no,” “I don’t know,” or “it’s complicated.” 

The most division emerged when the candidates were asked whether they believed in allowing unhoused people to camp in parks while governments work toward solutions. In favour were Jeremy Caradonna, Pitt Chambers, Susan Kim, Tony Yacowar, Isitt, and Dave Thompson. Against were Gardiner, VIVA candidate Jason Jones, Scott, and Coleman. Loughton, VIVA’s Muller Kalala, Stephen Hammond, Matt Dell, and Steve Orcherton responded with “it’s complicated.” 

There were also moments of broad agreement: Regarding the question, “Do you believe there are adequate and accessible mental health services in Victoria?” the answer was a resounding “no.” 

Likewise, nearly every candidate supported harm-reduction measures like safe supply and supervised consumption sites, with the exceptions of Orcherton, Gardiner, Coleman, and Kalala, who all answered, “it’s complicated.” 

With the lightning round concluded, candidates divided into their groups to go into more depth on their solutions to some of the most pressing issues that will face those that are elected. 

Mental health and substance use

Questions about how to address the toxic drug crisis—which has killed over 10,000 British Columbians since 2016 and shows no sign of abating—drew a wide range of responses from candidates in Group B, made up of Isitt, Kim, Orcherton, Kalala, and Jones.

Kalala and Jones, both members of VIVA Victoria, denounced the idea of providing a safe supply of pharmaceutical alternatives to the increasingly toxic street supply. 

“Poverty as an excuse to further provide more drugs is kind of a wrong method, because there's a lot of people who have a lot of wealth, and then they become addicted to drugs, and they lose all their wealth,” Kalala said. “We need to take an approach where we increase mental health workers to have increased companionship to help these individuals reduce their need to consume because a lot of [drug] consumption, as we all know, is consumed [in] privacy and loneliness.”

The rest of the group (Isitt, Kim, and Orcherton) agreed with one of those points—the need for more mental health workers in Victoria—while proclaiming their support for harm reduction initiatives like safe supply, supervised consumption sites, and wraparound supports for people who use substances, as a step towards saving lives. 

Kim put forth the idea of providing substance users, particularly those who live in poverty, “compensation” to share their lived experience with the city. 

“That is a basic way we’re thanking them for their consultation,” Kim said, “and in doing so, help address that piece around poverty,” Kim said. 

With the majority of the candidates in Group A—which included Loughton, Thompson, Scott, Yacowar, and Pitt Chambers—running on housing-heavy platforms, housing naturally factored into their responses even while addressing the mental health and substance use theme. 

“The biggest lever we have is housing,” Thompson argued in response to a question on the division of responsibilities between the province and municipality. “You cannot get into proper recovery mode if you can't sleep safely, and comfortably, and regularly.”

Pitt Chambers highlighted their campaign promise to explore rezoning for mixed use with subsidies for medical clinic space in order to attract and retain healthcare workers, an idea that has been raised in different ways by multiple candidates, including mayoral candidates Stephen Andrew and Marianne Alto. To that, Loughton added, “we need to pay them [mental health workers] more.” 

Most of the candidates in Group C—which consisted of Caradonna, Coleman, Dell, Gardiner and Hammond—had personal connections to people experiencing mental health challenges or struggling with substance use. That, however, did not lead to agreement on how to address those challenges.

Matt Dell expressed his opposition to forcing people who experience repeated mental health crises overdoses into treatment against their will. Dell shared the story of a friend who struggled to get access to a detox program they “desperately wanted” to attend.

“I do believe voluntary is the way to go and I do think people are good-natured—they want to take care of themselves,” Dell said. “They want to have their community and family involved and that's the focus of what we should be pursuing.”

Marg Gardiner disagreed, saying involuntary treatment was “the best thing that happened” to a family member who had schizophrenia.

“There is a role for involuntary [care],” Gardiner said. “There is a place for it, where it can help someone get back on [track] and [get into] a situation so that she could live very comfortably for the rest of her life.”

Caradonna did make a point on which all candidates seemed to agree: that, while the city may have a role to play in addressing mental health and substance use challenges, effective solutions are “going to require partnerships with the province and even the federal government.”

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Housing and homelessness

With Indigenous people disproportionately likely to experience homelessness, candidates were asked how they would address systemic barriers to housing faced by Indigenous people in Victoria. The 2020 Point in Time report found that 35% of Greater Victoria’s unhoused population identified as Indigenous, despite Indigenous people accounting for just 5% of the region’s population.

Former six-term city councillor Coleman said the regional issue needs a regional solution, with the city working in partnership with other municipalities, First Nations and Indigenous organizations such as the Association of Native Friendship Centres.

“It's critical that we recognize that as we invest in some First Nations housing, it needs to be not just within the borders of Victoria,” Coleman said. “We need to work with partners, municipal partners, to make sure that we have the ability to represent housing for First Nations throughout the whole of the region.”

Hammond expressed support for the city’s current efforts to engage with Indigenous people while cautioning against tunnel vision. “We can't just assume that everyone is going to need the same programs,” he said.

Marg Gardiner, Steve Hammond, and Matt Dell. Photo: Blaire Aramenko / Capital Daily

Kalala pointed to a lack of access to clean water and healthcare on First Nations reservations, and said this is causing “an outflow” of Indigenous people to cities.

“We cannot fix an outflow or an exodus of people in the city by providing minimal solutions to their circumstances,” Kalala said. “Rather, we need to look at the root cause, which is ensuring that in future budget outcomes, reserves are appropriately funded…so that they can have sustainable socio-economic environments.”

On the overarching question of housing affordability, Orcherton, who served as MLA for Victoria from 1996 to 2001, declared himself a strong proponent of co-operative and affordable housing options. However, he put much of the onus of providing adequate housing and healthcare solutions on the provincial and federal levels of government, arguing for a “collective approach.” 

“​​We can't have this subjective notion of affordability being somehow tied to market rate,” Orcherton said. “It needs to be tied to people's incomes…This is not a Victoria problem. This is a national crisis on housing and I think co-ops are the solution.”

Orcherton and Pitt Chambers were not in the same discussion group, but the two candidates, whose platforms sharply diverge on several key issues (particularly housing), agreed on that point: Pitt Chambers grew up in a co-op in Toronto, and praised the model that allowed them to “have a garden, where I was able to learn through community action and elders in the community how to do something that I would have never learned how to do through my own parents and family.”

They praised the “benefits inherently baked into gentle densification.” 

They found support on that latter point from Yacowar, who emphasized the potential for positive outcomes from city design. “Just looking at mental health, from the perspective of all residents across the city, what does our daily routine look like? And how does art and culture factor into it? And how does just the design of the community factor into it? For me, densification is a benefit and not a drawback.”

Scott weighed in on the impacts of density on renters, saying existing development is pushing them out while failing to provide affordability. “I disagree with the idea that Victoria can solve the density problems of the world,” he said. “We need to look after the existing renters here, existing locals, existing seniors, and we need to provide affordable housing when we do densify.” 

Community safety

Peer-assisted care teams (PACT) will hit the streets for the first time this week as a means of avoiding police responses to calls that can be de-escalated by mental health workers and people with lived experience. The candidates in Group A (Loughton, Scott, Thompson, Pitt Chambers and Yacowar) broadly praised the idea in response to questions about community safety. 

“I think that what that will do is it will free up police time,” Scott said. “It's a cost-saving measure—but it doesn't solve the problems that we have.” 

Loughton weighed in in support: “I think police need to be doing what the police are really good at, and that is preventing and solving crimes.”

Yacowar urged the regional amalgamation of police forces, something VicPD chief Del Manak has pushed for as well, alongside the mayors of Victoria and Esquimalt. 

Scott, picking up the thread of policing, said he supports a “broken windows, tough love on people that break the law” approach to safety. 

William Scott. Photo: Blaire Aramenko / Capital Daily

As the city considers the future of policing, Coleman suggested that the Peelian principle that says evidence of effective policing is lack of crime, rather than police response, should be front and centre.

“I think that becomes the litmus test that we need to take forward as we talk about police budgets and the way we then support things like restorative justice or in-school programs,” he said.

Isitt was more direct when it came to what needed to be done with the police budget.

“We need to allocate a big portion of funds that’s currently squandered on policing, to street level mental health workers, outreach workers, social workers, street nurses and others who are equipped and trained to deliver the support that people need,” the incumbent councillor said.

Asked about the victims of crime, Thompson was unequivocal: “The biggest victims of crime and violence in downtown Victoria are actually the unhoused people, the people who can't go home and close the door and keep people out of their space and away from them,” he said. “A lot of housed people feel unsafe going downtown. Imagine if you actually had to go downtown, and just stay there, and try to sleep there, and try to persist, night after night.” 

Kim shared her experience of having been assaulted in downtown Victoria recently. Even so, she said she considers her assailant to be the bigger victim, after finding out that he was arrested for the crime.

“That actually really broke my heart because it meant that he didn't get the support he needed,” Kim said. “I got to go home, I got to debrief with my friends and family. Those services were not available to that individual. He is the greatest victim of…decades [of] policy and funding failures at the federal and provincial levels of government.”

Not everyone had the same conviction, however.

Jones considers every Victoria resident to be the biggest victim of crime, stating that “there is not one group or community that hasn't been [affected].” 

“I'm tired of having to wonder if my car's been broken into or if my sister is safe,” Jones said. “We need change, and we need to have police, bylaws, social services, and the justice system working for the population of Victoria.” 

Kalala agreed with Jones, adding that in his view, “feeding the streets more medication”—that is, providing a safe supply of alternatives to toxic street drugs—is a “passive aggressive method of dealing with our unfortunate unhoused population.” 

Caradonna tied vulnerability to crime back to housing, calling homelessness “a form of systemic violence” that disproportionately impacts Indigenous people.

“It is a failure of our society that people are living on the street,” he said. “We know from a mountain of studies that if you are unhoused you are at much greater risk of being assaulted…Indigenous people are the greatest victims in this society, just based on that.”

Group C generally agreed that community safety priorities can be different for different groups and individuals.

“Seniors experience safety differently than someone like me,” Dell said. “I think we need to listen to different perspectives on safety, and make sure that the city is safe for everyone depending on how you experience it.”

As a parent, Dell said traffic safety is his “number one by far away issue in the city.”

Hammond agreed that more traffic enforcement could improve community safety for some, joking that he and his partner refer to the stretch of Rockland where they live as “the Rockland Autobahn.”

Gardiner contended that “domestic violence is still the number one real issue when it comes to violence” and should be a central focus when it comes to community safety.

“I get quite insulted when people try and think otherwise, because women are still a target of so much in our society—I don’t care if you’re talking employment, or if you’re talking about violence,” she said.

Gardiner also disagreed with Caradonna’s suggestion that Indigenous people experience disproportionate impacts from crime.

“The missing women, the ones who were murdered along the whole highway, they were not murdered because they were Indigenous—they were murdered because they're women,” she said, adding that women are “the number one group” targeted by violence.

Over in Group B, Kim also highlighted gender-based violence as one of the main safety issues in the city, but unlike Gardiner, said racism is also a major issue—a claim that was audibly scoffed at by the two VIVA slate candidates.

When Kim, a Korean-Canadian candidate, called Vancouver Island an epicentre of racism and hate crimes, Jones disagreed based on his experience as a white man. 

“I’ve been down here in Victoria for the last 17 years and I just don’t see what has been spoken of,” Jones said. “Victoria is not the epicentre of racism; we’re a very embracing culture.”

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