B.C. Premier David Eby tackles public safety in sweeping set of new measures

B.C. Premier David Eby announced his
B.C. Premier David Eby announced his

Premier David Eby presented a range of new measures aimed at boosting public safety in communities across B.C. Sunday, one of his first major policy announcements since taking office.

Eby spoke at Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Park, two days after being sworn in as B.C.'s 37th premier on Friday. He was accompanied by officials such as Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim and the Vancouver Police Department's Chief Constable Adam Palmer.

Dubbed the "Safer Communities Action Plan", one of the more significant promises is to expand emergency mental health response teams to more communities — after criticism over police handling of mental health calls.

The public safety measures come after a summer of heightened concern about alleged "repeat offenders" in B.C.'s cities, and what the government has described as an increase in addiction and mental health challenges brought on by the pandemic and the toxic drug crisis.

Eby also plans to launch "repeat violent offender response teams" by April 2023, made up of police and dedicated prosecutors, to deal with what opponents have called a "catch-and-release" model for alleged repeat offenders.

"Being compassionate, concerned and taking action on mental health and addiction issues does not mean that we have to accept repeated criminal behaviour or violence," Eby said in a statement.

The premier said the new measures follow an investigative report released by the province in October, which called for an expansion of mental health supports.

WATCH | B.C. Premier David Eby announces measures to deal with repeat offenders:

Eby says there will also be a revamp of the way information is shared between prosecutors and police, designed to help courts make clearer bail decisions and eliminate confusion, according to the premier. Some policies related to bail hearings are expected to go through as early as Tuesday.

The premier says the province will expand virtual bail hearings, so alleged offenders in smaller communities will not have to travel to larger "hub towns", where they have little supports, to attend court.

Indigenous justice centres and asset seizures

In addition to the measures around so-called repeat offenders, Eby said he plans to shore up addictions care at Vancouver's St. Paul's Hospital, though he provided few details as to what the new approach will be.

There is also a commitment to further funding for brain injury treatment services, and more mobile mental health emergency teams.

Ten new Indigenous justice centres are set to open across the province, according to Eby, who says he wants to offer more access to culturally appropriate legal services for Indigenous people.

It's unclear where the new centres will open — the province's statement only mentions "metropolitan areas" — but it says five are set to open next year.

"The reality is in our criminal justice system ... Indigenous people are over represented at significant amounts," said Kory Wilson, director of the B.C. First Nations Justice Council.

"[The new policies are] going to help," said Wilson, adding that she doesn't know how quickly the changes will take place. "I'd like to snap my fingers and make it happen immediately — but we know there'll be trials and errors."

Another significant policy announced by Eby is proposed legislation to bring in "unexplained wealth orders", which he says will dissuade those attracted to gang lifestyles. That legislation will be tabled in early 2023.

The orders would seize the "houses, cars, and luxury goods" of organized criminals— something recommended by the Cullen Commission on money laundering earlier this year.

Costs for the entire range of new measures were not provided at Eby's news conference. However, the province says it will invest $3 million to create the new mental health crisis teams, and $3 million per year on the virtual bail system.

'Velvet glove over an iron fist'

Elenore Sturko, the B.C. Liberal MLA for Surrey South and a former RCMP officer, questioned why the plan wasn't introduced by Eby during his five years as attorney general.

"Not that some of these are not great ideas, but my disappointment lies in the fact that this opposition, police agencies, Urban Mayors Caucus, and people right across the province have been asking for some of these measures," she told CBC News in an interview.

"The fact that he has saved this announcement for the Sunday after he is announced ... it's actually, it's disgusting to me."

Catherine Dib/CBC
Catherine Dib/CBC

Vince Tao, a community organizer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), said Eby's promises to expand information sharing between agencies was concerning, and that it constituted an expansion of the state surveillance of marginalized people.

"When we talk about providing more services for people, I think that's just the velvet glove over the iron fist," he said. "In the end, we're talking about expanding [the] criminal justice system into more and more fields, whether it's mental health or it's the supportive housing system."