Surrey has an opportunity to embrace harm reduction and reduce street disorder
Tonight, the Newton Community Association will hold a public meeting in the wake of the shocking murder of Julie Paskall.
The 53-year-old hockey mom was savagely beaten and robbed outside the Newton Arena on December 29 on her way to pick up her teenage son, who was refereeing a game.
One of the organizers is Doug Elford, a former candidate with the progressive Surrey Civic Coalition council.
He was a strong supporter of the ward system in 2011, in which candidates would be elected from their neighbourhoods rather than on a citywide basis.
"Every day my neighbors live among poverty, homelessness, crime and prostitution," Elford said in a candidate statement on the City of Surrey website. "The current City Council does not listen."
He recently tweeted that he wants people to come to tonight's meeting "with ideas and solutions and not just agendas".
It begins at 7 p.m. at the Newton Seniors Centre.
Crime creates fear in Newton
I went to Newton yesterday to check out the neighbourhood. I have spent time there in the past doing volunteer work, so it's not foreign turf for me.
During my visit, I spoke with a 27-year-old, university-educated woman who's lived in the community for more than three years.
Not long ago, she quit a retail job in one of the shopping malls near where the killing occurred.
She offered some blunt assessments of what it's like to live and work in the area around 72 Avenue and King George Highway. (I've chosen not to publish her name because I don't want to jeopardize her future employment prospects.)
She said that her four-storey apartment has been broken into five times in the past six months. She added that she sometimes feels "terrified" living in the area, and doesn't go out at night. She also avoids going to the bank after 4 p.m. for fear of being robbed.
When I asked what it was like working in a store in Newton, she regaled me with stories of criminal activity. She's witnessed assaults, as well as domestic disputes in the store. She was a victim of a robbery. She's even seen sex workers propositioning prospective clients on the premises.
The washrooms are used by people needing showers.
"We've had people doing coke of the back of our toilet tanks in the washrooms," she said.
I asked if she thought that a supervised-injection site might help.
"I don't see why they couldn't do something like that in Surrey," she replied. "If it gives people a place that's safe, they wouldn't be going into store washrooms to do it, and there's not going to be needles on the sidewalk where kids are walking to school."
Minimal police presence
She added that there's a police station across the street from where Paskall was murdered. But she claimed that it's no deterrent because it closes at 5 p.m. weekdays and isn't open on weekends.
"When I used to live in Fleetwood, I would see the RCMP driving by all the time," the young woman said. "And it's an area that doesn't really need it."
In Newton, on the other hand, she claimed that the only officers on her street seem to be doing spot checks on vehicles. At the store, staff would call the police at least once a week to deal with criminal activity, and sometimes two or three times. The Mounties often showed up, but after reviewing videotapes, would usually say not much could be done.
"What are they going to do to protect people who are walking down the street? Why aren't there RCMP officers?" she asked.
Mayor Dianne Watts has claimed that 50 officers have been redeployed to Newton and Whalley.
Unlike Elford, Watts and her Surrey First party have not supported a ward system so that there's a politician representing the area who can keep the pressure on the police.
Nor has Watts endorsed a supervised-injection site. In 2008, the mayor tried to curb the proliferation of methadone maintenance with a bylaw restricting new pharmacies from being created within 400 metres of existing ones.
RCMP backed away from supporting harm reduction
In 2010, Maclean's magazine reported that the RCMP nearly issued a statement in support of supervised-injection sites.
In a 2009 email to Dr. Julio Montaner of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, Mountie Bob Harriman reportedly declared that the force was "good to go" with a joint announcement acknowledging the value of these facilities.
But the plan was kiboshed at higher levels.
Since then, the Conservative government has introduced legislation making it more difficult to gain community approval for new supervised-injection sites.
The Mounties have still not publicly recognized the value of these facilities in reducing street disorder or in saving lives, despite a growing body of research.
Communities like Newton are paying the price for the reluctance of the RCMP and suburban municipal politicians to acknowledge the reality that people will continue using drugs with or without supervised-injection sites, methadone-maintenance facilities, or better social services.
Nothing anyone can do will bring back Julie Paskall. In no way am I suggesting that the existence of a supervised-injection site would have stopped a crazed killer from perpetrating this horrific crime on her family.
But for other victims of crime in Newton—including the young woman I spoke to yesterday—there are opportunities to enhance their safety.
Doug Elford says he wants people of his community to bring forward solutions.
A good start would be for Surrey municipal politicians and the RCMP to endorse proven harm-reduction measures to make Newton more livable.