British Columbia

Mental health and addictions key election issue for Vancouver Island mayors

Municipal leaders in Nanaimo and Victoria say the next provincial government must help their most vulnerable residents.

'Our communities cannot economically recover if there are people with untreated illnesses living outside'

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps says the next health crisis the province could be facing without mental health and addictions support is people living on the streets with brain injuries from drug abuse. (CHEK News)

Leaders of the two largest cities on Vancouver Island are calling on whatever party forms the next provincial government to have a plan in place to help the most vulnerable in their cities and across British Columbia as a whole.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog say the top election concern in their municipalities and many others across B.C. is providing treatment for people with mental health and addiction issues. The two hope whichever party wins the Oct. 24 election will make it their top concern as well.

Krog said the ripple effects of people living with untreated mental health and addiction issues, such as homelessness and petty crime, are "plaguing" his community and making life hard for downtown business owners.

He said while the B.C. NDP could have done more in its three-plus years in power, the problem began decades ago.

Nanaimo mayor Leonard Krog says the ripple effects of people living with untreated mental health and addictions issues is a plague on the city. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

The Vancouver Island city, which has a population of 100,000, has more people per capita who are homeless than Vancouver, Greater Victoria and Surrey. 

In December, Krog called on the B.C. NDP to reopen places like Riverview, a former psychiatric hospital in Coquitlam, B.C.

"It is a national crisis and it needs to be recognized as such," said Krog Tuesday on On The Island.

Helps wants help

Helps echoed Krog's concerns, saying mental health and addiction is hurting not only those suffering directly but others in the community who live around those who are.

The latest homelessness count on March 11 recorded 1,523 people living in Greater Victoria without a permanent home.

While the B.C. NDP did purchase hotels during the pandemic and move some unsheltered people suffering from mental health and addiction issues indoors with wraparound support services available onsite, Helps said she has three other concrete suggestions for the incoming government to consider to better help this demographic.

Paul's Motor Inn was purchased by the B.C. NDP in June to create temporary and permanent housing solutions for those in need in the provincial capital. (Madeline Green/CBC)

She said she wants to see a new ministry created that has a more significant budget than the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions that was established in 2017. She also wants to ensure that people who have been moved into housing with supports will continue to receive it.

She said a provincewide conversation should also take place on mental health and addiction issues that would result in a mandate from the public to develop longer-term solutions.

Helps said without swift action, the province's next crisis will be a high number of people living unsheltered with brain injuries caused by overdoses.

"Our communities cannot economically recover if there are people with untreated illnesses that are living outside," she said 

Smaller towns not untouched 

On the other end of Vancouver Island, Port McNeil Mayor Gaby Wickstrom said while the issue may not be number one on her constituents list of concerns, it is absolutely a problem in rural northern island communities.

"It's really a systemic thing, so housing is just one part of it," said Wickstrom.

She said top of mind for voters in her municipality is how the next government will implement the recommendations made by the Ministry of Forests in a report issued this month entitled A New Future for Old Forests, that is meant to guide an overhaul of forestry rules.

Gabriele 'Gaby' Wickstrom is the mayor of Port McNeill. She says mental health and addiction issues may not be the number one election issue for her voters but rural communities on the north end of the island are impacted as well. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

Many of the town's residents are employed in the forestry industry and were economically gutted after a seven month labour dispute between forestry workers and Western Forest Products ended just before the pandemic began.

But Wickstrom sympathized with her southern island counterparts, saying she had recently been in Nanaimo and was upset by what she saw.

"It's heartbreaking to see what's going on down there in the streets," she said.

According to Helps, a collaborative group of B.C. urban mayors is forming due to the election and will be releasing calls for action to parties next week. She said support for mental health and addiction issues will be the group's number one request.

With files from On The Island and Kathryn Marlow

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