“It was quite the blow listening to the first-hand accounts of how living in this neighbourhood was affecting their lives.”–Lilia Hansen
When the City of Fort St. John began frantically looking for ways to shut down a nuisance property that was terrorizing a residential neighbourhood, it inadvertently stumbled across a provincial political mystery: A law full of useful enforcement tools to tackle just such a scenario, passed through the legislature twice by two different parties — but, mystifyingly, was never actually brought into force.
Mayor Lilia Hansen was so surprised at the discovery she sent a letter to Solicitor General Mike Farnworth, questioning why the Community Safety Amendment Act, as it’s called, was sitting on the legislative bench instead of being available to desperate communities across the province.
“There is an increasingly prevalent train of thought that there are no consequences for the very worst behaviour,” she wrote in her letter.
“Our institutions are threatened by the loss of public faith in their effectiveness. It has become difficult to reassure our citizens that we have the tools to manage these situations.
“Please consider enacting the Community Safety Act or the Community Safety Amendment Act legislation.”
BC government silent on stalled legislation
Farnworth did not respond.
Nor did he or his office bother replying to a media inquiry about why legislation he successfully helped shepherd through the legislature in 2019 is still sitting unused, during a public safety crisis, when he could simply enact it with the stroke of a pen.
“This is a great tool that would help these municipalities,” said BC United critic Dan Davies, who is the MLA for Peace River North, which represents Fort St. John.
It was only four years ago Farnworth was on the floor of the house enthusiastically extolling the virtues of the community safety act, including how it would allow for courts to issue new “community safety orders” that would force problem residents to vacate properties, ban people from re-entering the premises and even vacate buildings entirely if they are subject to negative behaviour that affects nearby residents.
“Nuisance or problem properties are a real issue to communities in this province,” Farnworth told the legislature in 2019.
“Issues caused by absentee or irresponsible landlords who habitually rent to problematic tenants, the use of short-term rentals as party houses, gang and organized crime clubhouses and associated properties, and drug use in parks and other public places all fall within the scope of this legislation.”
Since then, the problem of nuisance properties has only grown worse.
Neighbours terrorized by local property inhabitants
In Fort St. John, one house near a popular children’s playground called Triangle Park has been the subject of two shootings in the past year. Last month, gunfire left bullet holes in the walls of a neighbouring home, forcing the family to move.
When city hall called a neighbourhood meeting about the issue, more than 100 frustrated and angry people showed up to share stories, including about how some had moved their children’s bedrooms from upstairs into the basement to protect them against the potential of gunfire.
“It was quite the blow listening to the first-hand accounts of how living in this neighbourhood was affecting their lives,” mayor Hansen said in an interview. She called it a “gut punch that was something council had to hear.”
The city tried its own bylaw officers and local police. But despite repeated visits, the problems continued. “It’s not a noise complaint, or (a complaint about) mowing the lawn, and that’s what our bylaws were set up to do,” said Hansen.
“With the community safety amendment act, that would give us something, the tools to act at a civic level.”
Community safety bill passed twice, yet never enacted
The BC NDP came up with the idea of the community safety provisions while in opposition in 2009. The BC Liberal government took it and created the original legislation, which passed unanimously in the legislature in 2013. Yet, that cabinet failed to take the final step and bring it into force.
The NDP resurrected the idea in 2019, passing an amendment that expanded powers to address drug houses, gang and violence. That legislation also passed unanimously. But again, the cabinet of the day failed to take the final step and declare it enacted.
In the meantime, six other Canadian provinces now have legislation similar to B.C.’s.
“Other provinces are doing this too, this isn’t B.C. out on the outer edge doing something crazy,” said Davies.
“It comes down to the rights and safety of people who live in neighbourhoods who have that right to live in peace and raise their families without having to worry about a bullet going through their kitchen. That’s the reality here.”
Civil liberty and anti-poverty groups block public safety bill
At the centre of the dispute appears to be pushback from a coalition of groups — including the BC Assembly of First Nations, Pivot Legal, Together Against Poverty and the Atira Women’s Resource Society — who say targeting nuisance properties may disproportionately affect the poor, Indigenous people and vulnerable women.
The BC Civil Liberties Association has said the act is too broad, could end up targeting people for something as benign as underaged drinking, and inappropriately allows for both anonymous complaints and people’s previous criminal convictions to be held against them when the court is considering enforcement orders.
Fort St. John called those criticisms “tone deaf to the suffering that is occuring.”
FSJ rallies allies; Union of BC Municipalities steps up
“From our perspective the failure to enact this legislation has put people’s housing security at risk,” read its letter to Farnworth.
To push the issue, Fort St. John forwarded a copy of its letter to Farnworth to every B.C. municipality.
Mayors across the province have spent 2023 complaining about the impact of open drug use, crime, and public disorder on city streets.
The Union of BC Municipalities has taken up the call, and will be asking Farnworth to explain himself on the issue.
“We have the same question to the province: Why is it that they haven’t enacted it?” UBCM president Trish Mandewo said in an interview.
“The concerns that (Fort St. John) shared in their letter are also shared by local governments around the province, whether you are looking at Fort St. John all the way to Nanaimo, you can see the level of criminality on their streets has changed, and it has increased.
“We can see that in many places. Businesses are besieged by vandalism, violence and theft.”
In the meantime, Fort St. John tried negotiating directly with the owner of the property in question near Triangle Park. He was a local resident, making the house available to those in recovery, said the mayor. He’s now in the process of removing some tenants, fixing the house up and perhaps selling it, she added.
“Every community has issues like this and we do recognize when we do have tenants that are in some nuisance houses that they are going to move to the other end of town in somebody else’s neighbourhood,” she said.
Fort St. John hopes to rally a movement of allies to push the NDP government into action on the issue.
“The strength will be in community numbers to say, you guys almost had it across the finish line here and in 2019 it seemed to stop,” said Hansen.
“I think the core foundation of it is excellent. There might be some modifications that can be made to alleviate what their concerns are.”
It’s not clear if the NDP government is willing to make those modifications. It’s not clear what the government is doing at all on the issue. Where there should be leadership, there’s only silence. And in the meantime, communities like Fort St. John are left to fend for themselves.