B.C.’s sleepy capital grappling with big city issues

By Maclean Kay
BC Bureau Chief
Troy Media

In Victoria, the label “sleepy” used to be a badge of honour. The provincial capital enthusiastically branded itself as the Garden City, and “more English than the English.” Small, safe and, above all, pretty.

Recently, things have changed. For months, the top issues in Victoria have been traffic gridlock and crime – two “big city” problems Victorians long believed stopped at Vancouver.

Traffic isn’t a new problem; going into the core from the western communities has been an issue for years. But a few months ago, View Royal, a nearby municipality of less than 9,000 people, started work on a portion of the Old Island Highway, reducing one of two major arteries to single-lane alternating traffic. Overnight, traffic went from slow to paralyzed.

New traffic folk heroes

The problem has created some new folk heroes. One couple started dating after a conversation from separate cars stuck on the highway. A mother allowed her children out of the car to play with rabbits beside the road; they hopped back in when traffic started moving. The “Colwood Crawl,” as the westbound commute on the Trans-Canada Highway is called, has its own Facebook page.

Greater Victoria is comprised of 13 different municipalities. It’s not unusual for commuters to pass through three or four different jurisdictions on their way to work. With a metro population of around 330,000 (just 78,000 of whom actually live in the City of Victoria), that’s a lot of town councils, and a co-ordinated traffic strategy has been elusive. More highway lanes and light rail are discussed annually, but nobody can agree who should pay, or where to put it.

“That will need all levels of government at the table,” says Sooke Mayor Janet Evans, “but I think the political will is there.”

Rod Phillips, who started the Facebook page, says traffic was a problem before the Old Island Highway Project, and will be after it’s completed. But the construction project has crystallized the issue, partly because the change was immediate, and partly because most of the drivers stuck on View Royal’s portion of the Old Island Highway road don’t live there. Saying it would be unsafe for its residents, View Royal has refused to set up detours through its pristine residential streets. Enraged commuters have flooded its town hall with complaints. Not so coincidentally, residents are starting to discuss amalgamation.

Victoria’s growing pains aren’t limited to traffic. A recent national survey revealed Victoria has Canada’s second-highest crime rate (behind Prince George), 81 per cent above the national average. Commentators rushed to attribute the ranking to “core city syndrome,” Eastern bias, or misleading statistical analysis – anything but admitting the city has a rough and occasionally violent edge.

There is some truth to “core city syndrome,” which holds that as the centre of a larger metropolitan area, the city of Victoria has a misleadingly high crime rate – if Greater Victoria were considered, the numbers wouldn’t be so high. (Crime rates for small municipalities were not included in the survey.)

Yet this equivocation is itself misleading. The survey revealed higher crime rates are a fact of life in Western Canada, and B.C. in particular, with five of the nation’s top 10 crime-ridden cities. Regional and provincial trends aside, a crime rate 81 per cent above the national average is far too great a difference to attribute to statistical gerrymandering.

$4-billion per year marijuana crop

Days before results of the national crime survey were released, BC Hydro announced marijuana grow-ops stole $100 million of electricity each year – doubling since 2006. Number-crunchers calculated that meant the province was home to some 25,000 grow-ops. The RCMP admitted they were overwhelmed and simply couldn’t respond to all the reports – and yet still seized 29,000 marijuana plants on Vancouver Island alone in the fall of 2009.

There’s a fairly direct and obvious link between B.C.’s massive marijuana industry (estimated at $4 billion per year) and crime – and it’s therefore no coincidence that the province with the biggest illicit drug industry (by far) also suffers its highest crime rates.

Victoria, no matter what its image is, is no different. No matter how sleepy the city may be, these problems will still be there tomorrow.

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