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Cops at risk of violence when dealing with mentally ill, homeless: Vancouver officer

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VANCOUVER — Police have become de facto social workers for people who lack support services while struggling with homelessness, mental illness and substance use, a spokesman for the Vancouver Police Department says.

Sgt. Steve Addison said the stabbing death of RCMP Const. Shaelyn Yang in Burnaby, B.C., this week has highlighted the fact that officers are increasingly ending up in potentially dangerous situations.

Yang, 31, was working on a mental health and outreach team when she was stabbed at a park where she’d gone with a city employee to notify a man in a tent that he wouldn’t be allowed to keep living there, the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team has said.

Yang shot the suspect before she died, the agency said of Jongwon Ham, 37, who has had surgery and is scheduled to make his next court appearance on Nov. 2 on a charge of first-degree murder.

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Earlier this month, an officer who worked with outreach and mental health teams, and a veteran constable who was a trained crisis negotiator, were both killed in a shooting in Innisfil, Ont.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons this week that mental health supports need to be stepped up so police are not sole providers for such outreach in many situations.

During a visit to Surrey on Thursday, Trudeau expressed his condolences to Yang’s family and called her death “devastating.”

“I really know people’s hearts are breaking right now,” he said. “We’re recognizing her service and all that our front-line police officers do to support the community in so many ways, as Shaelyn was doing around mental health and homelessness.”

Addison said “default policing” is increasingly the reality for people who have neither a place to live, nor the help they need for mental health woes that keep them living in encampments that tend to be moved from one location to another.

“We’re seeing people who are living with this constellation of very complex social issues that are not only making them unsafe, but making other people unsafe,” he said, adding multiple weapons have been seized from encampments.

“We’ve found guns. We’ve found a loaded sawed-off shotgun. We’ve found replicas,” he said, adding upwards of 70 per cent of recent so-called stranger attacks in the city involved someone with a mental illness.

Last week, one person threatened to pour gasoline on people’s tents and light them on fire, Addison said, adding that days earlier, someone went on a stabbing spree, injuring three people who needed treatment in hospital.

A machete-wielding man who allegedly attacked people on a recent weekend in Vancouver also put responding officers’ lives in danger, he said. Police shot that person.

As part of a mental health outreach program known as Car 87, the Vancouver Police Department teams a plainclothes officer with a registered nurse or a registered psychiatric nurse who assesses or provides community-based referrals for people living with a mental illness. The program started in 1978.

Police also partner with an outreach team from Vancouver Coastal Health to attend to people with more complex mental health needs where a history of violence may be involved, Addison said.

The department has issued reports about disorder due to mental health issues going back to at least 2008. Former police chief Jim Chu said when he retired in 2015 that more work needed to be done to address the impact of mental health on both vulnerable residents and police responding to calls.

Vancouver’s mayor-elect Ken Sim won the city’s top job last week with a promise to hire 100 more police officers and pair them with nurses, telling his first news conference that would be his No. 1 priority.

“As the mental health crisis has worsened, the demands on police to respond to these incidents have increased,” Addison said. “I always say we’re first responders but we’re also the last resort for people who are in crisis and people who have slipped through the cracks.”

Corey Froese, provincial safety director for the Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of B.C., said any first responder entering a potentially volatile situation is at risk.

Froese said the union has been forced to do a risk assessment of various encampments and other locations to determine the best entrance and exit strategies for areas that could be enclosed or obscured by trees, for example.

“Before, everybody just did their own thing. We never really had a standard approach,” he said, adding people competing to sell drugs at encampments add another layer of danger for both the public and first responders.

In 2019, paramedics attending an encampment at Oppenheimer Park saw police officers ducking for cover when shots were fired, Froese said.

“We’ve come upon propane tanks that weren’t secured properly. We’re very cautious going into tents because you don’t know what they have stored in there and what type of gases or things that they’re using to heat their tents,” he said.

Someone experiencing a psychosis episode could see a uniformed person as a threat and lash out at them, Froese said, adding it’s not uncommon for paramedics to be pushed and spat on.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 21, 2022.

 

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press

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Liberals pledge $15 million to remove Ukraine mines on anniversary of Ottawa Treaty

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Liberals pledge $15 million to remove Ukraine mines on anniversary of Ottawa Treaty

The Trudeau government is pledging to spend $15 million to remove mines in Ukraine.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly says the funding is meant to make the country safer after Russia has laid hundreds of the indiscriminate weapons.

Human Rights Watch says Ukrainian forces have also been laying anti-tank mines across the country.

Joly made the announcement on Monday to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Ottawa Treaty, which bans landmines in most countries.

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Ottawa has so far provided Canadian-made bomb suits to help protect Ukrainian deminers and has plans to help fund remote-control systems to clear large areas such as farmlands.

Last month, Canada unveiled funding to remove both landmines and cluster bombs from parts of Southeast Asia that remain inaccessible decades after conflicts like the Vietnam War.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2022.

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B.C.’s Julia Levy is Canada’s first trans woman Rhodes Scholar

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British Columbia’s newest Rhodes Scholar will pursue a master’s degree in computational chemistry, but she says it’s also an “incredible opportunity” as a trans woman to give back to her community.

University of Victoria graduate Julia Levy said she was “blown away” when she learned she was among 11 Canadians selected for this year’s Rhodes Scholarship, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious such awards.

Levy, 24, will head to Oxford University in England next October for the fully funded scholarship, a prize she said carries a special meaning because she is the country’s first trans woman Rhodes Scholar.

“I feel I am very, very proud being the first trans woman in Canada (to become a Rhodes Scholar),” said Levy, who made the transition from he to she three years ago.

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While the transition was a tough journey, Levy said she is aware of the many advantages she’s had.

“I think it’s really interesting to note that I am privileged in literally every other way, like my parents being supportive of my transition. I have always had financial stability and I grew up in a good part of Vancouver … maybe that’s the advantages that you need to equal out the trans part of it,” said Levy.

Levy, who graduated from the University of Victoria with a chemistry major and a minor in visual arts, described the scholarship as an “incredible opportunity and a gift,” equipping her with more knowledge and power to give back to the trans community.

“I feel my experiences of being trans and the ways that I have had to navigate the world being trans … has given me a lot of empathy for people in crisis and people who have difficulties in their lives,” said Levy.

“I know what it is to be at the bottom in some ways and my interest in harm reduction and trans care really all comes from that place of knowing what it’s like and wanting to reach out and help out where that’s possible.”

Levy is also a scientist, artist, activist, programmer, friend and daughter, she said.

“There are many parts of me that are equally important to who I am.”

University of Victoria chemistry professor Jeremy Wulff supervised Levy and said she was “destined for greatness,” bringing insights to projects that led to their success.

“I’m always excited when my students are recognized with awards and fellowships, but the Rhodes award is at a whole other level,” he said. “Julia is in excellent company amongst this group, and it’s absolutely where she belongs.”

Levy said magic can happen when you mix computation with chemistry.

In her second year at the University of Victoria, she found some classmates were struggling to picture molecules in their heads while doing peer teaching.

To help them visualize complex molecules, Levy created an augmented-reality app.

The app is a QR code in the workbook and allows the learner to see the molecule on their phone in three dimensions.

“You can work it with your phone and spin it around and zoom in and out,” said Levy.

She also worked as a technician with the university’s Vancouver Island Drug-Checking Project, a drop-in service where people can bring street drugs in for chemical analysis.

Levy said the experience used her chemistry skills in a “practical and socially active way” to help more people.

“It’s an excellent example of the social use of chemistry,” said Levy.

Levy, who was travelling in Germany during the interview, said she looks forward to being surrounded by the Rhodes community and “being challenged and pushed to new heights.”

“I hope I bring what makes me unique to Oxford, and that I am able to find a group of people, both personally and professionally, that celebrate that uniqueness,” said Levy.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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Major biodiversity conference opens in Montreal amid hope of hard conservation target

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A major international conference on preserving the world’s biodiversity is to open Tuesday with speakers including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

COP15 in Montreal brings together 196 countries to refresh the Convention on Biological Diversity and is seen as a crucial attempt to reach a global deal on saving the world’s ecosystems and the plants and animals that depend on them.

Mary MacDonald of the World Wildlife Fund Canada said COP15 could provide for biodiversity what the Paris Agreement created for climate change: hard targets for preserving nature.

“What we’re looking for is something like an acknowledgment by all countries in the world that we need to have a nature-positive 2030,” MacDonald said. “That means there’s more healthy nature on this planet by 2030 than there is now.”

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Diplomats have hammered out 22 targets for the negotiations, which include halting the spread of invasive species and reducing the use of pesticides and plastics.

But the main objective will be to agree on a minimum amount of how much of the world’s ecosystems should be protected and conserved.

Scientists suggest preserving 30 per cent of the globe’s remaining lands and oceans is vital to stop increasing threats of extinction and achieving international targets for reducing greenhouse gases. They say biodiversity and climate change are closely linked.

A 2019 paper in the journal Science concluded: “If current trends in habitat conversion and emissions do not peak by 2030, then it will become impossible to remain below 1.5 (degrees Celsius).”

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault says Canada has four main goals for the final agreement: meeting the 30 per cent threshold, reversing biodiversity loss by 2030, providing money to developing nations to allow them to meet those targets and ensuring Indigenous people are fully involved.

Guilbeault acknowledges meeting those goals won’t be easy. He said the last draft of the convention he saw contained 1,200 places where the final text hasn’t been agreed on.

The event will create a small city within Montreal for the next two weeks, with 17,000 registered attendees and 900 reporters accredited to cover their deliberations.

The COP15 conference lasts until Dec. 19.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2022.

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