Opinion: With such a high proportion of homeless people being Indigenous, many municipalities that continue to pursue a strategy of destroying encampments are in violation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The judiciary is starting to weigh in on how municipalities handle the homeless crisis in B.C. In their decisions, we are starting to see one branch of government begin to display some humanity toward our unhoused citizens.
Municipalities need to sit up and take notice.
Last month, Justice Simon Coval ruled against the City of Prince George’s latest attempt to remove residents of the Moccasin Flats encampment.
In January, Justice Matthew Kirchner ruled against an injunction application from the Vancouver park board to have a homeless encampment in CRAB Park removed.
Last fall, Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson ruled against an injunction application by the City of Prince George to remove a downtown homeless encampment.
These decisions hinged on access to acceptable housing options.
In Vancouver, the park board failed to demonstrate that there was suitable housing available. Kirchner also stated that the park’s proximity to services for the unhoused in the Downtown Eastside meant closing it would infringe on the campers’ Charter rights.
Hinkson provided similar reasoning in dismissing Prince George’s application last fall. He ruled again that there was not adequate shelter available for encampment residents. For the time being at least, the northern city could not remove the encampment. Coval echoed these sentiments in denying Prince George their latest injunction application.
Of course, this did not prevent Prince George, through both the RCMP and city bylaw officers, from using intimidation tactics against the campers, including driving through camp at all hours of the night and shining high-powered lights into tents.
And in November, bylaw officers unlawfully removed tents after some campers had been temporarily housed by B.C. Housing and the Prince George Native Friendship Centre, leaving others who had not secured housing displaced in frigid weather.
The city continued to press the issue, forcing the small staff at the Prince George First Nations Justice Council to work with a team of volunteers to document harassment of the unhoused. Coval’s decision makes clear that these actions put Prince George in breach of a court order that expressly allowed the camp to remain.
All of this should put municipalities on notice that the unhoused are not a nuisance to be removed.
But it also points to a much larger issue that municipalities in B.C. seem blinded to: their responsibility to be good-faith partners in reconciliation.
The latest “point in time” report on homelessness in Prince George states that 70 per cent of homeless people are Indigenous. Targeting the homeless is equivalent to targeting Indigenous people.
Murray Rankin, B.C.’s minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Union of B.C. Municipalities last year promising to keep them informed on his ministry’s work toward reconciliation.
But where is the accountability from municipalities to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action?
Call to Action No. 43 specifically calls on all levels of government to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Article 10 of the UN Declaration states there shall be no forced removal of Indigenous peoples from their lands and territories. With such a high proportion of homeless people being Indigenous, many municipalities that continue to pursue a strategy of destroying encampments are in violation of the UN declaration.
It was over 100 years ago that the village site of the Lheidli T’enneh was forcibly relocated by colonial governments. If municipalities don’t start paying attention to their responsibilities to enact the UN Declaration and the Calls to Action, they are simply using the same violent colonial tools their predecessors used.
Municipalities have been put on notice: Your time to work toward reconciliation is now.
This begins with having conversations in good faith with Indigenous peoples on a mutual path forward.
It is time that all municipalities recognize that their constitutional limitations do not limit the role they can play leading the public toward reconciliation.
And that leadership starts with abandoning discriminatory actions toward the most vulnerable.
Terry Teegee is the regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations.