Terry Teegee: A better, safer way forward is still possible: End inhumane decampments now

Topic(s): Homelessness, Housing, Justice, Poverty, Reconciliation

Opinion: All levels of government need to take the rights of the unhoused into consideration when making decisions that affect their lives

Despite having signed a memorandum of understanding with the province in June to coordinate the removal of homeless camps, the city of Prince George recently made a unilateral decision at an in-camera meeting to remove a homeless camp at Millennium Park. The city gave camp residents less than two weeks notice to leave the area, noting that anything left at the park after Sept. 9  would be destroyed. They made this decision without any communication to the province, local service providers, or local First Nations — even their own outreach workers did not know this decision was coming.

This kind of approach by municipalities needs to stop. All levels of government need to take the rights of the unhoused into consideration when making decisions that affect their lives — and municipalities need to engage directly with First Nations on these matters.

What is most disappointing about this decision is that the city of Prince George seemed to be moving in the right direction. In June, the city and the province came together to sign a memorandum of understanding focused on addressing the community’s escalating homelessness crisis. The agreement included the need for all parties to coordinate communications amongst themselves, as well as to engage with homeless residents, service providers, and First Nations. I was present at the signing ceremony, as were representatives from the Lheidli T’enneh Nation. Thanks to the memorandum, B.C. Housing began engaging with Millennium Park encampment residents and was successful in finding some residents suitable alternative shelters. They have also been working to increase the amount of low-cost housing available by renovating local hotels. The process involved collaboration with Indigenous and community partners. The memorandum also offered resources for Prince George to roll out the new provincial Homeless Encampment Action Response Team and Homeless Encampment Action Response Temporary Housing.

And then at the end of August, without public explanation, the city rejected these much-needed resources and opted for a trajectory of needless trauma. This erodes the trust that Mayor Simon Yu and some members of council had begun to build with the province. Prince George’s homelessness and drug toxicity crises are part of a broader, continent-wide problem, and punishing the victims of these disasters will not solve our problems.

To compound these issues, the decision to clear Millennium Park was made at an in-camera meeting. Mere months after winning the 2022 Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy from the Canadian Association of Journalists, the city of Prince George continues to ignore the fundamental tenets of democracy by holding important discussions about our community behind closed doors.

This shameful decision is also another example of structural, systemic racism. Over 70 per cent of unhoused individuals in Prince George identify as Indigenous. They live with the heavy burden of intergenerational trauma caused by colonial violence, forced displacement, and discrimination. And yet the city shows no qualms about targeting them.

As regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, I continue to call on the Prince George city council to return to the table in good faith, embrace an evidence-based plan to address our housing crisis, and start treating unhoused people as the human beings they are.

It’s not too late for a compassionate and constructive approach that honours the dignity, rights, and safety of all Prince George residents. We can and must do better, and it starts with respecting the humanity in each of us, regardless of where we live or how we walk through the world with our trauma. A better path forward is still possible if the city is willing to embrace policy and actions based on evidence, compassion, and integrity.

Terry Teegee is regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations.