Terry Teegee: Time to stop targeting Indigenous people

Topic(s): Housing, Justice, Racism, Reconciliation

Opinion: I hope that cities in B.C. and across Canada can learn from the mistakes that Prince George is making, and be sure not to repeat them.

B.C. is facing a homeless crisis that needs to be addressed with the same level of urgency as COVID-19, the opioid epidemic and wildfires.

Of course these issues actually are part of what we’re seeing on the streets — wildfires have left so many people without a place to stay, COVID has forced providers to stop offering many services and a high proportion of the unhoused struggle with often deadly addictions.

But we can’t forget that for many people on the streets of our cities, they are homeless because of the continuing impacts of residential schools and colonialism.

I live in Prince George, where at last count 79 per cent of homeless people are Indigenous. Fifty per cent of the people on the streets in Prince George have aged-out of care, meaning they were taken from their parents as children. The foster system has been rightfully called the continuation of the residential school system.

But rather than taking meaningful steps to end the colonial violence that is clearly behind these figures, the City of Prince George seems to be doubling down on racist policies. After a report released this summer found the local school district to be “systematically racist” against Indigenous students, the B.C. Ministry of Education has put the Prince George school district on a short leash.

After this report, city council passed the Safe Streets Bylaw, which will punish people who loiter, panhandle or use drugs in public with up to $50,000 in fines or six months in jail. Mayor Lyn Hall claims it’s an educational campaign; I have seen otherwise, with RCMP and bylaw officers using it as an excuse, without any accountability, to harass homeless people.

In city council meetings, Hall and other councillors have made it clear that Prince George doesn’t have jurisdiction over housing. In this absence of leadership, many local Indigenous service-providers have stepped up to fill the void. The Native Friendship Centre recently partnered with B.C. Housing to provide temporary, 24-hour housing. While others take responsibility for resolving the homeless crisis, the city targets the unhoused, and applies for injunctions to clear homeless camps.

As should be clear to Canadians after the unmarked graves found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, and so many other former residential schools across the country, Indigenous Peoples still suffer the intergenerational trauma of racist policies. Indigenous Peoples are more likely to be imprisoned for the same crime than a non-Indigenous person. Indigenous Peoples make up a disproportionately high percentage of the prison population. Indigenous Peoples are more likely to be killed by police than non-Indigenous peoples.

Of course the city has declared many reasons for targeting homeless people. There is too much litter downtown. There have been instances of aggressive panhandling. City councillors also link the issue to criminal behaviour, such as breaking-and-entering, as if fining the city’s homeless population will somehow decrease crime.

The people who have suffered so much that their only option is to live in a tent need our help. Punishing them with bylaws, and forcibly removing them from their temporary shelter is inhumane. The fact that it’s a settler government targeting Indigenous Peoples makes it racist and colonial.

I’m asking Prince George to work with Indigenous service-providers to build a plan together. I made this offer to city council directly on Aug. 30, and via meetings with city officials before that, but there has been no equivalent effort on the city’s side. It’s time for the city to step-up and take responsibility for reconciliation. This isn’t about renaming streets or making speeches on a holiday. It’s about showing compassion to people who have suffered a great deal, and continue to suffer.

We need to help homeless citizens to find real shelter, not temporary beds. We need the city to hire outreach workers, not more uniformed bylaw officers. We need the city to educate its residents, and push back against racist stereotypes that make Indigenous people into criminals.

I hope that cities in B.C. and across the country can learn from the mistakes that Prince George is making, and be sure not to repeat them. It’s 2021, and it’s time governments in Canada stop inflicting racist, colonial policies on Indigenous people. By including Indigenous groups in your planning and implementation, you can avoid repeating violent, racist policies.

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