Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

Charles Demers, from Vancouver Special (2009)

Charles Demers, Vancouver Special. Photographs by Emmanuel Buenviaje. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009.

[…] The fight for interiors is also what made the Woodwards Squat of 2002 – also commemorated as Woodsquat – so revolutionary and transformative an experience.  All that fall, street people and activists occupied the massive, hulking Woodwards department store building, which had been vacant since 1993, and resisted the neo-liberal siege that was now literal, as well as metaphorical, for nearly 100 days.  The assertive beauty of the moment is fairly captured in this exchange between anti-poverty activist Reverend Davin and city housing manager Cameron Gray on December 12:

Cameron Gray: Hi.

Reverend Davin: Hi Cameron.

Cameron Gray: How are you?

Reverend Davin: I’m too stubborn to die.

Cameron Gray: [silence]

Reverend Davin: I’m one of the negotiators with the Woodwards Squat and the reason why I’m phoning you is because you’re the Housing Manager and I’m kind of wondering what it is you’re doing to get people housing.

For those of us who supported the action, it was our turn to be outside looking in, as we did during many support rallies in the street outside the building.  The action became iconic – the following July, as a birthday gift from a friend, I was given a print-out artist Murray Bush’s hilarious, and yet somehow also touching, rendering of Queen Elizabeth II’s face photoshopped onto that of a squatter seated in an old chair, enjoying a smoke underneath a poster that says “We Will Win” (the Queen had made a visit to the city that October, while the squat was in full swing – Murray’s poster reads “Social Issues may not be your cup of tea but homelessness need to be dealt with effectively.  Demand provincially-funded housing for the poor, disabled and elderly.”)

At one of the rallies for the squat, a huge ladder was leaned up against the side of the building, and those who cared to see inside were invited up.  Fat guys generally hate ladders, but as I negotiated it there were familiar faces, anti-poverty activists, at the top, and so I was able to persevere.  Inside, the building looked like an old hangar, cavernous and filthy and unwelcoming.  But the people inside were gathered in groups, large and small, some shooting the shit and making jokes, others taking votes and making decisions about the squat and its smaller, subsidiary actions.  In the same way as Michael Ignatieff recalls his revulsion at the British Coal Miners’ strike as the moment he realized firmly that he was a liberal and not a socialist, I remember that moment in the Woodsquat as precisely the opposite. […]

Roger Farr, “Anarchy in BC: Anti-Capitalist Struggle Outside the Union on Canada’s ‘Left Coast’”

From a review of Direct Action, Reading the Riot Act, and Woodsquat published in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory 11:1 (Fall 2007).

Link to full article.

The occupation of the Woodwards building, a prominent, if neglected, corporate landmark located on the cusp of Vancouver’s downtown Eastside, by an assortment of street people, punks, the working poor, activists, anarchists, students, adventurers, addicts, and people passing through town, began on September 14th, 2002, and lasted for exactly three months. Although the building had for decades been the focal point for housing struggles in the city, being passed back and forth between various provincial governments and developers until it was quietly left to the pigeons and rats by Gordon Campbell’s neo-liberal government in 2002, a full-scale occupation of the building was by all accounts not on the radar when the building was “popped” by three local residents. Once this group was inside, a small demo was held, during which ladders were raised to the second floor of the building (there were security dogs on the first floor), and people started to make their way inside. Some spent the night, and by the next day, local anti-poverty groups began referring to “the Woodwards squatters” and calling for support in the form of food, blankets, and mattresses.

Aaron Vidaver, the editor of this collection, is a trained archivist, and it shows. In addition to this expertise, he also produced during the squat a daily zine with news, statements, minutes from meetings, poems, safety tips, etc., unofficially assuming a role as the squat’s samizdat publisher. Thus, the material he includes in the collection reflects both his training and his position as a “witness-participant,” someone both inside and outside the occupation. In his collection, we find a multiplicity of competing perspectives on the occupation – those of local homeless people, of native squatters, of the activists who saw the squat primarily as a “tool,” the police who saw it as an affront to their clumsy “law and order” approach to the area’s problems, and, finally, of the municipal government who, tellingly, assigned the squat to their Sanitation Branch. These perspectives are documented in public statements and speeches by squatters and activists, individual testimony and interviews, photographs of the building and of support rallies, poems, flyers, comics, a wonderful series of portraits of the squatters taken by Vidaver, academic essays on gentrification and media coverage of the squat, and numerous documents obtained though freedom-of-information requests (some of which are censored), such as police surveillance reports, stills from police video footage taken during the first eviction, and internal memos prepared by city staff.

Taken together, these documents demonstrate better than any third-person analysis could the political composition of, and tensions within, the squat. Vidaver makes these tensions very clear by opening the collection with Theresa D. Gray’s piece “Canada is All Native Land: Non-Natives Are All Squatters: The Devil + Canada are One.” Indeed, the squat was never able to fully address the problem that it was, from a First Nations’ point of view, a kind of meta-occupation (an occupation of already occupied land), nor could it resolve the contradictions between its immediate use as “a self-managed poor people’s site of reclamation,” as Vidaver calls it in the introduction, and its more commodified or symbolic use as a bargaining chip in a campaign for state-controlled social housing.

For instance, in “Squatting as an Organizational Tool,” Lisa Wulwik describes squatting as an instrument deployed by renters and the poor in their struggle with the state over “effective rent controls” and “social housing.” “People squat,” she writes, “for various reasons: to live free of huge rent prices and overbearing slum lords, to live in occupant-controlled housing, to open community spaces and social centres, to publicize the need for social housing and to call attention to the number of vacant homes and buildings…[activists have] been very successful in using squatting as a political tool to demand social housing.” This perspective is echoed in another piece by Mike Krebs, titled “Demands.” Here, the author seems to be under the influence of Trotsky’s notion of “transitional demands” – short-term demands for concessions that can be achieved under capitalism, in the course of a long-term struggle for socialism – to explain why the Woodward’s squatters needed to “define the movement for housing.”

While this perspective – that the squat was primarily a means-to-an-ends, and that those ends were social housing – is very prominent in the collection (possibly because activists, due to the nature of their work and experience with the media, are often articulate and charismatic and good at securing air time), it frequently encounters challenges from other statements and perspectives that call for a break with the politics of demand. Lyn Tooley, for instance, in “We Need to be Left Alone,” describes how six months of homelessness – “of having to live [her] private life in public space” – amplified her need for “solitude” and “creativity.” Linking the Woodwards squat to autonomous movements in Europe and South America, Tooley argues that “we don’t need government interference to solve our problems. We need to be left alone, unmolested and unharassed be police brutality and government do-gooders….We are not asking the affluent sectors of society to give us charity…We are taking responsibility for our own needs using the only resources left available to us: waste spaces, garbage materials and our creativity.” T. Forsythe, also, suggests that the final neutralization of the squat was tied directly to its reification in the media as part of an activist “campaign” before it had a chance to develop autonomously: “[Leftists] seem to be attracted to media cameras like flies on shit. This phenomenon of self-policing leftists seems to be limited to North America…I remember one meeting where this womyn was telling people not to ‘spare change’ and not to use drugs because ‘it would look bad in the media.’ Come on, you don’t walk into the ghetto, straight out of the white middle class progressive leftist circus and start telling poor people they can’t use drugs or panhandle…it was people like this who sold out Woodwards in the end.”

Today, a “stylish and modern” 560 square foot condo in Woodwards – featuring “9 ft polished concrete ceilings, laminate floors, a Juliette balcony, customized doors, glass tiles & floor to ceiling windows” – starts for around $400,000, and local arts organizations are lining up to get their hands on some cheap office and gallery space.

Susan Pell: “Making Citizenship Public: Identities, Practices, and Rights at Woodsquat”

Published in Citizenship Studies 12:2 (April 2008): 143-156.

Link to article (pdf).

Summary: “The common conception of citizenship is that of belonging to a political community, with the ensuing rights and responsibilities of membership. This community tends to be naturalized as the nation-state. However, this location of citizenship needs to be decentred in order to investigate current modes of democratic participation. This paper investigates current sites and practices of citizenship through reflection on a tactical housing squat of an empty department store staged by an urban social movement in Vancouver in 2002, known as ‘Woodsquat’. It uses a social movement perspective to look at citizenship, emphasizing the identities, practices, and locations of democratic engagement over the collective question of how we will live together in these places. From this point of view Woodsquat shows current limits of national citizenship, conceptually and practically, and suggests alternative possibilities for future citizenship practices located in multiple identifications with (political) communities. Moving from this analysis of political participation at Woodsquat attention is brought to the importance of spaces of democratic communication for possibilities of citizenship, where there seems to be a reinforcing relationship between public spheres, social movements, and democracy. Ultimately, then, actions at Woodsquat are argued to be a form of citizenship that emerged within a democratic public.”

Olive Dempsey: “The Cost of Forgetting”

Published in Canadian Dimension 38:5 (September-October 2004).

Link to article.

Excerpt: “The occupation of the building’s interior ended quickly, but the squat continued outside for three months, with an estimated 200 people camped around the perimeter. Squatters maintained political pressure through organization and mutual support. ‘We had our own infrastructure,’ says Jewel, one of the participants. ‘We had our own soup kitchens set up. We had volunteers ready to run it, control it, keep it working. We had our own security team running.’ No matter which questions I asked during our interview, almost everyone wanted to talk about the community they had at the squat, and about ways to get it back. As a result of the protest, the new city council, dominated by the Coalition of Progressive Electors, bought the building from the provincial government in March, 2003, with promises to use the space to support the interests of Downtown Eastside residents. […] COPE, composed in part by community advocates and activists, promised a radically different approach to the Canada’s most-talked-about neighbourhood. The COPE solution put the squatters into two Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels in the area. The notorious SROs are rooming houses with tiny units and shared bathrooms. Many involved with the Woodward’s squat believe this was an intentional move to disrupt the bonds and solidarity created during the protest. Intentional or not, that is what happened. Once a force powerful enough to wrest a vacant city block from the hands of the provincial government, those I spoke to say the community of the Woodward’s squat is scattered geographically and fragmented. Jewel wants to start a new squat, giving up the meagre housing she has, to resurrect the solidarity of the Woodward’s squat.”

Jeff Sommers, “Beyond the Collar of Blight”

Jeff Sommers, “Beyond the Collar of Blight”, Woodsquat (2004): 20-28.

Until the preeminence of the Coalition of Progressive Electors in the November 2002 civic elections, the received wisdom for most of Vancouver’s political establishment was that the root of the Downtown Eastside’s woes was a supposed concentration of social housing in the neighbourhood. The logic runs like this: social housing is for poor people; if you build it, they will come and, in the Downtown Eastside, they have arrived. A similar line of reasoning has been followed with regard to a perceived concentration of services in the area, which also “attract” poor people. In both cases, the poor are seen as a burden, a source of inconvenient problems like drug use and prostitution that they inflict on the rest of us if they are present in too great a number. The problems of the Downtown Eastside would be fixed, according to this argument, if its low income residents were dispersed, possibly by locating social housing and services in other parts of the city (the humane solution) or, if worst comes to worst, by wholesale redevelopment, i.e., gentrification (the practical solution).

The public proponents of this view included not only The Vancouver Sun’s sometime urban design critic, Trevor Boddy (who advocated it while waxing eloquently over the beauty of a recent social housing project on Cordova Street)[i], but two people who should know better, former Vancouver Mayors Mike Harcourt and Art Philips. Both had been involved with the area more than thirty years ago, long before it was a significant site for social housing. But neither chose to remember that even then the neighbourhood was the poorest in the city. Nor did they choose to remember that the rapid increase in social housing in the Downtown Eastside can be traced to two particular sources with which both should be familiar.[ii]

First, the market housing stock that dominated the Downtown Eastside for decades – single room occupancy (SRO) hotels – was probably the worst in the city and, by the late 1960s, had become a central object of housing reformers. Second, local advocacy groups and their allies across the city demanded that social housing be constructed in the neighbourhood for the people who lived there. Contrary to the claims of deliberate “ghettoization” of the marginalized that have been advanced by people from various parts of the political spectrum, the vast bulk of social housing in the Downtown Eastside was not placed there by government fiat, but as a result of local activism and organization.

Any controversy over the placement of social housing is of recent origin and is related to the gentrification of the area that began in the late 1980s. As the move-in rate of incoming middle class property owners accelerated in the early 1990s, the area became a site of conflict between this new group, often allied with local business organizations, and those representing the low income population. As is now well-known, the conflict, which simmered for most the decade, erupted into open and direct confrontation in 1998, as the gentrifiers and businesses sought to pressure the City to apply police force to deal with the drug situation. Yet, this was only a tactical move. For the better part of the 1990s the conflict had centred, not around drugs, but around issues of housing, services, and development. Because of the panic that ensued when health authorities declared that an HIV/AIDS epidemic was in progress among intravenous drug users, the drug issue provided a key vector for stigmatizing social housing and services for the poor by forging an near-indelible connection between poverty, drug use, and disease (Sommers & Blomley 2003).

It is not clear whether this link will indeed be permanent, given the defeat of the Downtown Eastside gentrifier and business groups, intimately tied to the Non-Partisan Association (NPA), in the civic election.[iii] But, whatever the outcome, such a development is something of an irony given the tortuous history of social housing in the Downtown Eastside, a story that begins with the proposed urban renewal in Strathcona more than 50 years ago.

In the late 1940s, the City commissioned Leonard Marsh, the founder of the UBC School of Social Work and influential member of the League for Social Reconstruction – which played a key role in the formation of the Canadian welfare state – to detail a vision for its plan to clear the “collar of blight” that surrounded the downtown peninsula. His proposal for the urban renewal of Vancouver’s East End district was published in the wake of a housing crisis in the city. Only two years before, returning veterans and their families had moved into newly built houses on Renfrew Heights from the old Hotel Vancouver building at Georgia and Granville, which they had occupied in 1946, demanding adequate housing (Wade 1994).

Marsh proffered an image of a modern, high-rise neighbourhood that would rise on the literal ruins of the old wooden buildings that were then seen as defective slum premises. Yet, when he wrote his report, entitled Rebuilding a Neighbourhood, in 1950 Marsh certainly wasn’t thinking that, half a century later, the houses in the neighbourhood that he had dubbed Strathcona would be selling for close to half a million dollars or that the area that he had envisioned as a paragon of progressive, modernist planning is one of Vancouver’s trendiest neighbourhoods. The still-standing houses that would have been leveled and replaced with concrete, brick, glass, and pavement are now among the most desired in the city and are fetching a fortune. The streets that surround them are green and leafy, lined with SUVs and beemers. The neighbourhood is considered to be a vital centre of Vancouver’s burgeoning arts scene. One Strathcona block was the city’s inaugural “most beautiful block.”

This “renaissance” was only made possible by the revolt against urban renewal that began in the late 1960s as Strathcona residents, most of whom were Chinese-Canadian, were joined by academics, students, community organizers, and westside heritage supporters to derail the City’s plans to level the neighbourhood and push a freeway through it (Ley 1994). Yet, by the very same token, it was this same combination of forces that promoted the vision of social housing and services for the poor (Sommers 2001).

The neighbourhood that is now called the Downtown Eastside, but was then widely known as the city’s skid road district, was also slated for demolition. By the mid-1960s, civic authorities saw urban renewal as a means of dispersing the skid road population, a move that was resisted by the mostly church-based agencies then offering services to residents.[iv] It was not until the area became a site for community organizing and countercultural activities, as well as an object of the burgeoning heritage preservation movement, that a serious challenge was mounted to the City’s plans.

But it was not only urban renewal that was at issue. Students and community organizers swarmed through the Downtown Eastside and Strathcona (as well as all the other inner city neighbourhoods)[v], helping residents set up public housing tenants associations, studying health issues, organizing legal clinics, daycares, and a range of other activities. In 1972 the newly-formed Vancouver Community Legal Assistance Society delivered a report to City Council detailing its investigation into conditions in the SRO hotels that housed the bulk of the district’s population.[vi] The primary reason these accommodations were so abysmal, the report claimed, was that City bylaws were not stringent enough and City building inspectors did not use the bylaws that were there. The City retorted that there was no point in either enforcing or strengthening its bylaws because the people who lived in the hotels were the real problem: if a landlord did repair a building, it would soon be wrecked by the carelessness and neglect of its tenants.

Such a challenge did not go unanswered and by the time the Downtown Eastside Residents’ Association (DERA) was officially formed the following year, the condition of housing was perhaps the key organizing issue in the community. DERA made its name, and changed the public recognition of the neighbourhood, through vociferous activism aimed at slum landlords, shoddy business operators, and neglectful politicians and bureaucrats. When landlords let their buildings slide, DERA picketed the premises and drew media attention to the situation.

This local activism combined with the election of a moderate reform council at the city level in 1973, and a left-wing provincial government, elected the previous year, to put housing on the public agenda. The City began to work with the Central Mortgage and Housing Agency (now CMHC), the Federal government housing group, and BC Housing, to initiate a series of housing projects for senior citizens in the mixed residential-industrial area northeast of Main and Hastings. Changes to the National Housing Act had enabled non-profit organizations to receive Federal funding for housing and by the early 1980s, several groups, including DERA and the First United Church, were either already operating or planning housing projects for the area.

The involvement of non-profits in direct housing provision and management would have a number of implications for the community, not all of them positive. First, local management of housing meant that project operators were more responsive to the needs and interventions of the community itself. As social housing has proliferated in the community over the 1980s and 1990s, SRO tenants have had increasing access to a better quality, low-rent alternative. Second, it began to stabilize the housing situation by taking land off the property market and vesting it in public ownership. However, because most social and cooperative housing in the area sits on land that was either already owned or acquired by the City for housing construction, the community has gained no equity from this process. Third, as landlords, housing organizations are placed in the position of exercising authority over their tenants. Groups that once sought to represent and advocate on behalf of the community to the outside power structure were gradually resituated in the minds of many residents as the local face of that structure. Finally, the requirements of housing provision are such that organizations become more and more preoccupied with project management, effectively diverting their energy and resources from community advocacy.

The emergence of community-based housing organizations thus marked a shift in community institutions, away from activist interventions toward increasing cooperation and mediation with the local state (Ley and Hassan). This took place at precisely the same time that the entire City, but especially the Downtown peninsula and the inner city neighbourhoods that surround it, underwent a profound transformation that was the product, in part, of increasing investment in property development, spurred on by zoning changes.

Since 1970, the inner neighbourhoods of the city had been bleeding their once substantial stock of cheap single rooms. Once estimated at more than 20,000 in 1970, the stock now numbers less than 6,000 rooms (City of Vancouver Housing Centre 1995). The sweep of gentrification that began in the late 1970s in Kitsilano and moved eastward through Fairview Slopes and up to Main Street, in the decade following, decimated much of the stock outside the Central Business District. Meanwhile, fires and bylaw closures in the Downtown and West End during the 1970s and 1980s were soon accompanied by intensifying redevelopment pressure that began shortly before the Expo ’86 world’s fair. As redevelopment proceeded apace through the 1990s, property values skyrocketed, and as home-buyers began looking east for cheaper property, gentrification took root in the neighbourhoods like Strathcona and Grandview, where there had once been a plentiful supply of single and housekeeping rooms.

While it’s true, as civic leaders continue to point out, that since the late 1980s, the construction of social housing in the Downtown and Downtown Eastside has kept pace with the loss of SROs in those areas, it is also true that the situation is more complicated than a simple one-to-one swap. For one thing, there has never been a complete overlap between the tenants of each kind of housing. Some of the city’s early projects were designed for the so-called hard-to-house population – the same people that bylaw inspectors had once blamed for the deterioration of the hotels. However, for the most part, social housing has been constructed for the most stable elements of the low income population – not only in the Downtown Eastside but all over the city.

In the Downtown Eastside, much of the older, longer term population moved out of the hotels into the new social housing projects. A recent survey of the SRO population found that hotel residents were both younger and more unhealthy than had been the case 10 years earlier (Main and Hastings 2001). Many of the people who now live in the hotels require the kind of social and health support, along with decent accommodation, that is only provided in places like the New Portland Hotel and a few other projects.

This situation is made even more complex by three other intertwined elements. One, already noted, is the virtual redevelopment of much of the Downtown peninsula and the inflow of some 25,000 new residents, together with the mostly upscale services they demand. As in Strathcona and the Downtown Eastside, middle income homeowners and renters dwelling in shiny new high-rises and townhouses rub shoulders with the poor, many of whom now sleep in parking lots and doorways because the cheap rooms that once housed such people are no longer plentiful.

The second, related element, in this equation is the reorientation of the Downtown economy away from its old industrial base centre on the Burrard Inlet and False Creek waterfronts. This shift, which actually began post-World War II, was consolidated by the removal of the last vestiges of industrial activity from the north shore of False Creek in preparation for Expo ’86. It has been replaced, as in virtually every other North American city, by an economy based on producer and consumer services as well as tourism and niche sectors like design and software development. While there has been little research on the on the social effects of this service-based economy in Vancouver, some writers have argued that one of the key characteristics of service-based globalizing cities is a tendency toward labour market polarization between high wage professional, technical, and managerial sectors and lower wage workers (Sassen 2000 & 2001). Certainly there is evidence at the national level of increasing income inequality in Canada (Zyblock & Zhengxi 1997; Picot 1998).

The final element affecting housing in the Downtown Eastside is state restructuring at both Federal and Provincial levels. The withdrawal of the Federal government from new housing provision was mitigated for much of the 1990s by the continuing Provincial commitment. However, the provincial Liberal Party also has now abandoned new social housing construction. This is compounded by the ongoing, draconian income assistance regime (initiated under the same New Democratic Party government that kept building social housing, and intensified by the Liberals) that not only cuts rates while making it more difficult to obtain, but is now set time limits that will shortly (as of March 31, 2004) disconnect thousands of people from the social safety net. This has all taken place in the much broader context of the continuing high unemployment that resulted from the abandonment of full employment policies in the wake of the opening of national markets to international competition.

The results of the pressures exerted by all these forces, from gentrification, redevelopment, and the declining stock of SROs, to wider economic changes and welfare state retrenchment, have been visible on the street, not only of the Downtown Eastside, but all over the inner and core neighbourhoods of the city. Marginality is visibly on the increase, as the presence of homeless people, panhandlers, and an open drug market attests. Under such conditions, conflicts over both housing and the presence of marginalized groups on the streets, which have become more familiar over the past decade, will likely continue and perhaps intensify.

Leonard Marsh, the visionary of Strathcona urban renewal, would probably be surprised not only that the neighbourhood is still full of wooden houses but that only a short walk from this fashionable, renovated district are two encampments of homeless people at Strathcona and Creekside parks. Meanwhile, the proponents of the concentration thesis have been conspicuously silent about the Provincial departure from social housing provision. Of course, since there will no longer be any new social housing built, they don’t have to argue that it should be built outside the Downtown Eastside. Fifty years after the first attempt to address it, the housing question in this part of the city still escapes any resolution.

Works Cited

Boddy, Trevor. “Lore Krill Housing Coop Earns Highest Marks.” The Vancouver Sun (17 April 2003); B6.

City of Vancouver Housing Centre. Changes in the SRO Stock in Vancouver’s Downtown Core, 1971-1994. Vancouver: City of Vancouver, 1995.

City of Vancouver Planning Department. Downtown Eastside Community Monitoring Report. Vancouver: City of Vancouver, 2001.

City of Vancouver Social Planning Department (VSPD 1971). Report to the Standing Committee on Health and Welfare from the Director of Social Planning and Community Development, Nov. 18, 1971. City of Vancouver Archives, Vancouver Social Planning Department, Series 178, 85-A-3, File 7. Skid Road, 1971-72.

Harcourt, Mike. “Harcourt offers plan to clean up inner city: A lethal cocktail of homelessness, crime, drug abuse and joblessness has to be counter-acted.” The Vancouver Sun (7 November 1998); A3.

Ley, David, “The Downtown Eastside: ‘One Hundred Years of Struggle’.” In David Ley and Shlomo Hassan, Neighbourhood Organizations and the Welfare State. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

Main and Hastings Community Development Society. Downtown Core Housing Survey, 2001. Vancouver: Main and Hastings Community Development Society, 2001.

Marsh, Leonard. Rebuilding a Neighbourhood: Report on a Demonstration Slum-Clearance and Urban Rehabilitation Project in a Key Central Area in Vancouver. Vancouver: The University of British Columbia, 1950.

Phillips, Art. “Good intentions go bad: PAST LESSONS: Exclusive public housing projects will doom the Downtown Eastside to continued misery.” The Vancouver Sun (1 November 2000); A21.

Picot, Garnet. What is Happening to Earnings Inequality and Youth Wages in the 1990s. Ottawa: Statistics Canada Analytical Studies No. 116, 1998.

Sassen, Saskia. Cities in a World Economy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2000.

Sassen, Saskia. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2001.

Sommers, Jeff. The Place of the Poor: Poverty, Space and the Politics of Representation in Downtown Vancouver, 1950-1997. Unpublished PhD dissertation. Burnaby: Simon Fraser University, 2001.

Sommers, Jeff and Nick Blomley. “The Worst Block in Vancouver?” In Reid Shier, ed., Stan Douglas: Every Building on 100 West Hastings. Arsenal Pulp Press and the Contemporary Art Gallery: Vancouver, 2003.

Vancouver Community Legal Assistance Society (VCLAS 1971). Skid Road Housing Conditions. City of Vancouver Archives, Vancouver Social Service Department, Series 454, 107-A-7. Skid Road, 1962-1971, File 5, 1970-71.

Wade, Jill. Houses For All: The Struggle for Social Housing in Vancouver, 1919-1950. Vancouver:  UBC Press, 1994.

Zyblock, Myles and Zhengxi Lin. Trickling Down or Fizzling Out: Economic Performance, Transfers, Inequality, and Low Income. Ottawa: Statistics Canada Analytical Studies No. 110, 1997.

[i] (Boddy 2003). The Lore Krill Coop is located half a block from the Woodward’s building and was constructed with funds that were originally intended for social housing there. When the building’s then-owner, Fama Holdings, reneged on its deal with the Province, the funding was re-allocated to two housing coops in the area.

[ii] The Downtown Eastside has 23% of Vancouver’ social and cooperative housing stock but only 3.2% of its population (City of Vancouver Planning Department 2001).

[iii] Business and home-owner groups in Strathcona and the Gastown tourist district have developed close associations with the NPA. For example, a prominent, long-time member of the Gastown Business Improvement Association, J.P. Shason, was intimately involved with financing the party’s civic election campaigns while another, Grant Longhurst, a communications consultant, ran the campaigns. When the NPA lost the 2002 election, a member of the Strathcona BIA sat on the its Board of Directors, together with well-known Gastown homeowner and gentrification advocate, Lynn Bryson.

[iv] These groups were organized into the Downtown Clergy Committee, which was composed of groups like St. James Social Services, First United Church, the Salvation Army, and Catholic Charities.

[v] Vancouver’s inner city neighbourhoods include the districts surrounding False Creek starting with Kitsilano, on the west, Fairview, Mount Pleasant, Strathcona, and Grandview. The Downtown peninsula includes the Central Business District, Downtown Eastside, and the West End.

[vi] (VCLAS 1971). For the response of City staff see (VSPD 1971), known informally as “The Skid Road Report.”

Noah Quastel, “Legal Strategies at the Woodwards Squat: Liberal Rights and Social Wrongs”

Noah Quastel,Legal Strategies at the Woodwards Squat: Liberal Rights and Social Wrongs”, Woodsquat (2004): 208-220.

In September of 2002 a number of persons began occupying the site of the former Woodward’s department store in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, both as a way of finding temporary housing, and also to protest the severe problem of homelessness in Vancouver, coupled with an inadequate government response. The provincial government stood by as the Crown Corporation responsible for housing and which also owned the former department store building got an injunction to remove the squatters, and then later the police were sent in to arrest them for contempt of the court order.  Some of the protesters had nowhere else to go, and after being released from jail on a promise to appear in November, returned to sleep on the sidewalks around the building. That same night the City of Vancouver police arrested the squatters, including their lawyer John Richardson, Executive Director of the PIVOT Legal Society. The police had no legal power to do this, and in the following days protesters and homeless people came to sleep on the sidewalk.  Soon over a hundred persons were sleeping in makeshift tents and cardboard houses and the Woodwards Squat developed.

There is nothing stopping someone from sleeping on the sidewalk, but if you want a tent or a tarp to protect you from the rain you would appear to be in violation of the City of Vancouver’s Street and Traffic By-law No. 2849 section 71 which says that you cannot put objects on the sidewalk. The City does give licenses to cafés and hot dog stands, and so City Council could have given approval to the squatters, but Phillip Owen and the Non Partisan Association dominated council showed no suggestion that they might approve the Squat. Instead, the City Engineer gave notice demanding that the obstructions on the sidewalks be removed, and the City made an application to have its by-law enforced. Five lawyers represented some of the squatters in the court before Mr. Justice Lowry. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association made a special appearance to defend the freedom of speech of the squatters. Other squatters directly spoke to the judge, bypassing legal formalities and asserting their moral rights. His lordship granted the injunction.[1]

Now how is it that when you have nowhere to live, when the emergency shelters are all full, and either you cannot find a room in a Single Room Occupancy hotel or you do not have the money because you are broke and welfare won’t cover you, the City will not even allow you to put up a tent under an awning? Isn’t it supposed to be that we have a basic right to housing? And if you don’t have housing don’t you have the right to stay on the sidewalk, and sleep there, saying through your actions “look, I have no housing?” And when it’s miserable and dangerous to sleep alone on the streets, don’t you have the right to do so with other people, with the safety that numbers provides? In the case of the Woodwards Squat, the answer appears to have been that the law does not respect those rights. British Columbia has become a place where government social services no longer guarantee everyone basic necessities.[2] The legal response to the Woodwards Squat shows obstacles to trying to use legal channels to address this.

Your Economic and Social Right to Squat

A lot of us feel that housing is a basic human right, but that’s often a moral position and it is not clear Canadian law recognizes that right. As it stands now, there are no laws of the City of Vancouver, the British Columbia legislature or the federal Parliament which say you can go to court to ensure you have adequate housing.  In this case, it was the City of Vancouver itself that was looking to tear down the Squat.  So the only recourse would be to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which is designed as a last ditch protection for basic human rights. The only right there mentioned which might apply is Section 7, the right “to life, liberty and security of the person.”  In the fall of 2002 there was no definitive statement that denied that the section gave people the right to housing. The squatters’ lawyers gave it a try.

The main legal source for this interpretation is international human rights law. The Universal Declarations of Human Rights is the most basic of international rights documents. Article 25 says that everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, and it includes housing with that. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – which Canada has accepted – at Article 11 states that the State parties to the convent recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination at Article 5 likewise states that State parties undertake to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, colour, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law in the enjoyment of the right to housing.

While the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms includes rights provisions that are found in International law, and certainly includes provisions found in regional instruments like the European Convention on Human Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights, it is not an implementation of any particular international human rights treaty. The Charter is to be interpreted on its own terms, as a unique Canadian document. But the Canadian courts have said that the Charter can be interpreted in light of international human rights norms.[3] The Charter should generally be presumed to provide protections afforded in similar provisions in international human rights documents which Canada has ratified.[4] The Charter has been said to be the primarily vehicle through which international human right achieve a domestic effect.[5]

What favoured the squatters’ positions was that there were general comments by the Supreme Court of Canada indicating that the Supreme Court judges were not yet ready to rule that section 7 would never be available in cases involving rights to basic necessities such as shelter. The court has said that the blanket exclusion of economic rights applied to corporations, but that economic rights fundamental to human life or survival could be treated differently.[6] The Woodwards Squat case also had the interesting feature that the squatters and their lawyers were simply asking the courts to not allow the City to kick them off the sidewalk. While the underlying motivations of some of the squatters may have been to protest the lack of temporary or appropriate housing the immediate concerns of the squatters were to simply have a place to stay. October and November of 2002 were exceptionally rainy and the small overhang gave individuals a potentially drier place to stay. The effect of breaking up the Squat would simply to have deprived the individuals of the ability to provide for themselves, and the Squat provided security, temporary housing and the ability to cook communally. Rather than demand of the State resources for their maintenance, the Defendants asked only that the state not interfere with their own meagre attempts to provide for their necessities. While bypassing problems with “positive obligations” of the State, this was not enough to shift the judge’s decision-making.

Because of procedural problems the lawyers for the squatters were not able to argue that the City bylaw itself violated the Charter.  There are requirements for giving notice of a Charter-based challenge to lawyers for the provincial and federal governments. The short time frame for arranging and launching the legal defence coupled with the disorganization of the pro bono lawyers worked against making that possible. This left the lawyers with two possible arguments. The first was that the bylaw had to be interpreted according to the values that underlined the Charter. The bylaw was meant to stop people from putting objects on the sidewalk, but didn’t apply where this was necessary for people to sleep on the sidewalk who had nowhere else to go. The second argument was that the court, in granting an injunction, was itself required to comply with the Charter.[7]

At the hearing concerning granting the injunction Mr. Justice Lowry concluded that the bylaw was clear on its face and it disallowed the Squat from continuing. The plain meaning of the bylaw was clear and there was no sense to the idea that somehow the bylaw did not apply in the present case.[8] Mr. Justice Lowry dismissed the second argument on the basis that injunction was the method whereby the City would enforce legislation.

But there is clearly more at play. The City approached the issue from the vantage point that it had a right to seek an injunction under the bylaws, and only in “exceptional circumstances” would the courts not grant the injunction, so long as the underlying wrongdoing was shown.[9] What is key here is what counts in law as an exceptional circumstance. The case law does suggest that where an injunction is sought to enforce the right of a municipality or city, the courts will be reluctant to refuse it on discretionary grounds. The fact that those who oppose the injunction will suffer hardship from enforcement will not normally be an important factor. The Defendants argued that homelessness was something more than a personal hardship, but fit into the legal category of an exceptional circumstance.

Interestingly, Lowry agreed that many of the people there did not have a better place to go.[10] But rather than speak of lack of housing or homelessness as the underlying problem, he instead chose to describe the Defendants as suffering from “poverty” and described this as “a personal circumstance.” Once so typified, it was open to the judge to rule that personal circumstances were not exceptional circumstances as under stood in the legal sense. Lowry, J. made reference to a case in which the Okanagan Indian Band  had been engaged in illegal logging, and opposed the application for an injunction unsuccessfully in part on the basis that they needed the wood to build housing and to alleviate poverty within the Nation. Lowry, J. gave as an example of an exceptional circumstance the situation wherein “there was a right that pre-existed the enactment contravened.”[11] But the squatters did not fall into the category of such an exceptional circumstance.

Charter rights, one would think, would pre-exist and take supremacy over a bylaw related to sidewalks. If there was recognition of the basic necessity of some kind of housing, this could have been considered as an exceptional circumstance. Poverty encompasses more than an immediate need for some sort of shelter. If there was no issue that shelter was a basic right then surely it could have been seen as an exceptional circumstance in the case. Rather the idea that housing is a basic right was not allowed to come into play in the decision making. This is strengthened by the fact that in one sentence, Lowry, J. simply denies that anyone’s security of the person was threatened.[12]

Once the section 7 argument failed, other Charter rights had little chance of success. Lowry did not discuss the argument on freedom of association. The Defendants argued that by grouping together, the squatters were protecting themselves and helping each other provide food and shelter, and some of the squatters wrote affidavits saying that they feared physical attack or robbery when sleeping out on their own. But generally the courts only accept freedom of association as the right to join together to do an otherwise legal act, and that merely because an activity is being done in a group does not make it thereby legal.

The argument for equality rights was not successful. The core of the idea was that a bylaw prohibiting people from keeping objects on the sidewalk had a much worse effect on homeless people than people who had places other than the sidewalk to sleep. The impact of the law thereby contributed to the marginal situation of the homeless. This required showing first that the provisions of the Charter providing for freedom from discrimination could be read to afford protection to include homeless persons. Counsel pointed out that City of Vancouver statistics on homelessness showed high percentages of aboriginal persons, persons suffering from drug or alcohol addictions and the mentally ill. Each of these categories had been recognized as grounds of discrimination either under the Charter or under provincial and federal human rights legislation.[13] Counsel further argued that removing the people from the Squat and forcing them back onto the street would further reinforce their disadvantaged position. The City, in seeking the injunction, showed no concern for the needs or circumstances of the people at the Squat, or in helping homeless people generally. This interesting argument was given little consideration, and Lowry, J. stated only that “there is no basis on which it can be said that the City is enforcing this, or any of its by-laws, in a manner that is discriminatory.”[14]

Likewise with freedom of expression. The Defendants and the intervenor British Columbia Civil Liberties Association argued that the Squat was a form of protest, and that the tents, tarps, belongings, and kitchen were a form of expression which called out to the squatters’ plight. The case law establishes that there is a right to use public property to express what you have to say.[15] Lowry. J.’s response was that individuals are only entitled to exercise their freedom of expression in public places if the form of the expression is compatible with the principle function or the intended purpose of the place. Lowry, J. found that obstructing the city’s sidewalks in breach of its by-law is clearly not a form of expression that is compatible with the use of the sidewalks. But its not clear this finding is necessary: the squatters were capable and willing to make room for people to pass so as to allow persons to walk on the sidewalk, and someone sympathetic to the plight of the homeless might also think that the sidewalks could serve the purpose of providing sleeping space and not mere transit.

Arguably, even if these underlying rights were accepted, the case also involved an element of civil disobedience. The squatters were breaking the law to make a point. A lawyer can sometimes use the Charter to strike down laws that violate Charter protected rights, but the courts are not thereby sympathetic to people breaking the law as such. Lowry, J. made it clear that concerns for upholding the law and avoiding disorder were paramount and the reasons for judgement are riddled with the language of Victorian worry – “The occupancy of the sidewalks gives rise to concerns about public safety and sanitation,” “the sidewalk area around the building [was] not available to be used by the public unimpeded,” “people are being attracted to join those occupying the sidewalks so that the numbers of those living around the building are increasing,” and “garbage such as old furniture and furnaces that ought to be taken to disposal sites is now being dumped on the sidewalks.” While “those occupying the sidewalks have continued in their unlawful conduct” the City applies to enforce its bylaws “in the discharge of its responsibilities to maintain the streets of the city clean, safe, and unobstructed, to be used by the public as intended.” Even if Lowry, J. had found there to be the various rights, there was room for him to say that in the present case enforcement of the bylaw was justified. The lawyers for the squatters asked that the injunction be delayed to give the squatters more time to find alternatives. However the Squat had already been going for a number of weeks prior to the injunction application and the City and Judge Lowry were concerned with seeing it continue. While in the heat of deciding whether to send the police in to break up the Squat this comes off as unsympathetic. However, a properly working legal guarantee of housing would hopefully provide people with decent housing, not simply make squats legal.

Why the Charter Wouldn’t Help

The fact is the Woodwards Squat was by no means the first or final attempt by lawyers to try to have judges interpret the Charter to provide for basic social and economic rights. As things turned out, the Supreme Court of Canada released decisions in the case of Gosselin v. Quebec (Attorney General) shortly after Lowry, J.’s ruling.[16] The Court was asked specifically to recognize that Section 7 of the Charter included the right to basic necessities and the majority decision side-stepped the issue. In the mid 1980s the Québec government had created a new welfare scheme whereby people under thirty received lower welfare rates than people under 30. The over 30 rate was $466 per month and the under 30 amount $170 per month. Those under 30 could, in order to receive higher amounts, participate in a type of workfare. Gosselin had trouble staying in the workfare programs and contested the scheme in part on the basis of violating her section 7 rights. She joined 75,000 other persons onto a class proceeding. Despite Madam Justice L’Arbour’s impassioned argument in support of Gosselin’s position, the majority of the judges sided with Chief Justice McLauchlin’s traditional liberal formulation: Whether or not section 7 encompasses economic rights, the case turned on whether section 7 gave a positive obligation on the state to ensure each individual’s enjoyment of those rights.  Section 7 speaks of the right not to be deprived of life, liberty, and security of the person, and so this indicates the section concerns state deprivation of these rights and such a deprivation did not exist in Gosselin’s case.

Those persons who want to read the subtleties of Charter interpretation can read the Gosselin decision. I want instead to give some background and context to why the courts are not leaning towards making Section 7 encompass rights to basic necessities. Part of the difficulty stems from the fact the Charter does not on its face reflect all of the internationally accepted human rights, that is, it looks an awful lot like those international human rights documents that relate to civil and political rights, and not much like those that protect social and economic rights. Likewise, international law reflects differing opinions on what rights are, and which ones we have.

The view of rights that developed out of liberal philosophers and revolutions of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century – as exemplified in the French Revolution, the American Bill of Rights, the constitutions of the independent Latin American countries – focused on the ways that an individual would be protected from the state and free to engage in the activities of his or her choosing. Rights were conceived as negative liberties and provided bare protections from the state that one needed to have one’s liberty protected. The prime liberties were then freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and rights to due process (such as to have a lawyer and to not be jailed without cause) and equality under the law. This was a series of rights that became entrenched as part of Western societies concurrently with the rise of industrialization and free market economies.

Concurrent with the growth of capital in the nineteenth century was an opposition that sought to deepen and expand the concepts of rights. Trade unions successfully lobbied for the recognition of the right to freedom of association, and to form and organize unions. Socialist and communist parties claimed that the most basic of rights were for economic necessities, such as the right to housing, and food. By the time the various international human rights documents were formed in the years immediately after the Second World War, contested notions of rights had crystallized into ideological conflict between opposing states. The Declaration was written after the Second World War (in 1948) and with Western industrialized democracies squeezed from the East by newly Communist countries, from the South by new post-colonial states. So Article 25 states that you also have the right to food, clothing, medical care and necessary social services.

It’s arguable that the trade-off for having states representing such different social orders all agreeing to the various human rights documents was that the documents provided no serious binding mechanisms for enforcement. The European Convention on Human Rights, for instance, provides that the European Court can order member states to pay monetary compensation to wronged individuals or change their internal laws. But the Covenants and Declarations Canada has signed that speak of a right to housing do not have such mechanisms, and the particular provisions that speak to housing do not impose these as obligations that states must accord to each individual. There is no technical impediment to Canadian provinces or the federal government writing laws that would ensure that everyone had the right to housing: Rather, social and political antagonism to the welfare state has diminished reverence for the rights Canada has repeatedly recognized.[17]

The other part of the problem is that for the most part Canada has remained on the “free world” side of the ideological debates of the early- and mid-twentieth century. Liberal values reign and they do not consider things like housing a right. Throughout the twentieth century Canada’s legal and social systems have operated on the assumption of a predominantly liberal conception of rights as a constraint on the individual’s pursuit of his own ends in a market economy. The Charter encompasses for the most part civil and political rights such as rights relating to due process under the law, safeguards of criminal procedure, and formal equality under law. The conception of social and economic rights – rights to basic living standards and necessities such as food and shelter – go to a very different conception of society wherein the state embodies collective efforts to ensure basic standards of well-being, and each has a right to live according to those standards. The purpose of rights in one approach is to protect the individual from the state, whereas in the latter the state takes an active role in forming the economy to ensure the realisation of individuals’ material needs [18]

The courts reflect this. Technically there was no case law prohibiting Mr. Justice Lowry from finding section 7 rights, but there were plenty of prior cases going against it. The courts have long said that section 7 did not protect economic rights and on this basis the interpretation of “security of the person” was rejected as giving raise to rights to housing in a number of cases involving tenants in state housing projects.[19] There are no cases where the right to housing, or indeed, any social and economic rights have been read into section 7. There exists also the widely held position that section 7 came in the section dealing with civil rights concerning criminal and penal proceedings and so dealt with safeguards against state action, not the protection of economic rights.[20] As such, the purpose of section 7 would be to guard against deprivations of life, liberty and security of the person occurring as a result of an individual’s dealings with the justice system.[21] It was on just such precedents that the majority opinion in Gossellin drew in denying that section 7 came into play.

The case does not close the door on any recognition of social and economic rights under the Charter but at the same time reinforces the traditional perspective of rights as a safeguard of the individual against government infringement. What makes Justice McLachlin’s ruling so true to liberal form is the absence of an analysis of the interconnected nature of social organizations and the state apparatus. Ms. Gosselin’s “personal difficulties” were something independent of and not caused by, the Canadian state.  This is a picture that excludes the idea of constitutional rights as playing a role in society’s ensuring its members have basic necessities. Likewise, Lowry, J. did not find that enforcing the bylaw provisions involved an incursion into the rights of the squatters, while describing their homelessness – a situation created by government cutbacks to social programs, a lack of affordable housing in the city, and a temporary shortage of shelter beds relative to shelter seekers – as the personal circumstances of being in poverty.

What Strategy Then?

The courts are only one piece in the puzzle. The need to invoke the Charter in the first place came from an absence of alternative remedies. If basic laws were in place guaranteeing housing or welfare there would be no need to invoke the Charter. These cases stem from activists looking to the courts to step in where our elected officials have not. But there is a longstanding debate as to whether judge-made law providing a right to housing would give housing advocates and the homeless just what they want. The judiciary is ill-equipped to design and implement these guarantees. Reading in the right to housing would be done on a piecemeal basis and independent of a framework for its enforcement. Even if a right is recognized, there needs to be addressed the further problem of access to justice for marginalized persons. Judges can try to become more sympathetic but it does not mean they can thereby transform a justice system. We need to keep in mind these factors before too quickly condemning judges for not reading in social and economic rights into the Charter on the basis of stopping a court injunction against squatters.

In fact these issues are not new at all. In the early 1990s there was widespread discussion of a new Canadian constitution, which paralleled growing scepticism that section 15 of the Charter, ostensibly creating equality rights, that could be used to further the causes of economic equality. The response of many people and organizations was to press for a new Social Charter as an addition to the Constitution. This was the approach of the National Anti-Poverty Organization in 1991 and 1992 during a widespread national discussion of constitutional reform. The organization’s Draft Social Charter had explicit provisions for the right to housing and other basic necessities, as well as provisions for special tribunals that would be accessible to those in need.[22] At that time there may have been greater optimism concerning changing the Constitution than there is now. Under the current rules, as provided for in the Constitution Act, 1982 this requires resolutions of the Senate, House of Commons, and the legislative assemblies of at least two-thirds of the provinces that have a total of at least fifty per cent of the population of all the provinces. The amending formula has proven difficult and attempts to change the constitution or even the amending formula itself, as seen the failed attempts of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, bodes ill for as radical a change as a Social Charter. Conversely, a Social Charter could be adopted at the level of a provincial government, and that faces the fewest obstacles of any of the proposals yet canvassed here. But that would require the appropriate political will and as we have seen that is so far lacking, even from British Columbia’s New Democratic Party governments.

This all suggests that legal action is limited, and indeed the legal action around the Woodwards Squat was not successful in stopping the injunction or in establishing precedent in law. But like many court cases it served as a further venue of publicity and so constituted one step towards building the political momentum towards the social recognition of social and economic rights.

The author would like to thank the various counsel on the case with whom he worked, being Patrick H. Dickie, David Mossop Q.C., John Richardson, Cameron A. Ward, the PIVOT Legal Society for organizing the legal team, and the firm of Vertlieb Anderson MacKay for providing the time and facilities for this piece to be written.

[1] The reasons for judgment of Mr. Justice Lowry are Vancouver (City) v. Maurice et. al., 2002 BCSC 1421. Reasons for judgment from Canadian courts released in the last three years are generally available without charge by internet at <;.

[2] Klein, Seth, and Long, Andrea. A Bad Time to Be Poor: An Analysis of British Columbia’s New Welfare Policies. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Social Planning and Research Council of B.C. 2003.

[3] National Corn Growers Assn. v. Canada (Import Tribunal),[1990] 2 S.C.R. 1324, paragraph 74

[4] Slaight Communications Inc. v. Davidson, [1989] 1 S.C.R. 1038, paragraph 23

[5] R. v. Ewanchuk, [1999] 1 S.C.R. 330, per Justice l’Huereux-Dubé at paragraph 73

[6] Irwin Toy Ltd. v Que. (A.G.) , [1989] 1 S.C.R. 927

[7] Vancouver (City) v. Vancouver Municipal and Regional Employees’ Union (1994), 118 D.L.R. (4th) 417 (B.C.S.C.) paragraph 18 and BCGEU v. British Columbia (A.G.) (1988), 31 B.C.L.R. (2d) 273 (S.C.).

[8] Vancouver (City) v. Maurice et. al at paragraph 32 and 33

[9] City of Toronto v. Polai (1969), 8 D.L.R. (3d) 689 (Ont. C.A.), aff’d (1972) 28 D.L.R. (3d) 638 (S.C.C.) Maple Ridge (District) v. Thornhill Aggregates Ltd. (1998), 47 M.P.L.R. (2d) 249 (B.C.C.A.) and British Columbia (Minister of Forests) v. Okanagan Indian Band (1999), 37 C.P.C. (4th) 224 (S.C.), aff’d 187 D.L.R. (4th) 664 (B.C.C.A.).

[10] at paragraph 18

[11] at paragraph 20

[12] at paragraph 31

[13] Toronto Dominion Bank v. Canadian Human Rights Commission (1998), 163 D.L.R.. (4th) 193 (F.C.A.), at paragraph 15, 16, Entrop v. Imperial Oil Ltd., [2000] O..J. 2689 (Ont. C.A.) 50 O.R. (3d) 18 at para. 89

[14] Vancouver (City) v. Maurice et. al. paragraph 31

[15] Committee for the Commonwealth of Canada v. Canada (1991), 77 D.L.R. (4th) at 385 (S.C.C.) as discussed by P.W. Hogg in his text Constitutional Law of Canada, vol. 2 (Toronto: Carswell, 2000 update) R. v. Guignard, 2002 SCC 14, United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1518 (U.F.C.W. v. Kmart Canada Ltd., [1999] 2 S.C.R. 1083

[16] Gosselin v. Quebec (Attorney General) 2002 SCC 84.

[17] See, for example the Comment by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights “The Nature of States parties obligations” (Art. 2, par.1) : 14/12/90.  CESCR General comment 3. (General Comments) Fifth session, 1990 on justiciable legislation at the domestic level.  Descriptions of various laws protecting rights to basic standards in different states and countries are discussed in Ewing, Keith. “Just Words and Social Justice” Review of Constitutional Studies, Vol. 5, No.1. 1999, p.53

[18] The effects of a liberal conception of rights and its antagonism to social justice oriented interpretations of the Charter, especially s. 15 dealing with equality rights, is well documented in Bakan, Joel. Just Words: Constitutional Rights and Social Wrongs. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

[19] Bernard v. Darthmouth Housing Authority 4 January 1`988, Halifax 60129 (S.S.C.) affirmed in Re Bernard and Dartmouth Housing Authority (1989) 53 D.L.R. (4th) 81 (N.S.C.A.); Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corp. v. Butler [1994] N.J. No. 407 (C.A.)

[20] Lamer, J. in Reference re SS.. 193 and 195.1(1) (c) of the Criminal Code (Man.), [1990] 1 S.C.R. 1123, and Hogg, P.W. Constitutional law of Canada (loose-leafed.) vol2. at p. 44-12.1)

[21] New Brunswick (Minister of Health and Community Services) v. G. J.)[1999] 3 S.C.R. 46 at paragraph 65; Blencoe v. British Columbia (Human Rights Commission), [2000] 2 S.C.R. 307

[22] Brodsky, Gwen. “Social Charter Issues after Beaudoin-Dobbie”. Edmonton : Centre for Constitutional Studies, University of Alberta. 1992.

David Cunningham, “A Ghetto is No Community: Policing Poverty is Nothing New in the DTES”

David Cunningham, “A Ghetto is No Community: Policing Poverty is Nothing New in the DTES”, Woodsquat (2004): 230-235.

While the Carnegie Centre celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, those of us living in the Downtown Eastside have nothing to celebrate. At the anniversary on April 27th 2003 speakers talked about community, although few of them have lived and seen their friends die in a ghetto constructed by politicians and enforced by a violent police force. Our new COPE regime, who were elected on the backs of the poor, have done nothing but furthered our suffering, the suffering that they exploited for votes. As the health catastrophe worsens here, more money is put in to maintain the quarantine. With this constant assault, we in the DTES have come to see that we have been abandoned by those on the outside who promised us assistance. The programs that were funded to help us are only helping poverty pimps cash in. The job of the police and private security firms is to keep us corralled in our ghetto, to be herded through their courts and jails only to end up back in the same place we started—on the streets with no money, no housing, no chance. We have been forced to realize that we must defend one another. That we must fight for the rights and dignity that are ours. The struggle of the DTES must come from within the DTES. When one of our brothers or sisters pays the ultimate price in this class/drug war, their death is our death, their heart is our heart and that is the heart of our struggle. For our brothers and sisters.

The Occupation Escalates

When we, the citizens of the Downtown Eastside, were informed that fifty new pigs were to be reallocated into the DTES, we wasted no time discussing the effects their brutality would have on the statistics. We are the blood and bones of those statistics and enough of our bones have been broken and our blood lost, to know: unless we fought more suffering would come. On April 5th 2003, the Saturday before the pigs escalated their occupation of our ghetto, we took to the streets. Under the banner of VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users) 150 of us snaked through the streets—marching to a proposed safe injection site we demanded that it be opened immediately, then marching to a community pig station we declared “no new police.” As we held up traffic and took over intersections our brothers and sisters on the sidewalk saw that we do have the power to stand together. The next Monday, April 7th, the 50 new cops rode in on their horses. Many of them had been reallocated from community policing centers all over the city which have lost their funding from the provincial government. Cops that are used to accommodating suburban disturbances have now been shipped into our ghetto with a vengeance. Other cops are from domestic dispute squads that were also cut by the BC Liberals, so instead of responding to women in terror they are terrorizing the people who are forced to live out on the streets.

Safe Sites, For Us By Us

On this same day of invasion our own safe site was opened by a handful of DTES residents and supporters. For all this time the safe site has been able to provide health supplies that are not otherwise being acquired due to constant surveillance, intimidation and illegal jack ups by the police. People have been able, in our sanctuary from the police, to shoot up safely with nurses and peers present as opposed to shooting alone in a hotel room or in a back alley. As well the safe site sends out witnessing shifts to patrol the pigs. Taking down badge numbers and video taping their abuses lets the cops know that they are being watched and will be held accountable at least in their legal system.

Our Struggle Escalates

On April 8th, a day after the added police presence, we rented a school bus and took a field trip to city hall. We did not wait to find out the consequences before taking action for we knew if we didn’t nobody else would. The city council was to decide if they should shell out more money to the police to keep their occupation funded for an extra six months after the first three months. Representing our brothers and sisters was the Housing Action Committee, an organization of residents, squatters, homeless persons, and people living in shelters. We came to make our message loud and clear and loud it was. For almost half an hour, fifty of us held council captive to our rage. We let them know we would fight tooth and nail against them and their police. We educated them on statistics that had been collected by drug users, proving the absurdity of policing drug use. Of 260 people asked about encounters with the cops, in this survey, 65% said after getting their drugs confiscated they immediately got more dope. Some reported they where forced to steal for more money and some said they had to turn to the sex trade, the most dangerous profession in the world. We left city hall chanting “SAFE SITE NOW!” leaving everyone present knowing that the struggle that has been brewing for a long time was surfacing to new levels. During all the publicity we and the police were getting, the real communication was happening between organizations working in the DTES. The Coalition for Harm Reduction was established linking anti-poverty groups together with lawyers and doctors, all united together against the police and for a safe site. The coalition immediately began creating a base of support for the safe site and our overall struggle. At the same time as meetings were being held in the offices of our supporters, disruptive actions were being conducted in the offices and meetings of our enemies.

No Hope for COPE

The “people’s” mayor, Larry Campbell, who has made it obvious he no longer needs poor people, had the gall to hold a meeting on the four pillars. The four pillars—prevention, treatment, harm reduction and enforcement—are the foundations for a “plan of action” crafted by the former mayor and some suits who know nothing of the reality we face day to day. We believed it was impossible to discuss the other three pillars while it was only the one pillar—enforcement—that was being supported and used as a baton to beat the poor. Angry residents, the only representatives from the DTES, were not even invited and were dragged out when it was their turn to address the room full of ignorant COPE supporters. One man was dragged out by the police chief and two other pigs, who retched his arm behind his back, while he yelled that by policing the needle exchange distribution rates have fallen at times below 50%. Our comrades in attendance screamed the same thing and were also made to leave. We stood outside the hall when people were exiting the meeting and spare changed them for money for a safe site since we weren’t getting anything from COPE who refuse to put any money into actually helping poor people. On his way out we asked Larry Campbell if he wanted to have a real discussion with us, his response was his turned back and his middle finger.

But we knew we would see him real soon: that same night. While our soup lines were being broken up by cops on horses, COPE was having a $150 a plate dinner to celebrate all their achievements. Over 30 of our brothers and sisters showed up to crash their party. We set up a poor people’s picket line to expose the hypocrisy of those crossing us. COPE has done nothing but systematically lie to us. They promised the Woodwards squatters social housing, they bought the building and are offering the same offer as before: 100 units for poor people and three times as many units for yuppies. They assured residents of our ghetto that they were against the Olympic bid that would force many of us into homelessness. But then they supported an uneven vote that allowed their financial supporters to spend millions of dollars on a propaganda campaign to convince the middle class that money is better spent on highways than social services that would save peoples lives. Then there is their most acclaimed promise: a safe injection site. Claiming council’s hands were tied and blaming government bureaucracy, COPE has done nothing but set dates for the opening of the site. These dates have come and gone while our brothers and sisters overdose in alleys and washrooms. When COPE is exposed for the liars they are they will have to save face. To ensure their progressive persona they will give into our demands and hand out some money to show the media just how much they care. In their attempts to suppress our dissent we can hold them up for funding for social housing and money into different programs.

Health Canada Makes Us Sick

We know COPE are liars and their supporters have no intention to push for a safe site. That is why we went public with our safe site. We had to open it for ourselves by ourselves. All levels of government have deliberately reneged on their responsibilities. On April 15th HAC members stormed the Health Canada office demanding to speak to Health Minister Anne McLellan. We were told it would take two weeks for a response but after explaining to staff that the only political power poor people have is disruption and we would close down their offices, those two weeks quickly became five minutes. The response as was expected. It was symbolic but we did prove that because poor people cannot afford the time or resources to go through bureaucratic channels direct action and the threat of economic disruption is the only way our voice is heard by the powers that be.

One thing is for sure, they’re listening now. On Tuesday, April 29th, the safe site that has been operating for three weeks driven by users and supporters opened “publicly.” HAC marched down Hastings to the site and opened it for a press conference where swarms of media reported statements made by representatives of the Coalition for Harm Reduction. Spokespersons from the space explained why it is necessary that professionals and volunteers come down from other neighborhoods to work in solidarity with our battle. Anti-poverty activists articulated why civil disobedience was the only way services could be provided and how this action was applying pressure to the reneging politicians to save face and do what they said they would do. Overall the diversity of the coalition was shown in unity with poor drug users beginning and closing the press conference.

Still No Justice?

Now that a movement of poor people has resurfaced and come together to defend one another and fight back we must look at how other movements that originated in the DTES lost momentum. Since so far we have achieved small victories and are maintaining momentum others now who were here before and are now nowhere to be seen will try to jump on the bandwagon. There is a lot of money to be made from our poverty. That is why our ghetto is built as a fortress to keep us in (services like detox and “safe shelters” built within the quarantine walls ensure that when we get out of treatment we repeat the cycle, again.) COPE has shown that by pretending to side with the poor, agencies of control can achieve more power, more votes, more funding contracts. For poverty pimps and charities there are millions of dollars to be made and very little has to actually reach those in need. For most non-government organizations siding with poor people on one isolated campaign increases their respectability. When it looks like we might win, activists and politicians take over so that what was to be our victory becomes their success.

Only Together Can We Fight

Most recently we saw this buy off/sell out go down at the Woodwards Squat where poverty pimps sold us out before a true accomplishment could be made. If it is to be us who fight tooth and nail—like did our brothers and sisters who stood their grounds heroically at the squat—then it must be us who determine where and how our struggle will go. When we join groups or sit in on meetings we must be sure to lead these groups through discussions and planning, and most importantly to be representing our brothers’ and sisters’ will. We are not fighting for votes. We are not fighting for power over institutions that do not serve us. We are fighting for our lives. For real power over our lives. Too many have fallen in this class war for us to lose our struggle or to lose our hope. We must intensify our actions so that their disruptive consequences inflict real damage to our oppressors. Only then will they enter into real negotiations with us in a serious way. Only then can we establish ourselves in the larger movement for justice and dignity. Only then can we fight to win!