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

2005/01/01 - Leave a Response

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”

2005/01/01 - Leave a Response

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!