We are tired of the stigma, tired of the assumptions, tired of the intimidation and abuses of the authorities that the ‘societal know it alls’ try to pursue.
–Former member of C.R.A.B park unhoused community, who has since found stable housing
On January 13th, 2022, the tent city at C.R.A.B. Park beat the Vancouver Parks Board in the B.C. provincial court. Their historic win is precedent-setting. The injunction the Vancouver Parks Board had applied for, which would have authorized a police raid and arrests of anyone remaining at the park, was struck down. Two General Orders that the Parks Board passed banning overnight sheltering in the park were also nullified. How did we get here? What is the violent history of state repression and the counter-resistance that has led to this monumental victory? And where do we go from here? This article will attempt to answer some of these pressing questions, to build a way forward which prevents past cycles of violence from repeating.
C.R.A.B. Park (Lek’lekí) stands for “Create a Real Available Beach” and is one of the only green spaces remaining in the Downtown Eastside. The park was created as a result of a community resistance movement in the 1980s, which included a 75-day occupation with over sixty tents illegally occupying the site in 1984. The park, which borders səl̓ilw̓ət (known in colonial language as “Burrard Inlet”) has been a key focus of resistance movements for decades. Though the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) peoples are the rightful stewards of C.R.A.B. park, the BC NDP, City of Vancouver and Vancouver Parks Board refuse to return C.R.A.B. park to these host nations. Instead, they have passed legislation to more strongly dictate who can use the park, specifically by attempting to push out unhoused Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who use the space. An overnight camping by-law, Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), and two General Orders have been legislated over the past two years to facilitate further daily and intrusive park ranger patrols at C.R.A.B. park prior to the court win. Even after the win, we have seen this ranger harassment continue. State actors are going “above and beyond their scope of duties by trying to enforce the self-anointed positions of grandiose proportion,” an unhoused community member of C.R.A.B. park explains. This is yet another machination of colonialism in 2022. This is how it has always been – all about the land, power and control.
This state violence can be traced back to the colonial roots of all three government bodies. Colonial law gives them legislated control over unceded territories, and allows them to commodify the land they’ve stolen for profit. Furthermore, the law purportedly gives them the power to dictate who can and can’t exist on the land, as exemplified by these three pieces of legislation. The Parks Board, City of Vancouver, and BC NDP are a colonizing force. Shrouding their colonial violence in lies about “good intent” in the age of truth and reconciliation allows them to gain more of a stronghold as a colonial power, propping up the illegitimate occupation known as the Canadian state.
Since the displacement of Camp H.O.P.E.S. (formerly Camp Kennedy-Trudeau) from Strathcona Park, we have been part of a community working with those who lost their home by eviction. Collectively, we have continued to stand with those who were forced to relocate and those who have found a new home at C.R.A.B. Park. The dozens of camp residents and people who support the camp with mutual aid and legal observing forge onwards together, never certain which day will bring early morning police enforcement, but always certain that we will stop at nothing to keep each other safe. State violence and police aggression has always been a threat to unhoused communities ever since the Canadian state began its illegal occupation. As one unhoused C.R.A.B. community member puts it, “the cops have become an everyday thing, ever since they kicked me out of Oppenheimer park.” Some of the most beautiful moments of unhoused encampment support really do come from the small things: seeing the rangers walk away; stopping the blue fences from being closed off; witnessing the water park finally be switched on during the summer heat – all the while laughing, smoking, sharing food, and trying to theorize the government’s next move.
We have heard some park rangers say they are “just doing their jobs” while others are proud to “have more authority on this [enforcement] than the police.” The rangers’ inconsistency is a constant source of anxiety at C.R.A.B. – different arrival times, different directions and different levels of dehumanization, finding many ways to treat those sheltering in C.R.A.B. as lesser than “the general public.” Specifically, rangers have told people that tents must come down; that tents can stay up; that tents must be relocated to certain areas; that belongings must be mobile; that belongings can be stationary; that tarps with “tree-protectors” are permitted; that no tarps are permitted; that belongings must be mobile in thirty seconds; that belongings don’t need to be on a cart with wheels as long as they’re in a bag – amongst many other direct contradictions. As a C.R.A.B. unhoused community member puts it in regards to the rangers, “there is so much kindness and love in this world that waking up just to be an asshole has got to be the worst possible job in the world.”
Although C.R.A.B. park is federal land leased to the Vancouver Port Authority, it has been the BC NDP, City of Vancouver and Vancouver Parks Board who, over the past year and a half, have established the three layers of legislative bureaucracy that facilitated and legalized this colonial violence. These layers are as follows: the overnight camping by-law, the MoU between the city, Province and Parks Board, and the General Orders. In this article we will outline and discuss each of these pieces of “law,” and the implications they hold for unhoused and precariously housed people.
- The By-Law
In July 2020, the Vancouver Parks Board passed a by-law allowing overnight sheltering in parks between dusk and 7:00am. This was promoted by the Parks Board as a way to “support those experiencing homelessness.” According to park rangers, the by-law empowers them to shake tents and sometimes yell at unhoused residents to wake up for “wellness checks,” although nowhere in the by-law is this directly stated. Significantly, Vancouver Parks Board and Recreation General Manager Donnie Rosa has stated that a goal of the by-law is to increase ranger/police collaboration, indicating that their interpretation of the by-law is to enhance law enforcement instead of supporting unhoused people. This motive is evident to residents of C.R.A.B.:
They [state actors] need to take a step back and take into consideration the position of trust they fein on the audiences, that they are about as transparent as the fake uniforms, and masks they yield as life preserving servants of our city. Think about it. Is your greed and arrogance really going to save lives? Or just your own and the tiny little group you surround yourselves with in a great big universe of good versus evil.
The by-law recognizes that “the BC Supreme Court ruled that any bylaws prohibiting homeless people from erecting temporary shelters and sleeping in city parks would be a Charter right violation given the lack of adequate shelter capacity for individuals experiencing homelessness,” referencing the Court decisions of Shantz and Adams. The Shantz and Adams decisions both concluded that amid an absence of alternatives, denying unhoused people the right to temporarily shelter in parks violates their Section 7 Charter right to life, liberty and security of a person. Exemplifying the twisted logic of the so-called Canadian Charter of “Rights and Freedoms,” these decisions have helped create a dangerous precedent for further infringing upon these “rights.” The Shantz and Adams decisions have been used by city governments including Vancouver, Kelowna, and Nanaimo, to enact “overnight sheltering in parks” by-laws, which allow sheltering only during specific windows of time (and increased law enforcement outside of those windows).
Overnight camping by-laws make surviving even more difficult for unhoused communities. They heighten the surveillance and harassment that unhoused people already face, as now every morning they must pack down their homes under the surveillance of park rangers, with police present or on standby. Although harassment of unhoused people in parks has always been pervasive, the fact that municipal governments celebrate their increased, legislated, and now further normalized harassment as “supporting homeless populations” is significant.
As one resident explains, residents caring for and supporting each other at C.R.A.B. is what saves lives – not State surveillance: “I see people suffer and it gets to me… I can’t do anything else but put my own shit aside and help them, even though I’m also one in need… why, I always asked everyone and myself, this is the most important question you could ever ask… why.” We must keep asking why: Why are people without houses treated differently? Why aren’t State resources being distributed in a way that actually keeps us all safe?
- The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU)
In April 2021, almost a year after the by-law was implemented, the Parks Board, City of Vancouver, and BC NDP signed an MoU “that formalizes their commitment to work together to end the Strathcona Park encampment and help prevent encampments in the future.” It is well documented that Tent Cities save lives. Yet according to all three bodies, the proper course of action is to prevent and foreclose their existence. Tent cities shouldn’t replace social housing covered by the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA) if the latter ensures tenants’ autonomy and is free from non-profit staff control and surveillance. However, people should be able to live outdoors if it is the best option for them, which may well be the case given systemic housing shortages, ever-escalating rents, predatory landlords, surveillance in non-profit housing, and the like. Significantly, the recent January 13th court ruling in favour of the C.R.A.B. park tent city mentions that the General Manager Donnie Rosa is permitted to designate day-time areas for sheltering. This could drastically reduce the harms of the by-law, but so far Rosa and the City have failed to follow the decision.
Today the government defines and dictates who is “deserving” of very limited “support.” In addition, this support often comes with a tradeoff, tending to limit autonomy while mandating surveillance and control. Under colonialism and capitalism, this is how governments “help” the unhoused: dictating peoples’ housing and other needs. The hundreds of supportive housing units that the MoU references have and will infringe on the tenancy rights of current and future tenants. For instance, most non-profit housing forces tenants to sign “program agreements,” which relinquish rights under the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA), despite this being an illegal practice. Furthermore, the current supportive housing model has been developed without input from the impacted community: a top-down containment strategy, not a way forward. Forcing “supports” on people who don’t want or need them robs them of their autonomy.
The MoU helped to facilitate the lie that everyone was offered housing after the Strathcona eviction, clearly stating its intention of “securing accommodation for people currently living in and around Strathcona Park by April 30, 2021.” The Parks Board, City & BC NDP have furthered that lie. Months past April 30th, countless people still have no housing offers or remain on wait lists despite having already waited months since the Strathcona displacement. Many others are now trying to survive inadequate housing with lethal no-guest policies, decrepit conditions and other barriers to feeling safe. Anti-guest policies kill people by forcing them to use drugs in isolation, putting them at risk of overdose by a poisoned drug supply. Some former Strathcona residents were shocked to be billed thousands of dollars of back rent to their housing provider after being told rent would “be covered for 6 months” by outreach workers “assisting” with the destruction of Strathcona tent city.
According to Mayor Kennedy Stewart, destroying the homes and communities unhoused people build through encampments is altruism, stating “[the MOU] gives us a plan to follow, to get those experiencing homelessness into homes, with the critical supports and services they need to get back onto their feet.” Stewart defines housing by his terms rather than the terms of those seeking it, and celebrates this as an act of support and kindness. The dehumanisation and paternalism politicians who “support the homeless” use when discussing their “solutions to homelessness” has a long history. As one C.R.A.B. park unhoused community member puts it, these issues have a long history and trace back to “ever since all this shit started…which was about…ever since I could remember.”
- General Orders
On July 8th 2021, the Vancouver Parks Board put a General Order in place barring any “temporary structures” from the entirety of C.R.A.B. park in order to prevent unhoused people from making a home there day or night. A similar General Order was issued at the end of Camp KT/Camp H.O.P.E.S in the spring of 2020. These Orders are passed rapidly and without notice by the General Manager of the Parks Board, Donnie Rosa, and all use the language of “ensuring equitable park access,” stating that their purpose is to “ensure the park remains available to all users” (but apparently not users who need it most). The tents take up a small fraction of the park, leaving no conclusion other than the Parks Board does not consider the unhoused community desirable “users of a public park.”
The week after the July 8th General Order for C.R.A.B. Park was passed, the City and Parks Board contracted Super Save Fence Rentals to erect blue fences around the encampment’s perimeter. This had a physical and emotional impact on C.R.A.B. residents, as they are now enclosed in a cage-like structure. The fences, which have become a well-known sight around unhoused encampments, are intrusive and domineering. They are also incredibly dangerous during extreme weather as was seen this past November during heavy storms. People could have died under the fences which were toppled during the wind. One C.R.A.B. resident explains her perspective:
I don’t feel safe with the fences, if I was being chased I would only have two, far away exit points. There are fights that happen here, nothing to do with the camp, but just rowdy people on Friday nights, and if a camper is walking by them and they decide to involve them, there is not much that a camper can do to get away safely. There are only two exits and the water.
On September 7th, 2021, Donnie Rosa passed another General Order stating that the southwest part of the park, where the encampment is located, would be closed. It was enforced on September 9th and tight red fences aggressively went up, pushing people into tighter and tighter quarters, a practice similar to colonial land theft and the reservation system. Additionally, the Vancouver Parks Board tried to deploy 24/7 ranger surveillance of the park after the second General Order, with rangers patrolling three surveilled checkpoints, policing who can enter the encampment and what they can bring with them.
Why is this happening?
The overnight camping by-law, MoU, and General Orders exacerbate and reinforce each other. Both the by-law and the MoU are framed as “supporting the homeless,” but the General Orders do blatantly the opposite. Their clear aim was to prevent unhoused people from ever sheltering or even spending time at C.R.A.B. park. Evidently, the faux-progressive messaging of the first two items has allowed for overtly anti-poor General Orders to be ushered in more easily.
This manoeuvring allows liberal governments that have been elected on “benevolent” political platforms to not only continue their allegiance to colonial and capitalist violence, but push the boundaries of what they can get away with. Liberal governments offer a facade of a solution to justify their aggression. Rather than trying to understand the reasons why people do not feel supported by the “solutions” offered by the by-law and MoU, the Province, City, and Parks Board instead say “too bad, we tried” and default to their preferred method of overt violence. For example, on both July 8th and July 15th, 2021, police and rangers stole personal belongings that weren’t immediately claimed, throwing many valuable items in the trash. This practice is mirrored on a daily basis by City-led “street sweeps” that swarm DTES streets. Another police raid occurred at C.R.A.B. in early September after the second General Order. And the stark colonial tactics of theft, enforcing state-controlled borders and reducing peoples’ access to land continue to happen to this day.
The progressive cover of these violent laws and policies also functions to convince housed and precariously-housed people that they are not in community with those who are unhoused. By using language that separates unhoused people from “the public,” all three government bodies dehumanize and stigmatize unhoused people. The MoU further creates a divide between housed and unhoused people by clearly stating the former deserve the park in ways the latter don’t. The MoU excludes unhoused people from the community by stating the importance of “fencing and bylaw enforcement to prevent people from moving back into the park and remediating the site for future community use.” That future community clearly excludes the unhoused people who are prevented from moving back to C.R.A.B. park. When people are framed as less than human, it’s easier for the State to further brutalize them, a long-used tactic serving white supremacism, capital, and the carceral state.
Believing the government is “fixing things” gives housed people a misplaced antidote to squelch their discomfort at living in a divided world. Faux-progressive policies entrench the state’s power by convincing people not to question the motives, actions and colonial existence of the state and fight for something better. One C.R.A.B. resident explains: “Didn’t anyone foresee this shit happening?? Sometimes I feel so alone in this… watching my fellow humans suffer but I can’t do anything about it, and other times I feel like Batman, learning and thriving off the darkness.”
The by-law, the MoU, and the General Orders all attempt to convince us that housed people have more in common with government officials than with their unhoused neighbours. In reality, we all have more in common with each other, and far more power as a collective, than we do with the property-owning and government-bureaucrat class. The status quo of deep inequality and death on the streets is easier for the state to maintain if people remain divided, isolated and alienated, etc. The stigmatizing and divisive language all three measures use (“all park users,” “for the public”) firmly places the unhoused in a distinct social group. This lie attempts to break apart the power we have when we fight together.
After passing these coordinated pieces of legislation and orders aimed at making the park an inhospitable environment for unhoused community members, the Vancouver Parks Board escalated their warfare against the poor. In October, the Vancouver Parks Board filed for an injunction to displace the tent encampment at C.R.A.B. park. But powerful resistance from the camp had never stopped – before the injunction application was filed, two camp leaders filed a petition opposing both the July and September General Orders. Over the course of the fall, dozens of residents filed affidavits describing why any State actor who claims “everyone [in the park] was offered housing” is blatantly lying. These offers simply didn’t happen and/or weren’t adequate housing. Parks Board Chair Camil Dumont has been quoted saying “BC Housing has confirmed there are available indoor spaces for people to access,” further demonstrating the disconnect as “indoor spaces” shouldn’t be conflated with housing. Many people would rather sleep outside than live in SROs and shelters for a wide-variety of reasons, including bugs, mould, decrepit conditions and surveillance. Once again, the state has defined housing on its own violent terms rather than listening to the needs and desires of unhoused people.
Both the resident petition against the two General Orders and the Parks Board’s injunction application were heard in court cases on December 2nd and 3rd, 2021. We remained vigilant in the waiting period, as we knew that no matter what the court decision was, the stakes for unhoused people sheltering in C.R.A.B. and other parks would remain high. The tent city in Prince George had a precedent-setting win in the courts in November, but the city still bulldozed Prince George tent city homes to the ground after the win.
A true victory happens in the streets and in the parks, as we come together and form a collective offensive and defensive against the sickening violence of encampment displacements on occupied and sovereign Indigenous lands. Almost 60 people gathered outside the Parks Board office on November 25th demanding no evictions from C.R.A.B. park. A similar crowd also appeared in front of the courts. Almost a thousand people have signed a petition.
The cyclical and insidious colonial violence from the Parks Board and City never dimmed the brilliant fighting spirits of residents: individuals who are creating a home, caring for each other, demanding adequate housing, and making history. The victory goes beyond the courtroom too – community resistance and care will continue regardless of the violence this illegal occupation known as Canada tries to enact.