Canada’s federal government is pursuing an aggressive tough-on-crime agenda. Federal legislation has increased sentence lengths, imposed unrealistic and probably unconstitutional fines on offenders, and deprived many currently incarcerated people of many basic amenities during their time in prison.
AUTHOR’S NOTE | This article emerges from 5 years of working as a community organizer for the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU). Thank you to the VANDU Board for allowing me to lean on their community organizing work and to collaborate in developing an analysis of the ‘mass incarceration agenda.’ And thank you to all the VANDU members who shared their experiences, challenged my ignorance and encouraged me to contribute this analysis to the struggle against the drug war and the war on the poor.
The last decade in Canada has seen the strengthening of the instruments of repression of the Canadian State such that we can now begin to describe and analyse the neoliberal containment state as a specific set of policies and institutions. These policies and institutions are aimed at containing the growing social ‘disorder’ and emerging resistance that have resulted from 30 years of the neoliberal economic order.
One of the experiences that propelled me into the migrant justice movement occurred thirteen years ago when Bilquis Fatima, a 64-year Pakistani refugee in a wheelchair, was reported to immigration officials during her dialysis treatment at the hospital. She was incarcerated with her son Imran, a minor, for over a month while awaiting deportation.
The very real experiences of thousands of migrants like Bilquis who are afraid of accessing healthcare, who are unable to enroll their children in school, who are denied access to food banks, who are ineligible for a range of social assistance benefits, who are detained by local police forces and turned over to immigration enforcement has underscored the critical and urgent need for Sanctuary City movements.
Last week, four Downtown Eastside residents went to court to challenge a Vancouver bylaw that effectively prohibits subsistence street vending in the city. The street vending bylaw penalizes a survival strategy for low-income people who struggle to make ends meet. More than 95% of all street-vending tickets issued in Vancouver were for bylaw infractions in the DTES. The neighborhood is also the location of the city’s highest rates of ticketing for jaywalking.
Louise Lagimodiere (right) and Dave Hamm (left) – Photo by Ward Perrin, The Province
Louise Lagimodiere (picture above) is a 70-year old Indigenous senior and member of VANDU. “I got two tickets more than a year ago,” she in an interview with The Mainlander yesterday, “but yet I’m still being called to court. I didn’t harm anybody yet they are spending thousands of dollars trying to get money out of me I don’t have. I wouldn’t be vending if I had the money to pay these fines.”
The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPPC) has now rejected the reasons given by the Vancouver Mayor and Police Department for dismissing a complaint of discriminatory by-law enforcement in the Downtown Eastside. The complaint was filed by VANDU and Pivot Legal Society when it was revealed that 95% of all vending tickets and 76% of all jaywalking tickets were handed out in the Downtown Eastside. In September 2013, the Mayor dismissed the joint legal complaint and spoke in favor of a VDP board decision to dismiss the VANDU delegation.
The OPPC is a watchdog formed in 2011 in response to a systemic lack of police accountability in British Columbia.
VANDU members have been fighting against discriminatory by-law enforcement for more than a decade. In 2010 VANDU members collaborated on the Pedestrian Safety Project to address traffic safety concerns for pedestrians in the DTES. The VPD opposed the changes, including a 30km speed zone along Hastings. Many of the recommendations of the Project have since been implemented. At a press conference today, however, VANDU vice president Laura Shaver stated that police need to do more to focus enforcing speeds limits for drivers instead of fines for low-income pedestrians. “It is not the people hitting the cars, it is the cars hitting the people,” Shaver said.
Last week the Vancouver Police Board voted to dismiss a joint complaint filed in March 2013 by VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users) and Pivot Legal Society. The complaint was based on a freedom of information request revealing that up to 95% of Vancouver’s vending by-law tickets are given out in the Downtown Eastside (DTES).
Pivot and VANDU called on the police to implement the recommendations of the Murdered and Missing Women’s Inquiry, which called on the VPD stop the disproportionate ticketing of poor, homeless, and under-housed residents in the DTES.
Immediately after the Mayor’s decision, PIVOT announced that it will be filing an appeal with Office of Police Complaints Commission. PIVOT and VANDU will also continue with their constitutional challenge against the City’s vending by-law. According to Pivot lawyer Doug King, the challenge will be heard in the courts next Spring, 2014.