Saturday, November 6, 2010

when it's time, it's time.

It's the talk of the town. Mayor Dean’s house and car were attacked.

If there’s one thing I learned during my extended journey through college and university, it’s that there’s always more to what’s going on than meets the eye. In this fast-food, want-it-now culture, some people have a tendency to look merely at the status of events in the moment, forgetting that everything has a history leading up to it.

Womens' Studies, at UVic, taught me to consider that violence against women is never an isolated incident, but rather a consequence of systemic sexism that is inherent to the patriarchy. With that in mind, and in an attempt to hopefully help understand what’s happening in our city, I’m thinking of some of the history leading up to the Dean Fortin Incident.

* The year 2001 – Gordon Campbell and 76 other BC “Liberals” took control of the BC Legislature, leaving only two opposition voices – Jenny Kwan and Joy McPhail – to witness the dismantling of our social safety net. Many of the details are captured here.

* Accompanied by structural adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Canada’s federal government is also in the midst of a swing to the political right which is historically known to increase the gaps between the ultra-wealthy and the ultra-poor, with systematic dismantling of the middle class recently added to its portfolio.

* In January 2004 a determined homeless man, David Arthur Johnston (currently imprisoned at Wilkinson Jail), insisted on the right to sleep outside on public property. Over many months as he attempted to sleep at St. Ann’s, originally established as a place of refuge for the destitute among us and currently owned by the PCC – the Provincial Capital Commission - he was harassed, intimidated, tortured with sleep deprivation by, he claims, a security officer who was hired just for the purpose. David’s journal is here.

* In support of David and his mission, homeless people establish a tent city on a small piece of civic green space known as Cridge Park. The camp’s inhabitants do their best to feed and care for each other, and deal with drug dealers also interested in inhabiting the space, without any assistance from the authorities. The camp is, after some months, declared a public mess (what would your house look like with no toilet, no garbage or recycling pickup?), firehoses are directed towards barbeques and police toss everyone’s possessions in the garbage.

* Some resourceful tenters find two women lawyers, Irene Faulkner and Cathie Boies Parker, who identify a City bylaw (making it illegal for anyone to erect shelter in public parks) a violation of Canada’s Constitution which guarantees the universal right to life, liberty, and security of person. Not only were homeless people being denied assistance from the state, they were being punished for their efforts to create shelter for themselves. Testimonials, affidavits, were collected from the tenters and the lawyers proceeded, pro bono, with what has become a historic success at the BC Supreme Court. After a couple of years of toe-tapping and finger-wagging from lawyers working on behalf of the City and Province, Madam Justice Carol Ross announced her decision that yes, based on all the evidence presented, it is a violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights of Freedoms to prevent homeless people, when there are no shelter spaces available, from erecting shelter to protect themselves from the cold Canadian winters.

* In 2008 almost $150,000 of public funds were handed out to former Victoria Police Chief Paul Battershill, who was put on administrative leave and suspended with pay. Battershill sold his house and left town. Former Mayor Alan Lowe then hired Jamie Graham who had “retired” from the Vancouver Police Department in February 2007 saying "Age and tenure is a factor but I've done this a long time and you just tend to know," he said. "Everyone says you know when it's time, and it's time."

Graham arrived in Victoria surrounded with controversy, including the death of indigenous man Frank Paul who froze to death in an alley after being dumped there by Vancouver Police, non-cooperation with an investigation into 50 allegations of police misconduct including 6 who admitted they beat up suspected drug dealers, and an internal investigation after he left a used target practice sheet with bullet holes through the head of the silhouette on the desk of the city manager. In response to this, reported the Vancouver Sun, “Graham issued a written statement, saying: ‘The original gesture was made with only the most positive of intentions.’”

* In late 2008, in Victoria, a municipal election resulted in a changing of the guards …. sort of. Councillor Dean Fortin became Mayor Dean Fortin, and all but councilor Sonya Chandler voted to appeal Madam Ross’ decision. This was expensive and lacked the kind of innovation and creativity voters had hoped for. Even the corporate advertising funded Times Colonist reported, in an article title “Welcome to your nightmare, Mr. Mayor", on November 16th 2008.

Throughout the campaign we heard complaints that the election had been hijacked by downtown social issues -- homelessness, crime, mental illness, addictions -- better dealt with by federal and provincial governments than city hall. Too bad. Whether Victorians think the solution is free hugs and homes or a napalm strike on the Tent City, this is their dominant issue -- and if you're a politician, and the downtown circus is the biggest concern for your voters, you had better haul out the elephant-sized pooper scooper, overwhelmed by the job as you may be. An estimated 1,500 homeless people live -- if you can call it that -- in Greater Victoria. That includes 324 individuals whom the police dealt with 23,000 times over a 40-month period, spinning them through the revolving door that leads from the courts to the shelters to the streets to the hospitals. Council should be screaming about that, demanding senior government get engaged in a meaningful way.

There's lots more interesting reading about this election here.

* Some City Councillors visited Portland’s Dignity Village. Even Mayor Dean had email correspondence with the very successful and self-sustaining Dignity Village collective. But his focus quickly shifted away from getting elected, to reaping its benefits. Even while discussion of increasing poverty, the need for a fixed site needle exchange, and constructive solutions to help the homeless face the 2008 winter were fresh in voter’s minds, Mayor Dean voted to increase his own base salary from $74,458 to $97,760.

* 2010 Olympic costs are in the millions of dollars, approximately $3.5 million for the torch relay alone. Provincial authorities cut off public access to gambling money, even while increasing opportunities for gamblers with online opportunities. Theatres, artists, and musicians all feel the squeeze.

* A year after the Olympic Torch paraded through Victoria (which also cost our city a fair chunk), a year after the elaborate and expensive Games commenced, Victorians learn that three shelters will be closing in Victoria on October 31st. Authorities attempt to ease citizen concerns with the announcement of a bright shiny new homeless shelter in Rock Bay, which will house all the people from one of the three shelters. What about the approximately 70 people losing their shelter mats, and the loss of available hot food as a result? Is it really a good idea to throw homeless people to the lions on Hallowe’en night? What about Christian charity – does it only apply when funding’s available? Provincial authorities pay approximately $35 per person for mat per night to those providing shelter space, will that $73,000 per month that the province is now saving also be used to pay off the Olympic debt?

* City Council passes, with one dissenting vote (from Philippe Lucas) a new bylaw making it illegal for homeless people to tent on boulevards. Now unable to sleep overnight on a greenspace in a neighbourhood which is well lit and has a large drop in centre with food and showers and warmth in the daytimes, homeless people are forced into adjacent neighbourhoods. One homeless bashing, by a city bylaw officer, is reported.

* A city is divided. Cool Aid and the copywrited Coalition to End Homelessness (the “Task Force” established by out-going Mayor Alan Lowe, not to be confused with the pre-existing grassroots and non-copywrited Committee to End Homelessness) with four paid staff people issue press releases commending and celebrating the shiny new shelter space while downplaying the loss of mats and ignoring the increasing systemic poverty and homelessness created by the collapse of a failing capitalist economic system. Sure, there are new efforts at creating affordable housing – the recently purchased Traveller’s Inns which aren’t yet completely renovated and which only have subsidies guaranteed by the provincial government for three months after which time, who knows, market rents? And the new building on Humboldt St., not yet completed and as yet uncertain as to who will live there and what it will cost, never mind the fact that it is being built where formerly a CNIB built residence for the blind had been renovated not long prior to its demise. Yes, there’s an extreme weather protocol, but it’s just about more mats on floors and it doesn’t take effect until extreme weather. It’s been raining for 24 hours. That’s extreme enough, don’t you think, to let people set up a tent and stay dry rather than having to pack up soggy gear and carry it around all day until night falls again?

* David Johnston and David Shebib challenge the city bylaw that limits tent living to night-time, insisting that homeless people have a right to sleep in the daytime with their own shelter if they need or choose to. The court hears their argument, and in late October David Johnston becomes impatient awaiting the verdict, sets up a tent in the daytime at city hall, is promptly arrested and taken to Wilkinson Jail where he refuses to eat.

* Prices continue to go up, rent continues to increase, minimum wage remains at $8 per hour. Banks falter, are bailed out, and report massive profits. The oil industry is subsidized, while the recycling bio-diesel co-op is dinged with a new tax. Business as usual persists, the gap between rich and poor increases, just as predicted by those who watch the IMF and the World Bank and the ways their policies play out.

* Throughout all this, advocates continue to offer creative solutions. The Committee to End Homelessness, and the more recently formed Victoria Anti-Poverty Coalition hold regular meetings, inviting homeless people to attend, proclaiming “Nothing About Us Without Us.” Tony Hoar provides binners with bike trailers, some that transform into tent platforms for sleeping. I continue to produce and subsidize the monthly Victoria Street Newz, which keeps a small number of low income people housed and fed and, presumably, able to help their friends through these hard times. I broadcast discussions with interesting people like architect Art Dyson and homeless man Al Williams who are building Eco-villages for homeless people in California on CFUV radio. B Channel News emerges in an effort to provide non-corporate coverage of city news. Print alternatives include Focus Magazine, Monday Magazine, and The Bridge.

Food Not Bombs volunteers with a budget of 0 dollars continue to serve hot vegetarian meals made of rescued food (otherwise considered “waste” in our excessive culture) and serves it up with a side of social transformation on Sunday afternoons, rain or shine, all winter long. And there are, no doubt, a myriad host of other individuals doing their part – feeding the food banks, allowing tents in their back yards, offering what they can to brighten the day of someone less fortunate.

And even now, a decade into the 21st century, all this creativity seems lost on the banks and realtors who insist that buying and selling the earth, this stolen native land, is “how it is done,” and on the governments and capitalists who support them. We just can’t have people scavenging recycled and reclaimed materials and establishing their own homesteads, they quietly mutter, casting jealous eyes at our brilliant attempts to liberate ourselves, finally and completely, from the chains of economic colonialism.

* Dean Fortin’s home is vandalized. As they’d say in any number of the University and College classes I attended …. Discuss.