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  • Writer's picturestephen schecter

Zimbabwe at the Park Board

The City of Vancouver’s Park Board held consultations recently on a proposed by-law to permit people to camp overnight in public parks. Vancouver is notorious for the number of people living in the streets. The Downtown East Side, a stretch of blocks along Hastings Street that runs into a major tourist attraction at one end and into a growing refurbished neighborhood at the other end, has been a permanent feature of the city for at least a half century. Homeless derelicts, drugs addicts, the mentally unstable, along with a host of unsavory characters populate this area, sleep on sidewalks, congregate there during the day with their wares and their garbage. Over the years these vagrants, as they once would have been called, have expanded their reach, turning neighboring streets into litter sprawl under the sympathetic and powerless gaze of the local authorities, city council, police, and social services combined. Over a year ago they invaded a public park in the area called Oppenheimer Park and turned it into a tent encampment with all the attendant debris: stolen goods, needles, condoms, among all the rest of the trash. The nearby Japanese Cultural Center was looted and the Japanese Vancouver community which traditionally held their annual festival in that park was forced to go elsewhere. To drive along the street that bordered the park was an aesthetic horror. One could get nauseous just looking at the mess, and the local inhabitants had to gaze upon it for over a year. The Parks Board refused to do anything about it until the Provincial Government stepped in during the Covid-19 pandemic and forced the inhabitants out, relocating them to a downtown hotel which reports indicate they have now trashed in equal measure to what they did in the park. The champions of the homeless did not lose heart and turned their minds to another solution, namely allowing the homeless of Vancouver, who can be found at varying times of the day or night sleeping in public places - streets, sidewalks, doorways of buildings – to sleep in the public parks of Vancouver from dusk to 8 am. This was the proposal staff brought to the Park Board Commissioners to approve and on which the public was invited to comment.

Almost all the written submissions the Park Board received were against the proposal, and the same could be said for the oral presentations during the two evenings of public hearings, although there were two distinct groups who opposed the by-law. The first group opposed the proposal because they feared all the parks in Vancouver would go the way of Oppenheimer Park, which today remains fenced in while the ground is under repair after the mess the squatters made. In fact, residents of that neighborhood will not be able to enjoy their park for another year. These opponents of the by-law drew attention not only to Oppenheimer Park, but also to Strathcona Park on the border of the Downtown East Side, the site of the latest attempt to erect permanent tents. Residents of that neighborhood drew attention to the many dangers which this new encampment brought, making enjoyment of the park difficult, especially for families with children. The park is now littered with needles and used condoms. A swing seat was set on fire. Alcohol is openly consumed. Residents of downtown Vancouver closer to the water complained that their high density made the parks an essential part of their living space, but even without encampments they could no longer bring their children to use them. People defecate, urinate and copulate in the parks. Needles from drug addicts and used condoms are part of the familiar debris. If the residents do not clean up the grass areas, no one will do it. The Park Board has only three full-time rangers and the equivalent of perhaps another four to monitor the over two hundred parks in Vancouver. Clearly, opponents of the proposal said, there is no way this by-law will be enforced, especially given the inability of the authorities to keep the parks clean now, when camping is still banned.

A former ranger himself pointed out both the difficulty in, and the necessity of, enforcing a no camping rule in Stanley Park, the biggest park in Vancouver which borders the water. Allowing camping there would ruin this priceless green space, as he knows from experience. A few opponents of the proposal also pointed out that contrary to what was claimed in the staff report justifying the by-law, namely that other court rulings had declared the need for housing a constitutional right which overrode municipal laws banning tents in public spaces, this was a specious argument. Lower courts often render rulings which, on appeal, are reversed, and the two cited in the staff report could easily be challenged by the Vancouver Park Board all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Nowhere in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is housing mentioned as a constitutional right, and it would be interesting to see what the Supreme Court would have to say about that. If housing were a constitutional right, what about food? Clothes? Cars? We might be on the verge of a continuous occupation of more than simply parks. But the Commissioners who were pushing this amendment to the Parks by-laws were not interested in such considerations. Nor were they mindful of the warnings from opponents of this proposal that it would only increase the numbers of homeless in Vancouver once word went forth across Canada that people could move to Vancouver and live in tents in the city’s parks, albeit ones that had to come down every morning. For everyone knew that this by-law would be unenforceable. The Park Board has neither the will nor the manpower to see that it would be respected.

The other group opposed to the by-law felt it did not go far enough. It was precisely the idea that people who camped in the parks had to get up and leave at 8 am every morning which bothered and outraged them. They too argued that this was unenforceable. People could not be expected to pack up and go so early, and this morning after morning. But it was also cruel and heartless, they claimed, and castigated the Commissioners for not taking into account the needs and feelings of the homeless who would be taking advantage of this by-law. These people had expertise, they claimed, which the Parks Board was not taking advantage of, sidelining them by not consulting them about a proposal which directly affected them and to which they could speak. More consultation was needed before this proposal should be adopted, even if they agreed with the intention behind it, namely, to provide shelter for Vancouver’s homeless. Many of the people who advocated this position disagreed with the claims of the first group. They saw no debris, no used needles and condoms, no danger to children and dogs. On the contrary, they only saw people like them, members of a local residents’ association, who only needed to be approached with warmth and kindness to appreciate their common humanity. To speak of the dangers, they argued, was to increase the unwarranted fear, needless scaremongering and scapegoating, which was already far too prevalent when it came to the homeless. It was even racist, they suggested, given that natives constituted a disproportionate part of the homeless population. Indeed, many in this group of opponents of the by-law started off their argument by stating they were white settlers on the unceded and stolen land of a number of First Nations. Allowing the homeless to put up tents on park land only to force them to pack up and move every morning was but one more instance of white colonialism with respect to indigenous people, when what was needed was the decolonization of the city, a goal to which, they claimed, the Park Board had committed itself two years earlier when new commissioners had taken office.

At this point I realized the Park Board of Vancouver was no longer in the parks business. If it were, the Commissioners would not be in the housing business, nor would they be trying to address the question of homelessness for which they had neither the expertise nor the resources. After all, no one has really done a census of the homeless in Vancouver to know who they are, where they come from, what they do, where their families are. How many are drifters, how many mental patients, how many drug addicts? Clearly they have expertise, for they have survived on the streets for years, but their expertise does not extend to putting a roof over their heads, nor does it lead to carrying their share of the tax burden. I doubt if the champions of the homeless, actual and hypothetical, who addressed the Commissioners have any real idea of the complexities of the problem. But I did get that in their conception of the problem, the homeless are victims pure and simple, and if they share a humanity with us, that humanity does not extend to being responsible for their lives. In fact, the homeless – as the de-colonizers would have it – are the perpetual signifiers of the evil that lies at the heart of our society, which is nothing less than the racist colonialism, to use their words, which was and continues to be responsible for their plight. Given that even the Park Board commissioners were not ready last week to take on the task of decolonialization, we must be content with an ongoing squabble about senseless measures to deal with the homeless. And in the process drag in another question far beyond the competence of the Park Board, to wit: the question of treaties between the Governments of Canada and British Columbia and the First Nations.

What I found both shocking and outrageous was that the Commissioners sat there and said nary a word while these flower children of the disenfranchised continued their rant, one after another. They even complimented the Commissioners for using the parks as leverage on other levels of government to take action. Not only did they ignore what everyone else in Vancouver knows, that the tent cities that spring up in parks ruin the parks for everyone else, denying the evidence recounted by residents in other parts of the city; they also went on the attack, labeling anybody with a roof over their heads the beneficiaries of privilege. White privilege, it was understood, of which they themselves even admitted profiting as self-identifying white settlers. For a minute I thought Vancouver was Rhodesia and I was listening to the liberation leaders of our own future Zimbabwe. Not for them any sympathy for struggling young couples with enormous mortgages crowded into shoebox housing whose neighborhoods, parks included, were a vital part of their living space. No, I was listening to the commissars of the decolonized city of the future who would, in the name of some imagined higher morality, wreak destruction on all of us, the homeless included, when even they continued to shoot up and drink and have sex in the liberated parks of the future.

This little vignette was a sitcom that opened a window into what goes on in every university, corporation and parliament of the western world today. Which is why it is worth recounting and dissecting. On any given day you read of the thought police like these citizens come to say their piece, attacking the rest of us deplorables who dare to think that modern society demands of all of us that we be accountable for our actions and our lives. Perhaps that notion is too biblical for them, too much an old verity which they would be all too ready to jettison as they pursue their narcissism of little differences. Amazon bans Ezra Levant’s book on the China Virus. A student at Fordham University in New York City is reprimanded for disagreeing with the Black Lives Matter group, just as the chancellor of UBC was forced from his post because he dared to approve of a Twitter post by a respectable pundit who also took issue with the Black Lives Matter movement. And so it goes, our intellectual and political elites caving in to this gobbledygook because they too have produced it and ingested it in the halls of the academy where the supposed mindful have lost their minds. This ludicrous scenario at the Vancouver Park Board may still be comical, but the day is fast approaching when we will no longer be able to laugh because it will have become de rigueur everywhere to pledge allegiance to the mantras of victimhood. I suppose all that was missing at the Park Board meeting was a castigation of Israel and a declaration of support for the Palestinians made homeless not by their own villainy but by the heartless privilege of apartheid Jews. Shame on the Park Board Commissioners for not calling these insufferable moralists out. Shame on them too for joining in. But shame too on the Vancouver City Council for allowing their counterparts to shut down access to the Georgia Viaduct for an entire weekend. And shame on the Board of Governors of UBC for shaming their chancellor. And shame on the denizens of Vancouver for allowing this degradation of our public space to continue apace. And shame on all of us in modern society for colluding in this foreclosure of free speech and thought without which our lives would be terribly diminished. But then the Trudeau government is planning on letting a Chinese company install security x-ray machines in 178 of our embassies around the world. Decolonization rocks! Zimbabwe here we come. Zimbabwe, whose freedom fighter turned dictator ruined the country before moving on to become goodwill ambassador for the WHO.

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