Tenters settle on B.C.-owned land under police watch, but ministry hasn’t authorized camp removal
Saanich police say Transportation Ministry hasn’t authorized camp’s removal
About 40 people in 27 tents were hunkered down in a new encampment Saturday while a pair of Saanich police officers watched from a distance.
Most of the campers had moved to the site — a provincially owned green space bounded by Ravine Way, Carey Road and Blanshard Street — from a long-term homeless camp in Regina Park, some via a stop in Rudd Park.
The Regina Park site was shut down last week after five months by a B.C. Supreme Court injunction, forcing more than 100 people to relocate.
Saanich police issued a statement Saturday evening saying the Transportation Ministry, which owns the property, has not authorized police to enforce the Trespass Act and remove the tenters from the new site.
Police said large quantities of furniture and other materials have been delivered to the property, and the group has a “significantly more confrontational tone” than experienced during the Regina Park encampment.
Camp organizer Chrissy Brett said campers are claiming the new spot as an “urban reserve.”
“We wanted to create a place where everyone could belong, so we’ve decided to claim this as the first urban reserve here in B.C. and we are now Namegans Nation. Namegans means ‘we are all one’ in Namgis.”
Brett is a member of the Nuxalk First Nation from Bella Coola. Namgis First Nation is based in Alert Bay on the north end of the Island.
The Regina Park site was known as Camp Namegans.
Brett said because it’s on provincial land, the new location is exempt from a Saanich bylaw that says camping in 102 designated municipal parks can happen only from 7 p.m. to 9 a.m.
“We figured that we should look for green space that doesn’t have park, that’s not lined up against a bunch of houses — and allow people that are citizens to be able to share space,” Brett said.
Once Regina Park undergoes remediation from long-term camping use, those who were staying there will be permitted to return, as long as they obey the bylaw prohibiting daytime camping, Saanich has said.
Camper Blair Este said it was hard to have to break up the Regina Park camp and separate into smaller groups, but he is not giving up. “If we get forced out of here, it’s on to the next spot and the next spot and the next spot.”
Brett said Saanich police have warned that the group might be handed a notice of trespass at some point.
Brett said the group is aware that some nearby residents are concerned about the new encampment, but members have been trying to reassure them.
“A neighbour that stopped in felt a lot of her fears were alleviated by coming and having a conversation,” she said.
“I think there will always be neighbours that don’t understand and I think there are neighbours that are open to understanding what those larger issues are.”
Brett said all levels of government need to get involved to address the housing crisis.
“So here is our invitation to [Saanich] Mayor [Richard] Atwell, [B.C. Premier] John Horgan and [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau to come to our table and discuss this housing crisis that we’re facing all over Canada.”
In a statement, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said the encampment highlights the lack of affordable and supportive housing options in the region.
It said the province remains committed to its offer of funding to the District of Saanich to build new supportive housing, citing a 10-year plan to build 2,500 units of supportive housing provincewide. “In the meantime, we will continue to do everything we can to support people who are experiencing homelessness, including those at the new homeless camp,” the statement said.
It said that includes working with non-profits to expedite the opening of winter shelters and to distribute rent supplements to help people find rental housing in the private market.
The injunction calling for campers to leave Regina Park was issued Sept. 7 in B.C. Supreme Court, with Justice Ward Branch pointing to fire safety as a major reason behind his decision. A cigarette had led to a minor fire in a tent the previous week.
The temporary injunction will last up to 10 months, at which point the issue of a permanent injunction will be decided in court.
Saanich police talk to people who have set up a new encampment at Carey Road and Ravine Way. Police say the group has a “significantly more confrontational tone” than the five-month Regina Park encampment.