After six months, the fate of Nanaimo’s Discontent City remains in flux.
A BC Supreme Court decision from Justice Ronald Skolrood on September 21 ruled that Discontent City residents would have to leave the camp by midnight October 12 or risk being removed by the RCMP.
Despite recognizing that tent cities provide a sense of safety and community for their residents, Justice Skolrood ruled that the health and safety risk of maintaining Discontent City was too great to let the camp remain. Justice Skolrood said that residents of the camp could seek refuge in Nanaimo shelters, as well as camp overnight in Colliery Dam, Bowen Park, and Pioneer Park overnight between 7:00 pm and 9:00 am. Nanaimo does not have enough shelter beds to accommodate the 300 residents of Discontent City, and residents say that overnight camping violates their charter rights to security of the person.
Both the City of Nanaimo and BC Housing have plans to develop housing projects in Nanaimo. City Council approved a new program to offer rental properties 10–25 percent below market value to people with low incomes. Meanwhile, BC Housing is developing 170 units of temporary modular housing at two different sites in Nanaimo. These units are being developed specifically for Discontent City residents. The units will not be completed until the end of November.
On October 5, BC Minister of Housing Selena Robinson announced that the province was ready to provide security resources that would prevent new residents from entering the camp and allow Discontent City to remain open until the temporary modular housing project is completed. She called on the City of Nanaimo to allow Discontent City to continue, but the Nanaimo City Council refused.
On the same day as Robinson’s announcement a group of 20, made up of Discontent City residents and Alliance Against Displacement organizers, broke in to the abandoned Rutherford Elementary School in north Nanaimo, deeming their move the Schoolhouse Squat. This was done in response to Justice Skolrood’s decision. In an online article, the Alliance Against Displacement wrote, “Judge Skolrood and the Supreme Court ruled that, while tent cities provide community, safety, and security, they are also a fire hazard. We believe that this means tent cities without tents (squats!) should be a reasonable and legal solution to homelessness as long as the government is not building the housing we so desperately need.”
Rutherford Elementary School was shuttered in 2017 due to low enrollment and a high cost of maintenance on the building. The Schoolhouse Squat ended in a standoff between the squatters and Nanaimo RCMP. After two days, the RCMP and the Nanaimo Fire Department removed the squatters and charged them with trespassing. School District 68 Board Chair, Steve Rae alleges that the squatters inflicted $100K of damage to the property. Rae posted photos of the damage to social media, including on the Alliance Against Displacement Facebook page, which reportedly deleted the post and blocked Rae from their page. The Alliance Against Displacement refutes Rae’s claims and says he has exaggerated the extent of the damage.
Discontent City legal counsel Noah Ross requested an application to delay the October 12 eviction date in light of the new provincially–funded modular housing project. A hearing will be held on October 19 where Justice Skolrood will decide whether Discontent City will remain open. The City of Nanaimo says it will respect the Court’s decision, however, it is committed to closing the camp.
Discontent City was formed in the wake of a previous tent city on City Hall grounds. The campers were protesting against City Council for failing to find a location for a provincially funded, low-barrier supportive housing building with 24-hour staffing in the Chase River area. Nanaimo Mayor Bill McKay said that the project was not the right fit for Nanaimo. He said that the Nanaimo City Council was not given enough time to consult with residents of Chase River, and could not agree to the provincial government’s timeline. The provincial government abandoned Nanaimo’s bid and offered the project to Parksville instead. Parksville has since approved the project.
Originally, Discontent City had 22 campers. The site was chosen because of its proximity to services such as a medical clinic, the Salvation Army New Hope Centre, grocery stores, and the methadone clinic. Among the first campers was Amber McGrath. McGrath is not homeless, however she stayed in the camp for the first six weeks and continues to help organize with other camp leaders.
“We wanted people to be seen. We wanted to shock them and give them a shake,” McGrath said. “I never thought it would still be going. I thought the City would have stepped up sooner.”
McGrath says that the camp quickly grew. By the end of the first week, Discontent City was home to 50 residents.
“Then it just went haywire,” she said. “The RCMP and the bylaw officers fully admit that they went to parks between 7:00 pm and 9:00 am and told people to go to Discontent City. I believe they overloaded the camp on purpose.”
Discontent City organizers kept records of who was living in the camp, what their needs were, and if they had an emergency contact for the first six weeks, McGrath said. However, after the City removed the gate on the property, people kept flooding in and the records became difficult to maintain. According to a July 12 affidavit by respondent Mike Pindar, “Though initially there were attempts to register people as they entered the Tent City, only about one-quarter of the camp members registered, and it has not been possible to maintain an accurate and updated list.”
Within the camp, residents would meet regularly for camp council meetings where people would discuss the needs of the residents, as well as how to properly comply with city fire orders. McGrath says that many disputes were resolved by the camp council and that the main organizers made themselves known to City Council on the second day of camp. She says that camp residents made efforts to comply with fire orders by clearing the site of blackberry bushes and other materials that posed a fire risk.
Due to her involvement with Discontent City, McGrath has received constant threats and has been fired from one job. She is on disability assistance and currently works part-time. If it wasn’t for what McGrath calls her “miracle house,” she would be homeless. She said that Discontent City has faced harassment from the first day.
“I take cabs or walk with somebody everywhere I go because I get three to four death threats a week,” McGrath said. “I’ve had a man pull up in his SUV and call me the ‘stupid fat bitch that started that camp with all the junkies.’ Then he spit in my face. I’ve had a beer bottle thrown at me. It’s not safe. If that’s the way they’re treating me, then how are they treating the people in the camp?”
The threats that campers and camp organizers face prevents some from stepping forward on Discontent City’s behalf or affiliating themselves with the camp publicly.
The City of Nanaimo states that the camp organizers kept changing or were often absent, and that the camp was growing out of control. They say that due to their lack of knowledge about who is living in Discontent City, and who is in charge, it has been difficult to know what camp residents want.
“It’s really hard to help somebody when you can’t get their name,” Nanaimo Mayor Bill McKay said. “BC Housing contracted the services of the Canadian Mental Health Association, (CMHA), and the Portland Hotel Society out of Victoria. I also received an unsolicited offer of help from another Victoria social organization. It’s my understanding that the Portland Hotel Society and CMHA have had resistance from residents of Discontent City.”
“We hear all kinds of anecdotal stories about who’s down there. We need to know who’s there and what help they need. Are they prepared to take our help, are they prepared to go into a managed site as opposed to what’s there now? Some will, some won’t.”
McKay stands by the September 21 injunction. He said that regardless of whether people transition into new housing alternatives or not that they must eventually leave their camp. By the time the BC Supreme Court rules on Discontent City’s fate, McKay will no longer be the mayor of Nanaimo. Municipal elections will be held October 20, and McKay is not seeking re-election. In context of his departure, McKay implored future city councillors and the future mayor to take action on homelessness.
“I think this is as bad as it gets,” he said. “If you don’t pay attention to it at this stage you’re going to see some awful things start to happen. I think people’s personal property will be jeopardized, as well as people’s personal safety. Desperate people will do desperate things. Let’s grab the opportunity now and understand that now is the time to help. Now is the time to take bold steps in trying to help people better their plight in life.”