Filed under: Analysis, British Columbia, Featured, Housing
Analysis and collection of documents from the recent squat of the Nanaimo Schoolhouse Squat in British Columbia. To listen to our podcast interview with someone from Alliance Against Displacement, go here.
“I’ve been chased around, I can’t be in the streets, I can’t be in the shelters. My only option is to go somewhere where I’m protected and where I’m with the people I love and care about.”
– Darcy Kory, Discontent City resident and Schoolhouse Squatter
A week before an injunction imposed by Nanaimo’s City Council was set to displace hundreds from Discontent City, a group of tent city residents and their supporters, including members of Alliance Against Displacement and residents of Anita Place tent city in Maple Ridge, occupied a school abandoned because of austerity cuts to public education. The Schoolhouse Squat was born. Drawing strength from our solidarity, the squat established a visible front against the suffocating chains of anti-Indigenous and anti-homeless policing, social isolation, and institutionalization. The 17 hours we spent inside the Schoolhouse Squat, from the moment we entered and blockaded the building to the aggressive police operation that forced us out, were monumental in expanding the political imaginations of our group of homeless, working class, and Indigenous fighters, and in building our collective power for the fight pushing forward.
Against the state’s war on the poor: the necessity of resistance
On September 21st, Judge Skolrood ruled in favour of the City’s of Nanaimo’s injunction application to dismantle Discontent City by October 12th. It was an explicit attack on the peaceful, self-governing community which had grown to 300 residents over five months. The Court’s decision would force residents to survive the cold winter in isolation, a path tent city resident council member Rod Boisclair described as “a death sentence”. Discontent City resident and Schoolhouse Squatter, Cori Mitchell, described the importance of the tent city in her life: “I have been living at Discontent City since day three. I have many friends living there, my daughter is there as well. I worked until I came down [to Nanaimo] to take care of my dad. And it snowballed after, just one thing after another. Thank god for tent city, because I can put my trailer in there, and try to get myself together to get employment”.
Nanaimo Director of Public Safety and Fire chief Karen Fry’s solution to the displacement of Cori, Rod, and hundreds more was bus tickets out of town for residents who have friends and family to stay with and “a map of the City’s parks” for those who don’t. When a journalist asked Cori if tent cities are a better option than shelters, Cori’s reply showed the crude reality of homelessness in Nanaimo: “There are no shelters! There are no options. They have maybe three beds available, and they are taken. Every night. The lineup for the shelter is ridiculous”.
The Schoolhouse Squat gave a platform for residents of Discontent City to speak up about conditions the City of Nanaimo forced them into, and the ways they have been silenced, attacked, and continually robbed of their agency. An hour before the squat began, the Province promised to build 170 units of Atco work-camp trailer style housing, a move that Discontent City leaders have criticized as neither adequate nor appropriate to the needs of the nearly 1,000 homeless residents of Nanaimo. BC Housing’s trailers will be run under the “supportive housing” model, which involves 24-hour surveillance, collaboration between staff and police, restrictive guest policies, and the refusal of tenant rights under the Provincial Residential Tenancy Act. Supportive housing follows a pattern seen across BC of state-led containment strategies under the facade of “helping the homeless”.
While on the roof of the school, another Discontent City resident and Schoolhouse Squatter, Ruby, explained to a journalist over the phone, “Supportive housing is not a home, it’s a place of incarceration. To be stuck in a place where they are going to fence us in and monitor us, tell us what we can and cannot do, who can and cannot come to see us, when they can or cannot do it. I don’t know if this is how you would like to live but it is most certainly not how I want to live”. The Schoolhouse Squatters challenged the “benevolent” arms of social worker-cloaked institutions that are only set to control and contain us. For 17 hours, we created a space where we exercised autonomy and supported one another, a practice that inherently challenges the state’s paternalistic “assistance” to the poor.
Solidarity and collective organizing inside the Schoolhouse Squat
Once the building was secured from an immediate assault by the police, we all headed upstairs. On the roof, we read our statement and addressed the growing crowd of anti-homeless bigots and bystanders. The police taped off the entire block surrounding the school soon after we entered, turning the neighbourhood into a crime scene and stopping the rest of our group from joining us. But we were inside: we had walls, a roof, and each other for support and protection, heat to keep us warm, and enough food to last for a couple of days.
Discontent City residents later described the feeling of security they had while staying in the building. For Cori, “Once we were inside the school yesterday, we cleaned, we cooked as a community. We all had a meal, warm bellies. It was a dry, warm place for people to sleep. We were together and felt safe despite the threatening voices outside. People were really violent, telling us to jump off the building. They said they would burn it down while we were in there”.
Although the size and violent discourse of the crowd was shocking, the anti-poor hatred was not new for people experiencing homelessness; the deeply appreciated difference was being together inside a building for protection from the elements—from both the weather, and the violence of bigots and cops.
Gathered around a freshly-made pot of chilli on what could have been the first of many dinners with our friends and comrades, a sense of warmth and solidarity surrounded us. As the evening went on, we arranged a sleeping set-up, dining room, and organized a schedule to keep watch on the roof and prepare collective meals. The uncertainty about how long we would be able to stay in our new home was quieted by our energy and feelings of relative freedom and safety. Discontent resident Rob Barker shared that it was “the best time he had since the beginning of the tent city.” The Schoolhouse Squat allowed us to build solidarity with the Discontent community while sharing the comfort and security of being indoors—for some, like Rob, it was the first time sleeping indoors in months. Repurposing unused buildings for homes is a vital way to provide for ourselves and one another, while resisting the state’s agenda of homeless death and building our collective power. For Michelle, who lives at Discontent City with her family, the highlight of this action was seeing “everybody work together to get things done that needed to be done”.
Building space for homeless people’s autonomy and survival is a necessity across BC, where municipalities are choosing to respond to homelessness by criminalizing poor people, while allowing anti-homeless bigotry to thrive. We see this in Nanaimo, where homeless people face threats from the Soldiers of Odin, a white supremacist group, and non-stop harassment from police and City Council. The destructive logics of capitalism and colonialism are the only reason people are sleeping outside when plenty of heated buildings sit empty.
From tent cities to buildings: the significance of taking space
The Schoolhouse Squat was on the occupied territory of the Snuneymuxw nation. Our group never made a claim to “own” the building or the land, instead pledging to use both for the survival of Discontent residents and others without shelter. The goal of the squat was to establish a thriving community where we could protect ourselves from winter conditions and the relentless violence of the City and police, while also fighting to abolish property rights, which are built on the continual oppression of working class and Indigenous people. As Rod articulates, “the City and the Province weren’t doing what they said they would do. So we did it ourselves”. Under Section 7 Charter rights, which are supposed to protect the security of a person and protection of personal belongings, we took an empty building to protect and defend ourselves.
Rod attributes his 61 years of activism to why he participated in the squat. He explained: “I’ve been fighting for years for prisoners rights, homeless rights. This is just another fight against the abuse of human rights,” demonstrating the need for collective liberation. Fighting to use an abandoned building for housing when there are people sleeping outside is part of a broader movement that demands no one suffer at the mercy of the colonial state. Ruby echoed Rod’s sentiments and described the squat as beyond just fighting for her home: “trust me, if I could work and be a nurse again as I was, I would do it in a heartbeat. You think this is my life goal to be homeless? No. But I’m also not going to sit off the side and be quiet, just trying to get through it. I’m going to stand up and fight for the right of every other homeless person where they are at.”
On Saturday morning, as we linked arms in a circle on the roof and saw the Emergency Response Team (Canadian equivalent of a SWAT team) approach, a powerful and lasting sense of solidarity fell over us. Far from feeling defeated, we used the last hour to cheer for each other and chant: “Fight for homes! Fight for justice!” When the police managed to pry one of our comrades out of our circle, we added their name to the chant: “ Fight for homes! Fight for justice! Fight for Sophie!” What we built together is what we will continue building: we refuse to comply to state oppression rooted in colonialism and capitalism, and will keep fighting back for the creation of our own world. As Rod described, the feeling that defined the Schoolhouse Squat was the feeling of “sitting in the circle in solidarity. Fighting to stay together, drawing strength from each other. Knowing that we wouldn’t last forever but fighting anyway.”
Tent cities rupture the current social order rooted in the systemic silencing of and state-sanctioned violence against Indigenous and working class peoples by appropriating public space to use as a resource that follows the needs of a community. The logic of the world we make in tent cities and the Schoolhouse Squat is that resources should be used by all of those in need, not exclusively accessed by owners and protected by borders of property and nation state.
Homeless people have created powerful hubs of resistance across southwest BC, forming an archipelago of people on the margins fighting for one another. Their fight for survival seeks to destroy the systems of power that value property and laws over lives, while the Canadian settler state uses hard and soft power to try to crush and control them. Tent cities in Maple Ridge, Saanich, and Nanaimo face constant attacks from the state, which attempt to undermine their power and autonomy, or dismantle them altogether: police raids, court-ordered injunctions, punitive fire orders, harassment from by-law officers, and the constant presence of social service workers.The Schoolhouse Squat emerged because of these constant attacks—an alternative must be created. Our 17 hours inside the school showed us how powerful the future we are building can be; as a common front of Indigenous and working class people, we will keep fighting for a world that doesn’t force people to sleep outside while buildings remain empty.
FOUNDING STATEMENT OF DISCONTENT CITY’S SCHOOLHOUSE SQUAT
#SquatTheEmpties! Nanaimo’s Schoolhouse Squat opened to resist Court-ordered collective punishment and end homelessness
We acknowledge that the Schoolhouse Squat is on the territory of the Snuneymuxw nation, treatied in the 1854 “Douglas” Treaty, which guarantees Snuneymuxw sovereignty over their lands and waters, and which Canada does not honour. The Schoolhouse Squat is not making a claim to title or ownership of the lands under the Rutherford school, we pledge to use the building and lands in a good way.
Today we are opening the Schoolhouse Squat as a home for the hundreds of homeless people displaced by a brutal and unjust displacement order won by the City of Nanaimo from the Supreme Court of British Columbia.
For five months, Discontent City has been a home to the homeless — in camp we were unhoused, but we made a home. The government and courts are trying to make us homeless again, and we will not go along with it. It is not right to call the Schoolhouse Squat a protest against the injustice of the court injunction, it is resistance against Canada’s collective punishment to homeless people who organize and fight back. We are resisting the death sentence dealt to our most vulnerable homeless friends by Judge Skolrod’s order to displace over 300 people to nowhere.
A protest would appeal for the government to help. We know the government is not going to help homeless people. The court-ordered displacement of Discontent City and Camp Namegans in Saanich is proof that the government and the Court wants homeless people to go away and die. We know that these powerful bodies are whipping up an anti-homeless hatred in the public. We have seen the City, Police, and Province stand by silently while a mob of hundreds gathered at our gates to assault us. We have heard the government and law use the same language as the anti-homeless mob: that the homeless are outsiders, that the homeless are dangerous, that the homeless are a threat to public order. The Schoolhouse Squat is resistance, not a protest because to beg for help from those who hate us would be a naive hope that we cannot afford while the government and courts conspire to disorganize us and scatter us into dangerous isolation.
Displacement is a court-ordered death sentence
The Court’s displacement ruling says that night-by-night park camping is good enough for homeless people. The City has offered less than 70 shelter beds to more than 300 camp residents and said we can camp in some parks between the hours of 7pm and 9am. This is not a favour, this is a death sentence.
In preparation for Discontent City’s October 12th eviction date, the City of Nanaimo has introduced amendments to Parks and Recreation Bylaws to further criminalize homelessness. These amendments include $150 fines for activities associated with homelessness, including: erecting a shelter during the day, having a shopping cart, building any kind of structure, leaving personal belongings, and a number of vague laws that give bylaw officers the power to fine people for pretty much anything, including for “fail to obey person in charge of activity,” for “remain when directed to leave,” and doing “activity contrary to signs” and “activity not designated.” These fines penalize homeless people for existing in the parks where Judge Skolrod has ordered them to go. By enforcing fines people can’t pay, homeless people are also at risk of being red-zoned from the area, which will isolate homeless people from their community and resources, until they are pushed back into the woods and shadows to die. We refuse to submit to these anti-homeless, discriminatory bylaws.
The Schoolhouse Squat is resisting the society that wants us to die by using a publicly-owned empty building as the housing we need to save our lives. We are using the Rutherford school that has been abandoned by governments that prioritizes tax cuts for corporations over education for children as housing for the homeless. We stand against corporate tax cuts and government program cuts.
The Schoolhouse Squat is resisting the government campaign of breaking up up our lifesaving community – which is larger than Nanaimo. Homeless people are not only being attacked in Nanaimo; in Saanich, Vancouver, Surrey, Maple Ridge, Vernon, Kamloops, Kelowna, Kitimat, Victoria, Langley, and every other town and city in BC people are sleeping on the cold and wet streets while buildings stand empty. We are calling for homeless people and people facing evictions and people paying more than they can afford to rent to #squattheempties. There are more than 10,000 people homeless in BC and we don’t have to be. Let us take empty buildings and use them. Our homes can’t wait for politicians.
We are not calling only for currently homeless people to join us. The only ones who benefit from upholding a unique category of “the homeless” are the social service agencies who compete for funding by showing that they can absorb and control people who are homeless in their programming. Governments, police, social workers, and corporations want to spread the myth that homeless people have something uniquely wrong with them that has to be fixed before they can be housed. This is bullshit. Homeless people are Indigenous; homeless people are working class. There is no class, social, or national difference between people who happen to be homeless today and those who may be homeless tomorrow; this division works only to divide and weaken us.
We want the Schoolhouse Squat to be a gathering place for Indigenous people displaced from their lands and dispossessed of their communities, for working class people who have lost their homes, communities, and families to low wages, high rents, overwork, and abuse, and for people in housing crisis. Come join the Schoolhouse Squat in Nanaimo, crack open a squat in your own town — you are needed and welcome. We are the people can end homelessness.
The case that the Schoolhouse Squat is protected by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and a reasonable response to recent BC Supreme Court Decisions
Our path to the Schoolhouse Squat
For 2 years the Supreme Court has leaned in favour of homeless people’s rights against the power of the state to criminalize and displace, implicitly recognizing that the dominant society is causing homelessness and harming homeless people. Those days are over.
On Sept 21st Judge Skolrood granted the displacement injunction to the City of Nanaimo, giving Discontent City 21 Days to disperse. The City of Nanaimo distributed a letter camp residents stating that there would be no immediate action “today or tomorrow” and that the City intended to assist in the successful movement of people out of Tent City into the community. They did not give us contact information such as a phone number, department, email, or any information whatsoever as to how or where to access this promised assistance.
Skolrood’s decision in Nanaimo and the earlier decision in Saanich means that the courts have joined the politically bankrupt politicians and hateful anti-homeless property owners in irrationally calling for the expulsion of homeless people from communities. After the Saanich and Nanaimo decisions are any indication, the Courts are no longer a sanctuary from anti-homeless hysteria.
The Schoolhouse Squat is the next stage of struggle against homeless displacement. The alternative is to admit defeat and watch thousands of our people shrink off into the bushes to die.
Land use not property right
The Schoolhouse Squat is making a radical claim against Canadian property rights. Public property, beginning with the idea of “Crown Land,” is a foundation of the colonial process that preceded Canada, dispossessing Indigenous peoples with the Canadian nation-state. Today, dispossessed Indigenous people make up approximately half of the people stuck living on the streets in Nanaimo as consequence of this colonial dispossession. Correcting this injustice and ending Indigenous homelessness is not part of the government’s so-called reconciliation.
We are saying that the government’s property right is hurting our people, and that using this land and this empty building is a grassroots correction to state-organized project of colonial dispossession.
There are 3 parts to our legal claim to the Schoolhouse Squat:
- The Schoolhouse Squat is on publicly owned property: Judges have found that governments have an obligation to the public good that private landowners do not. Homeless people have stopped government injunction applications by successfully claiming that public property owners have a special responsibility to the public good. We are making claim that displacing us from the Schoolhouse Squat would violate our Section 7 Charter Right to security of the person and protection of personal belongings.
- The Schoolhouse Squat is an empty and unused building: Our use of the Rutherford School as housing is not interrupting or inconveniencing any other use of this public property; we are causing no harm to any other person or community by improving homeless peoples’ access to security of the person and protection of belongings.
- The Schoolhouse Squat has all the benefits of a tent city and none of the dangers: Although the judges in both Saanich and Nanaimo tent city cases recognized that tent cities make homeless people safer and healthier in many ways, the judges ruled that the long-term use of tents in tent cities make them prone to fire hazards. The Schoolhouse Squat’s response to this ruling is to maintain homeless people’s access to the Charter right of security of the person and protection of belongings without the fire risks these judges have found inherent to long-term tent camps.