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News
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Housing
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Municipal Politics

Who Controls Strathcona Park? Police and Councillors Clash with Tent City Residents

After confrontations, some Vancouver politicians say it’s time to shut down the eight-month-old camp.

Jen St. Denis 5 Feb 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Two Vancouver city councillors say plans to remove a tent city in Strathcona Park should be accelerated following a series of events Tuesday when camp residents challenged the presence of police and local politicians in the park.

Coun. Pete Fry said it’s clear the camp has come to be “under the leadership of criminal elements,” while Coun. Rebecca Bligh said the incidents that happened this week have made it clear to her that “criminal activity” is happening in the park.

Camp organizer Chrissy Brett disputed that characterization, calling Fry’s comments a “stereotypical, ignorant view on homelessness.”

An estimated 200 to 400 residents having been living in the park at various times since June after a previous tent city in Oppenheimer Park, also supported by Brett, was closed in May.

The city and park board have put in place a slow-moving plan to move people from the tent city — also known as Camp Kennedy Trudeau, or Camp KT — as spaces in shelters or housing become available. The goal is to relocate residents by April.

But Bligh said it’s become clear that gradual plan is no longer feasible.

“We and our staff have worked incredibly hard to try and achieve the desired outcome, which was really to acknowledge the fact that we are in a housing crisis, that people need housing and that the most humane way to decamp Strathcona Park is to… find people housing and then humanely clear the park,” Bligh told The Tyee.

“But what is clear… is that there is more criminal activity happening in that park than there is legitimate homelessness. It’s time to clear the park.”

Just after midnight on Tuesday, police arrived at the tent city to execute a search warrant in connection with a violent home invasion that led to the death of 78-year-old Usha Singh who lived near Queen Elizabeth Park, about six kilometres from the camp.

Pascal Bouthilette, 41, has been charged with second-degree murder and Sandy Parisian, 47, with manslaughter. Police charge the two men dressed as police officers to get inside Usha Singh’s home.

Parisian was known to live at the tent city, said Steve Addison, a media liaison officer with the VPD, and was arrested near the park.

Addison said a large and “volatile” group of people interfered when police went to the tent city in the early hours of Tuesday morning to execute a search warrant in connection with the case.

“Approximately 50 people did encroach upon them and attempt to interfere in the work that they were doing,” Addison said during a press conference, adding the situation became so volatile that officers had to call in help from across the city.

Video posted to YouTube and Facebook show supporters of the camp alleging the police didn’t have a search warrant and pointed weapons at Indigenous youth and women. The video shows police officers holding rifles with the gun barrels pointed towards the ground.

At several points in the video, camp supporters tell police to leave because park land is on unceded Indigenous territory. One police officer responds that Strathcona Park is a public city park. At another point, when camp supporters demand to see the search warrant, the officer tells them he can only show the search warrant to the person being served with it for privacy reasons.

In the videos, the camp supporters are at times drumming and singing, and at other times yelling and swearing at police.

On Tuesday afternoon, three city councillors — Fry, Bligh and Lisa Dominato — went to the edge of the park to do an interview with a Global News journalist.

Fry and Bligh said they were confronted by several camp residents who asked them to leave the park, which is about two kilometres from the Downtown Eastside. The councillors said they were on the very edge of the park at the corner of Hawks Avenue and Prior Street, far from the tent city.

“A woman in a scooter asked what we were doing and told us to leave the park because it was on unceded territory,” said Fry, who lives in the neighbourhood. “We advised her that we were city councillors and it was a public park. She left and returned with the quote-unquote Warriors.”

Those people told the city councillors they had to leave, Fry said. The situation didn’t feel safe, so he and the other councillors left the park.

Parisian, the man charged with manslaughter, has previously called himself the “Mayor of Oppenheimer Park,” Fry said, indicating he held some sort of leadership position at the previous tent city. Fry said it appears that certain people associated with the tent city are controlling who can go into the park.

“What I saw yesterday was a level of lawlessness that enables other lawless people,” he said.

851px version of StrathconaParkTentCityFirePit.jpg
Volunteer fire keepers gather around the sacred fire at the Strathcona Park tent city in August 2020. Photo by Jesse Winter.

Brett has previously told The Tyee that camp leaders and residents do control who can live in the main tent city, and they reject anyone who has been violent towards other people. In the past few months, camp residents have erected small fences around their area of the park to demarcate "Camp Kennedy Trudeau” from others who have also set up tents in the large city park.

Fry pointed out that several other violent incidents have happened at both Strathcona Park and Oppenheimer Park, including a man who was beaten and left unattended at Strathcona Park for 12 hours during daylight hours. The man, Carl Sinclair, later lost his leg.

Brett said violent incidents also happen in single-room occupancy hotel buildings in Vancouver’s nearby Downtown Eastside, but those buildings don’t receive as much scrutiny as the homeless camp at the park.

But Fry said he doesn’t know of any SRO buildings where management actively interfere with police investigations.

“I think that we need to assert a little bit more control in this situation,” Fry said. “I don’t think it’s fair. It’s a challenging issue for the housed residents [of Strathcona], but I think it’s also the unhoused residents who… deserve the same rights and freedoms and protections as anyone, and not to be sort of bullied by a gang.”

Brett said the comments Fry has been making to the media and in the Strathcona neighbourhood have been upsetting to people who have experienced homelessness.

“A veteran who suffers from severe PTSD and with plates and pins throughout his body and who was at my first tent city showed up here to visit,” Brett told The Tyee via text message. “He overheard Pete Fry at the Union [Market] and he showed up in tears. He could not believe the crap Pete Fry was spouting.”

Brett said that she would have offered to invite Fry to “a talking circle and request his allyship rather than his stereotypical, ignorant view on [the] homeless.”

But Fry denies he made the comments, and said he has only been at the Union Market once in the past month.*

Regarding the incident on Tuesday afternoon when city councillors were told to leave the park, Brett said she didn’t witness it.

“If they brought the same attitude VPD brought, I would probably refuse them past protocol stage,” she said. Protocol refers to an Indigenous practice the camp leaders have been requiring of all visitors which involves asking them to offer tobacco to a fire in a gesture of good intentions.

In 2008 and again in 2015, the B.C. Supreme Court struck down city bylaws — one in Victoria and the other in Abbotsford — that prohibited people from erecting shelters or sleeping in city parks. The rulings did allow municipalities to require people to pack up their tents each day.

Fry said he’d like to see a process similar to the measures Surrey used to clear the Whalley Strip in 2018, a portion of sidewalk where many homeless people lived and pitched tents. The city and province partnered to offer housing or shelter spots to people, but also made it clear that tenting would no longer be allowed on that site.

Oppenheimer Park was cleared in May after the province bought or leased several hotels and offered housing to people. As people moved out of the park, fencing was put up so no new tents could go in.

Ten months later, the park in the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood remains closed to the public.

*Story updated Feb. 6 at 8:15 a.m. to include a response from Coun. Pete Fry.  [Tyee]

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