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BC Supreme Court Hearing on Moccasin Flats closure enters third day

November 17 tent city dismantling at centre of case against the City’s petition
Prince George courthouse. (via John Deacon, Courthouse Co.)

A hearing regarding the City of Prince George’s petition to evict the remaining residents and close down the encampment on Lower Patricia Boulevard known as Moccasin Flats is entering its third day of proceedings. 

Over the course of two days, the court heard arguments relating to whether or not the occupants of the Lower Patricia encampment have access to suitable housing and what happened on Nov. 17 when structures at the encampment were dismantled. 

The hearing began on Dec. 14 in the Supreme Court of British Columbia before Justice Simon R. Coval. 

A previous Supreme Court ruling from Justice Hinkson in October determined that the Lower Patricia encampment was permitted to remain open until suitable housing and daytime facilities were available. 

The city is now seeking to remove the last residents from the encampment but the question remains whether or not the city was able to satisfy the conditions of the original Hinkson decision. 

The city’s arguments 

Lawyers for the city, Troy De Souza and Jordan McKay,  argued that BC Housing has obtained housing for almost all of the occupants at Lower Patricia and that they were provided with a room at the recently acquired Knights Inn.

“We are not trying to solve the housing issue in the city of Prince George, we are just trying to solve the housing issue at the Lower Patricia encampment which is what we have done pursuant to the Chief Justice’s order,” said DeSouza.

De Souza stated as of Dec. 6 BC Housing identified only one remaining occupant at the encampment, known as Bell Johnny, who is a named respondent in the proceedings. 

He said the city worked with BC Housing to get all occupants of Lower Patrica housing with the exception of one person who refused it and that the city has now complied with the only outstanding term indicated by Hinkson’s ruling. 

However, it wasn’t long into the proceedings before the question of what happened on Nov. 17 was addressed. 

Justice Coval asked how the encampment could have been dismantled given Hinkson's order permitting the encampment to remain. 

DeSouza’s answer was that "people were given housing." He explained that BC Housing marked where the tents were and gave the occupants bags to take their personal belongings and drove them to new housing and those marked tents were then taken down. 

“I think it may be fair to say there may have been some tents taken down that should not have been. Mistakes do happen,” said DeSouza. 

“For those folks that may have lost something, there is a claim before the city and they can make that claim. The good thing was that these people were given housing and they are trying to do their best due diligence in a very difficult situation.” 

He added there is no restriction in Hinkson’s order from the city being able to clean up its property.  

“If there are either one or two people left at Lower Patricia, there is more than enough housing for them, and we are saying that the encampment should not be held up for one or two people. That is why we are back here,” said DeSouza. 

The opposing arguments 

Darlene Kavka and Melanie Begalka, lawyers from the First Nations Justice Council, argued that many people who were living at Lower Patrica are still homeless and were displaced by the city’s actions on Nov. 17.

“People went home and found their things were gone, they thought they were safe and they had no warning,” said Kavka. 

“The city’s suggestion that city bylaw officers had any kind of handle on how many people were residing there is not believable. It would suggest they are there 24 hours a day. The homeless are not there 24 hours a day and neither are the city or BC Housing employees.” 

Kavka said when the city and BC Housing employees do their rounds at the encampment they are operating on a five-day week schedule at normal business hours and the people who stay at the encampment don’t operate on those kinds of hours.

She later presented affidavit evidence from witnesses that indicated there could be as many as eight people or more still living at the encampment. 

“The more important issue is that there are far more people who are still at Lower Patricia and many are also displaced who will never go back and are wandering the streets. The affidavit material that is before the court clarifies that people wanted housing, would have taken it if offered, and their things were destroyed without notice."

She said it is extremely important the court understand the circumstances are not as simple as what has been stated. 

Kavka referred to an affidavit from Bell Johnny, the named respondent, and explained he could not accept housing at the Knights Inn because that would mean he would have to give up his tools which he needs to obtain work as a ticketed tradesman. 

“He cannot go into a motel room and take his goods because there are limitations to what you can take in there.”

Kavka presented affidavits which included evidence from 13 people who stated they were living at Moccasin Flats and that the city took no steps to obtain their consent to remove and destroy personal belongings, tents, clothing and other items. 

This included a deposition from Deanna Marie Lindstrom, a 59-year-old Indigenous woman, who was living at the encampment. 

She said she was grieving the loss of her mother and was not at the encampment on Nov. 17 but when she returned she found everything she owned and needed to survive, including gifts from her deceased mother, were gone. 

She was so devastated she attempted to obtain enough drugs to die by suicide but instead was helped by the employees at the needle exchange. She also stated that she did not consent to the destruction of her things and would have taken housing if offered.

Kavka argued that because of the city’s actions on Nov. 17 many of the respondents from the first case are still homeless and are now without tents, sleeping bags, and a safe place to rest. 

Homeless people 'caught in the crossfire'

Kavka argued that the city’s petition to the court completely omits what happened on Nov. 17 and Justice Coval agreed with her point and said the city’s submissions to the court have not dealt with what happened on that day.  

Begalka later noted this case is back before the courts because the interpretation of Hinkson’s first order was not entirely clear. 

“We should be back in front of chief justice Hinkson clarifying the terms of his order because it is not clear. I take a very different view of what this order means and the city does too and homeless people have been caught in the crossfire and that is what we are dealing with here.” 

She said the issue of lack of suitable housing has not been resolved, only improved, and that not everyone who was occupying Lower Patricia was lucky enough to get housing because they might not have been offered or might have not been there at the time BC Housing outreach workers were. 

“Despite that, they demolished the camp anyway and we say they did not take adequate measures to make sure everyone was adequately housed before destroying the tents and the shelters and so they come back to relitigate the bylaw breach.” 

Begalka also took issue with DeSouza’s submission from earlier proceedings that the city may have made a mistake. 

“This was not a small mistake,” said Begalka. “It was a very serious mistake and it really, really hurt people - and you have heard the affidavits - people were left to sleep in the snow that night and this was in the face of an order that said they could stay.” 

Begalka said it is not a mistake that the court should accept. 

The hearing will continue today, Dec. 16, where Begalka will have an opportunity to finish her submissions to the court before the city is provided an opportunity for a rebuttal. 

Justice Coval is also allowing time for updated submissions on the availability of daytime shelter facilities in the city before making his ruling.