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Opinion: Forced removal at Moccasin Flats a human rights concern

The evidence is clear: Criminalizing dehoused individuals perpetuates homelessness. As does violence enacted against them.
Moccasin Flats 3 WEB
Debris is seen at the tent camp known as Moccasin Flats last Thursday.

On October 22, 2021, the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled that the encampment named Moccasin Flats on Lower Patricia Boulevard in Prince George, where approximately 80 dehoused individuals live, will not be removed because there isn’t sufficient shelter space available to them. In doing so, Chief Justice Hinkson found that the city’s assertion that there was sufficient shelter space for the residents of Moccasin Flats failed to take proper consideration of the significant barriers that exist with regard to accessing housing. Chief Justice Hinkson also noted that there was no admissible evidence supporting the city’s claim that crime has increased due to the encampment, or that by forcefully removing it, crime levels are likely to decrease.    

Then, in spite of the court ruling, on November 17, 2021, the city bulldozed Moccasin Flats.

Good on the city for trying to find dehoused individuals a warm place to live as the temperatures decline. However, the way in which these relocations occurred violated human rights and perpetuates distrustful relationships between the City and our dehoused citizens. In the rush to put the dehoused out of sight and mind, the PG City Bylaw team came in with machinery and began to bulldoze homes, with personal possessions still in them. Since it was disability cheque day, individuals who weren’t offered housing were away from home and could not protect their homes and belongings. Now, despite Chief Justice Hinkson’s ruling, other dehoused individuals are afraid to stay at Moccasin Flats because of the possibility of their belongings being bulldozed.

Housing is a human right under international law. The United Nations Human Rights Council determined that: "Homelessness is a profound assault on dignity, social inclusion and the right to life. It is a prima facie violation of the right to housing and violates a number of other human rights in addition to the right to life, including non-discrimination, health, water and sanitation, security of the person and freedom from cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment" (Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing A/HRC/43/43, para.30).

The city had prepared weeks in advance to relocate residents of Moccasin Flats to a transitional housing solution in the converted Knights Inn at the heart of downtown. In official statements about the relocation, the City states that they are “working closely with partners to ensure public health and safety.” However, despite ample time to consult with residents about the move, they have never actually done so. The residents did not provide informed consent for the destruction of their belongings, nor were they consulted about the adequacy of the housing solutions made available – to the extent such were made available. In the rush to remove them, residents were led to believe they would be arrested if they remained or continued to camp at Moccasin Flats. In addition, many important Indigenous service providers, like the Prince George Nechako Aboriginal Employment and Training Association (PGNAETA) and Community Partners Addressing Homelessness (CPAH) were not aware of the City’s plans. Further, the City did not consult researchers for guidance to think about the evidence basis for prioritizing housing candidates or how to transition tent cities. 

The evidence is clear: Criminalizing dehoused individuals perpetuates homelessness. As does violence enacted against them. Housing experts like Alex Nelson highlight that individuals with lived experience of homelessness and housing insecurity must to be centred in decision-making about housing issues – or, “nothing about us without us.”  Others like Jessie Thistle note that homelessness cannot be understood only by a lack of shelter; rather, it includes lack of support services, health inequalities, and severed relationships between individuals, their communities, and the land itself. 

Without questioning the city’s best intentions and commitment to the safety, health and wellbeing of all inhabitants of Prince George, recent actions by the city perpetuate harm.

This relocation can therefore be read as the most recent example in a long history of municipal colonialism in what is now the City of Prince George. As a recent article in The Citizen said, there are many parallels between this forced removal and the forced removal the Lheidli T’enneh on November 18, 1913. Let us make ourselves clear. Not everyone living in Moccasin Flats was Indigenous and housing issues are not unique to Indigenous peoples. That being said, as Cole Harris and other researchers have argued, around the world part of the colonial project was conceptually rearranging the land so that every bit had its proper purpose and use. In the case of Harris’ book, Making Native Space, he talks about how reserves were created in British Columbia to clearly delineate Indigenous spaces from non-Indigenous spaces. From this perspective the 1913 forced relocation of the Lheidli T’enneh was an attempt to clearly distinguish between the non-Indigenous Georges (South Fort George, Central Fort George, and Prince George proper) and Lheidli T’enneh. In a similar vein, the ambiguity of Moccasin Flats today is problematic for anyone who sees communities as a place for the housed.

The city has an opportunity to centre lived experience and implement “out of the box” solutions in relation to services, bylaws, and actions that affect dehoused individuals. We hope they are up to the task.

Jonathan Alschech is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at UNBC. Daniel Sims is a member of the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation and an associate professor in the Department of First Nations Studies at UNBC. Tara Joly is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at UNBC. Juls Budau is a masters candidate in the School of Social Work at UNBC. Heather Peters is an associate professor in the School of Social Work at UNBC. Robert Budde is a professor in the Department of English at UNBC.