Sunday, 19 October 2008

Silent Spring

Up, Down, Appendices.

A silent spring it is indeed, or will be soon at any rate. Thinking of Moses on Pisgah. He had already been told that he would not go to the Promised Land, only see it from a distance - another example of our reach exceeding our grasp.

Some days I feel very old and tired. This Blogger thing is soooo pernickety, very difficult to get images arranged as you would like them, and today I have simply given up. That, and also, by the time they see that the foundering of "The Market" was a blessing not a curse, it will be (close to, almost, on the very verge of being ...) too late to deal with global warming.

They were talking about girls forced into the Cambodian sex trade in Church today but I was left feeling that they didn't really know much about it. Hand wringers. The Preacher was weeping at the end of it, well, I was weeping too though for a different reason I believe.

Rachel Carson:

One of the articles below is about the exhibition of feminist art now showing in Vancouver. Sets me thinking about Elizabeth May and her daughter Cate who are out there fighting the good fight - losing maybe, maybe it appears that they are losing, and yet in every picture their smiles are truer, clearer, more authentic (to me).

Elizabeth May and her daughter Cate:
Elizabeth & Cate

But I have never been one of those who thinks righteousness has anything to do with sex. Fernando Gabeira of the Green Party has a shot at being mayor of Rio de Janeiro. I don't really think he is going to make it, but again ... each day his smile comes more directly to me.

Fernando Gabeira and one with Carlos Minc:

Bringing my mind around eventually to Anthony Quinn and his young wife Kathy Benvin ... this because I am at the minute thinking of marrying a young friend if she will have me - who knows?

Chico Mendes killed by the greed-heads. And finally, Euphrasie Mirindi of the Congo, raped and re-raped by the jungle soldiers if the Interahamwe & Impuzamugambi - and the nit-wit hand-wringers reporting this as if it were news (!).


1. Silent Spring, Tim Flannery, October 18, 2008.
2. In an airless hearing room, public dissent goes on trial, John Barber, October 18, 2008.
3. Wack attack, Sarah Milroy, October 17, 2008.
4. 'I'm trying not to gloat too much', Justine Hunter, October 18, 2008.
5. Editorial, The 'right' to camp on public property, October 18, 2008.

Silent Spring, Tim Flannery, October 18, 2008.

Rachel Carson's epic work gave birth to the modern environmental movement.

The 1950s were deeply disturbing times. Our fathers, traumatized yet intoxicated by their victorious wartime power, had turned upon our Earth, unleashing the same chemical and nuclear weapons they had deployed a few short years earlier on their fellow human beings.

So unhinged were the times that serious proposals were advanced by Russian scientists to use nuclear weapons to destroy the Arctic ice cap and so ameliorate the climate of the world.

Canada entertained its own mad schemes. On Feb. 10, 1959, Time magazine reported that the Richfield Oil Corp. planned to explode a series of two-kiloton nuclear weapons below the Alberta tar sands, creating cavities that would fill with liquefied tar.

They claimed that 300 billion barrels of crude oil would be created, and the experts assured everyone that there would be no hazard from radioactivity.

As horrifying as this potential misuse of atomic power was, it was the chemical weapons then being aerially sprayed across North America that held the greater danger.

Rachel Carson was a marine biologist who was only reluctantly drawn into researching their impact, and at the time she penned her epic work, she was already suffering from the cancer that would, just two years later, take her life.

She begins Silent Spring with these words: "There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings."

It was the ruthless destruction of that idyll of rural America that formed the basis of a work that has been rightly hailed as giving birth to the modern environmental movement.

Carson's ability to make science understandable was formidable.

I have never read as simple or elegant an explanation of chemical composition as she provides for the organochlorides, the group to which the 200-odd chemicals that were then destroying her country belonged.

It was not just nature that was suffering.

Carson carefully details many instances of fatal human poisonings. A farmer's wife was poisoned after her husband sprayed. A baby and a small dog died after returning to a house where endrin had been used to kill cockroaches.

In some programs, half the men who sprayed DDT for the World Health Organization suffered convulsions and death.

Given that the chemicals are close relatives of the nerve gases developed by the Germans in the Second World War, none of this should have been surprising.

The scale of the spraying was enormous: The amount of parathion used annually in California alone was enough, according to one expert, to kill the human population of the world five to 10 times over.

As she researched, Carson received letters from all over the country informing her of the mass death of birds following spraying.

She learned that the toxins were accumulating in the reproductive organs of survivors, making them infertile.

At times, the destruction was deliberate: In 1959, in southern Indiana, farmers purposely sprayed the roosting site of red-winged blackbirds, killing 65,000, along with uncounted raccoons, rabbits and other life.

The destruction did not end on land. In the late 1950s, spraying of forests along the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, to control spruce budworm, devastated the region's salmon run.

Streams all across the continent were being emptied of fish and other life, yet, despite the devastation, neither government nor the corporations manufacturing the toxins showed the least concern.

They kept issuing mollifying statements, dismissing concerns as the complaints of nature lovers who were against progress, until Silent Spring exposed them for the merchants of death that they were.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy was that the spraying was ineffective.

Yes, it killed pest insects, but it also killed the creatures that held their populations in check. These predators breed more slowly than the pests, so that the year after a spraying, the numbers of pests often increased, and another, more intensive spraying was required.

Long before the development of organochlorides, entomologists knew what the solution to pest infestations was: Increasing ecosystem health by pursuing organic forms of agriculture, and the manipulation of predator insects, provided safe and effective means of controlling pests.

The trouble was that corporations couldn't make fortunes that way.

With the illusion of a quick fix, the pesticide companies had set us on a cataclysmic course.

We might think that the madness of the 1950s is over, but its effects are still with us, for the poisons remain in our bodies, often passed to us in our mother's milk.

Many are immoveable until the moment of our death.

Some of these chemicals are carcinogens, and the elevated rates of some cancers seen in some rural areas today may be caused by them.

Others affect fertility, and striking instances of decreases in male fertility, such as documented in Denmark over the past half century, may also result from the spraying of yesteryear.

If Rachel Carson's book has a central message today, it is that every action has its consequences, for in poisoning the world, we poisoned ourselves.

For those in the business of unsustainable greed, whether it be in the mortgage business or the tar sands, it's a lesson worth pondering.

Tim Flannery is chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council and author of "The Weather Makers." In 2007, he was named Australian of the Year.

In an airless hearing room, public dissent goes on trial, John Barber, October 18, 2008.

There is an elderly gent manning the door to Hearing Room 16-2 in the anonymous downtown office building where the Ontario Municipal Board convenes.

He looks, dresses and acts the part of a Commissionaire - one of those dignified old soldiers often found dozing peacefully near the doorways of courts and other public offices, except when protocol demands them to stand and declare, "All rise," "Take your seats" or "The court is in session."

All the other appurtenances of official solemnity are in place, including no fewer than 15 lawyers crowded into dishevelled ranks amid a slum of cardboard boxes, lava-flows of thick tabulated binders covering every surface and much of the floor, the leftover spaces occupied by little chromed trolleys in a state of apparent exhaustion, bungees slack and tangled.

But nobody actually hired or appointed Roy Bridge, the apparent Commissionaire, to tell this lot when to stand up and sit down.

Like so much else in the airless room with its bleak views and toxic concentration of false pretences, Mr. Bridge is a play actor, a retired rural politician closely allied with the developer sitting at the back of the room and financing the show. His performance as mock commissionaire is the crowning absurdity of a bizarre legal bun fight with major consequences for the environmental movement.

The question at hand is whether or not this congeries of lawyers, consultants and politicians, fed by a determined developer, will succeed in their campaign that will punish the cottagers and environmentalists who appealed a proposal to build a huge marina and resort on degraded Lake Simcoe last year. Despite winning the right to go ahead at the board, the developer applied to recover $3.2-million in costs from the cottagers and their lawyers to cover the costs of the proceeding.

The claim has spread fear and loathing among environmentalists, who call it a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) and worry its success will slam the door forever against citizen participation in the development process.

But the developer's lawyers, whose briefs threaten to buckle the floor, claim they and their clients, along with such worthy figures as Mr. Bridge, are the real victims in the case.

Mr. Bridge formerly employed a top Bay Street firm to threaten lawsuits and launch complaints against environmental lawyer David Donnelly, the focus of the alleged conspiracy to derail justice in Simcoe County.

Although nothing came of that, his colleagues in the room offer 101 other reasons why the citizen appeal of the mega-marina, led by Mr. Donnelly, was "frivolous and vexatious."

This week lawyer Susan Rosenthal zeroed in on Mr. Donnelly's allegedly questionable preparation of a witness, an internationally recognized expert on water quality who had questioned the developer's assertion his marina would actually improve the quality of Lake Simcoe water.

"He's still not given the golf-course report," she intoned dramatically. "What is he given? He's given Schedule K of the [inaudible, with exclamation point]. I believe that's 34, Exhibit 34, volume two, 34B." (One hundred thirty pages.)

"And another - he is given a phosphorus report. Not the new one, not the up-to-date one. They give him a March phosphorus report!" Pause for dramatic impact.

Another expert witness, Ms. Rosenthal declared, didn't even read the 253 pages of the Innisfil Township Zoning Bylaw. "This is shocking to me, shocking," she commented, with all the conviction a lawyer paid a big heap of cold cash can muster.

Such "shocking" lapses prove that the citizen appeal of the mega-marina was "unreasonable, frivolous and vexatious," according to Ms. Rosenthal and her fellow crusaders.

The distinguished municipal branch of the Ontario bar thus declares a public duty to crush the province's most courageous environmental lawyer - that little twerp at the back of the room in the pink socks, with a bicycle helmet.

Mr. Bridge says "All rise" and I follow Mr. Donnelly to the coffee shop downstairs.

"I'm the only person who does this kind of thing and there's a reason," he says. "'Cause you lose."

So does everybody else.

Wack attack, Sarah Milroy, October 17, 2008.

VANCOUVER — Call it a feminist consciousness-raising session at 35,000 feet. I'm sitting on a plane heading west from Toronto to Vancouver, and in my lap is a book covered with pictures of naked women, the catalogue for the exhibition I am on my way to see: WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, 1965 to 1980, at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

I'm holding this book, I'm thumbing through the pages with their luxuriant displays of vaginal flora and naked women smeared in paint or bound with twine and – due to the presence of the two men seated on either side of me – it's getting a little weird until I break the ice and explain that I am on my way to a feminist art exhibition in Vancouver. I am an art critic. I am a feminist. This is art.

We laugh and settle into our reading again, but I'm interested in this moment. Women today are supposed to be past this kind of self-conscious anxiety by now. Why am I explaining myself?

Probably because, like many women who will go to see this historic exhibition, I came of age just after the bra burning and the Take Back the Night marches of the sixties and early seventies. In 1968, I was 11, and now I sit atop of the demographic of women who like to call themselves post-feminists.

The exhibition, with more than 120 works by artists from 21 countries, is encyclopedic in scale (more than six hours in it left me with the sense of having just scratched the surface). The show includes many canonical works that should be required viewing for any woman or man navigating today's gender cross-currents, taking us back to the collective guerrilla actions, the macramé tepees (seriously), the Portapac video deconstructions of patriarchal mass media and the flagrant displays of female rage and menstrual effulgence that changed both the sociology of the sexes and the language of art forever. (Are you with us, Sarah Palin? I thought not.)

The cover of the exhibition catalogue, chosen by WACK!'s curator Connie Butler (now of the Museum of Modern Art in New York), is a good place to start. The artwork, which has already been a provocative lightning rod for gender debate, is a detail from a 1972 work by senior New York artist Martha Rosler: Hot House (Harem). It's a photo-montage of dozens of naked women excised from pin-up magazines – not the hard-core full-frontals of today but the rosy-cheeked soft porn of an earlier time, when naked women were marketed for their wholesomeness, their sweet-natured, baby-doll radiance. These women are beauty, comfort, solace incarnate.

“There are three things about this picture that are important,” Rosler said when I reached her by phone last week in her New York studio. “First, of course, is the incredible beauty and voluptuousness of these bodies. Second is that these women are literally cut out and lifted from their usual contexts. Here, they are not bedroom appliances; they are in their own space. Finally, I think their multiplicity is important. You have to contend with all those eyes looking at you. One person said to me that they look like a kind of multinational army and I think that's right. It becomes very confrontational.”

Like many of the classic feminist works in the show, Hot House (Harem) serves as a kind of Rorschach test, prompting a moment of critical self-examination. How is one to read Marina Abramovic's video Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful (1975), in which the striking brunette artist is seen intoning these phrases while frantically tearing at her hair with a hairbrush? Is she stating her own aspirations, or an imperative imposed on her by society? And how can these two things be teased apart? You look at the work, and then you look at the assumptions you bring to it.

The show also includes Yoko Ono's famous Cut Piece (1964), in which the artist demurely kneels and submits to having her clothes cut off by strangers, her mute passivity a striking backdrop to the potential brutality of her audience. And Faith Wilding's video Waiting, a student work that documents her performance at Womanhouse collective in Los Angeles in 1972. The artist sits in a chair rocking, obediently reciting a litany of deferred female gratification from cradle to grave. Is she enacting compliance or defiance?

There's Eleanor Antin's photo-document titled Carving: A Traditional Sculpture (1972), a grid-configured photo-document of her weight loss over a period of days. (Like many artists of this period, she borrowed the look of the lab report.) It, too, offers a binary reading, presenting the results of her metabolic experiment but also wryly calling into question female submission to beauty mores. Cindy Sherman, too, cuts both ways with her Film Stills from the late seventies, self-portraits that meticulously mimic cinematic genres, with Sherman in the starring roles. The artist seems to revel in female stereotypes even as she implies their falseness as constructs. In these works, which have stood the test of time so well, paradox is all.

Some of the objects in this show have a near-sacred resonance. Icky to some (poor dears) but transcendent to others, is the much-worn accordion-folded and typed-upon piece of paper used by Carolee Schneemann in her landmark performance Interior Scroll (1975), which is, to lovers of feminist art, something akin to a piece of the Turin Shroud.

The artist, naked onstage, famously extracted this long and narrow paper from her vagina bit by bit, unfolding it and reading from it as she did so. Speaking at the conference that marked the opening of WACK! in Vancouver, the British feminist critic Griselda Pollock cited philosopher Julia Kristeva's observation that women have been traditionally (and problematically) understood to be givers of life while men are understood to be givers of meaning. Schneemann's performance offered perhaps the definitive pungent rebuttal.

Butler included several notable Canadians in her original touring exhibition (Colette Whiten, Lisa Steele, Suzy Lake), but that contingent was beefed up for the Vancouver show. At times, this seems to muddy the waters. Adding works like Kate Craig's Delicate Issue (a slow-motion tour of the artist's naked body) or Craig's leopard-spotted Lady Brute wardrobe (a brilliant conflation of primness and savagery) is right on point, but Carole Itter's magnificent giant wooden wind chime loosely formed like a suspended grand piano falls outside of the more explicitly political focus of this show, as do the works here by Liz Magor and Gathie Falk. Feminist art and art made by women are different things, and the line got blurred.

There are other quibbles. The show, born out of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, has a strong L.A. bias, and Europe and North America dominate unduly. This could have been an opportunity to learn more.

Some viewers, too, may be put off by the gritty and ephemeral look of much of the art, which can be visually monotonous. It seems to me, however, that this can't be helped, revealing, as it does, the deliberate decommodification of the art object at this moment, but also, at times, the economically marginalized position of female artists. (When you consider the material splendour of Maman (1999), Louise Bourgeois's giant bronze spider now poised outside the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, you have to admit that – in this respect at least – we've come a long way, baby.)

More three-dimensional works, though, would have added visual variety to the exhibition: a large work by Eva Hesse, for example. And where is Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, one of the defining non-Western artists of the period, known for her lush, hyper-tactile, hallucinogenic environments, sculptures and paintings? Finally, a few key works were cut from the Vancouver show, like Mary Kelly's landmark Post-Partum Document (which famously displayed the soiled diapers of the artist's newborn son, accompanied by records of his food intake), the artist's defining statement on the dignity of female labour, which was removed from the tour in order to be included in the opening installation of the Art Gallery of Ontario next month. It is missed here.

In some circles, the argument will no doubt also be made that an all-female show like this perpetuates the ghettoization of women in the art world. In the planning stages, many artists apparently expressed some unease about being corralled once again in the curatorial menstrual hut, as if such gender differentiation, all these years later, posed a kind of renewed threat.

I think not. Lifting this body of work out of the flow of time and holding it up for examination, several things become clear. WACK! allows us to see how this period of production informs current art making by female artists, now living the expressive and intellectual freedoms their older sisters won for them.

The legacy of feminist body art continues to show up all over the place. On the Internet last week, for example, I smiled when I came across a video piece titled Be Nice to Me, Flatten (2004) by the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist, which builds on the precedent of the photo experiments with sheets of glass and the naked female body by the Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta, included in the VAG show. Right upstairs from WACK!, a solo exhibition of the visceral work of Anishnabe artist Rebecca Belmore offered another choice example.

Look carefully, too, and you can see everywhere the profound influence of feminist art on art that is made by men. Belmore shared the third floor at the VAG with male contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Huan, who similarly borrows from feminist art's lexicon to make his politically charged art against political repression. (One photo work shows him smeared in fish oil and honey, and covered in live flies.) Could we have had Paul McCarthy's comic-grotesque performances without Schneemann's before him? Who opened the door for Matthew Barney's endurance events and extravagantly eroto-phallic celebrations?

The feminist emphasis on process, the use of non-traditional materials, the emergence of the collective as an art-world phenomenon, the rigorous parsing of power relations and, perhaps most important, the foregrounding of personal truths over truths presumed to be universal – these are the deep legacies of feminism that animate art today.

And we need to keep talking about it. Rosler says the backlash from her exhibition-catalogue cover has been intense, with a contingent of feminists decrying the use of the work on the catalogue cover as sexist pandering. “Something that was understood at the time as critique is now open again to interpretation as reinforcing the stereotypes,” she told me. “It shows me that we have actually moved backwards in our ability to read irony and reframing.”

She laments too, how the lessons of the feminist movement have been contained and particularized. “The feminist movement in art was never supposed to be simply a call for more women to be included in exhibitions,” she says. “It was a call for the re-thinking of the humanity of all people, for the incorporation of different voices. It all grew out of the civil-rights movement, and that fundamental question: What is a human being? How might all human beings be able to participate more fully in public life?”

'I'm trying not to gloat too much', Justine Hunter, October 18, 2008.

So says one homeless man, after a judge struck down a Victoria bylaw forbidding people from sleeping in public parks. Opponents, though, fear the creation of drug-filled 'tent cities.' So what happens now?

VICTORIA -- 'You're early. It's seven to seven," the man grumbled from a downtown doorway.

Indeed, his watch indicated 6:53 a.m. In response, two Victoria police officers holstered their flashlights and offered to come back in a few minutes.

It's a daily ritual in Victoria, the 7 o'clock wake-up service offered free of charge. Police fan out across the city, rousting the homeless from doorways and stairwells before the streets fill with the rest of the downtown's citizens: condo-dwellers, office workers, shoppers and tourists.

On Tuesday, Madam Justice Carol Ross threw a wrench into the routine. In a 112-page judgment, the B.C. Supreme Court judge struck down a city bylaw that restricted camping in public spaces.

In effect, the courts this week established the right to be homeless - with shelter.

Overnight, the city's parks blossomed with tents. City Hall's phone lines lit up with angry citizens. And municipal leaders across the country turned a wary eye to the west to see if tent cities are heading their way.

Judge Ross concluded that the city cannot deny its homeless population the right to create sleeping shelters when there are not enough formal shelter beds available.

What that means in practice is not yet clear.

"We're entering into a grey area legally because of ambiguities in the court judgment," Victoria's interim police chief Bill Naughton said in an interview. "We're not going to allow tent cities, and we don't believe the legal judgment supports that. We're in the process of analyzing our enforcement options."

The case will send ripples across B.C. and likely the rest of the country, said University of Victoria law professor Benjamin Berger.

"It's an important decision. And it's good for us to be thinking how well we've done providing for the marginalized and disenfranchised in society. Its legal effect is limited to British Columbia, but it would be foolish to imagine that this is not an issue in other metropolitan areas."


Already, the Pivot Legal Society is challenging Vancouver city bylaws that prohibit homeless people from creating temporary shelter in parks and public areas.

And in Victoria, homeless activists are testing the limits of the law. A fledgling tent city - more of a village, really - was taking shape yesterday in the Mayors' Grove, pastoral grassland under the dappled shade of historic trees in the centre of the city's flagship park, Beacon Hill.

"I'm trying not to gloat too much. But it's not easy," said David Arthur Johnston, surveying the encampment that sprang up since the court decision was released. A dozen tents surrounded a large central tarp that serves as a living room.

Yesterday afternoon, police surrounded the tent city with yellow tape and threatened to arrest anyone who would not pack up and leave voluntarily. They came armed with a new city bylaw, passed Thursday, that says they can only camp between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.

"If tent cities don't occur it'll be internment camps," Mr. Johnston shouted.

Police arrested Mr. Johnston and four others, hauled off the tents and other goods that were left, while one woman practised handstands.

Mr. Johnston is a key player in the court decision. His protest sparked a sprawling tent city three years ago at Cridge Park, a small public green space in the city's downtown core. The crowded camp, which attracted police concern because of illicit drug use, theft and violence, was eventually cleared out by police.

At that time, police relied on a city bylaw that states in part: "A person must not do any of the following activities in a park: Behave in a disorderly or offensive manner; Obstruct the free use and enjoyment of the park by another person; Take up a temporary abode overnight."

The bylaw was challenged and eventually came before Judge Ross last summer. She concluded the bylaw violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because the homeless have a right to protection from the elements.

She noted there aren't nearly enough formal shelters available - 104 beds (326 during extreme weather) for the estimated 1,200 people who say they are homeless in Victoria. "Thus hundreds of the homeless have no option but to sleep outside in the public spaces of the City," she wrote.

Even with the bylaw struck down, Chief Naughton maintained there is no excuse for leaving those shelters up after 7 a.m. As the lead officer on the ground handling the Cridge Park tent city, he wants to nip the Mayors' Grove protest in the bud.

"There is obviously going to be a concrete police response to this in a very concrete fashion. I have no intention in witnessing the sort of behaviour we saw as Cridge degenerated and slid in into lawlessness," he said. "That's not going to occur again."

Police and policy makers agree there aren't enough places for the homeless to go. But they hotly dispute the judge's solution.

The mayor warns it will bring the city into disgrace. Police say it will turn city parks into havens for dealers and prostitutes. And downtown businesses fear it will scare off customers and send tourists home with horror stories.

Judge Ross did offer some suggestions to mitigate the impact of her decisions, saying camping in parks doesn't have to interfere with other users.

"This is especially true if the shelters were only used overnight and required to be removed in the morning, or if they were restricted to certain areas."


On Wednesday afternoon, Ted Hughes, a respected former judge who is heading a coalition to combat homelessness, was at a busy drop-in centre explaining the court ruling to a group of street people.

It's a wake-up call to the city, he said, to tackle the problem of homelessness.

Some in his audience listened attentively; others were slumped over in their chairs at Our Place, a drop-in facility that last month provided 23,000 meals. It's a social centre, a place to take a shower or use a computer, and one of the few places in the city where the homeless are welcome in the daytime. In the courtyard, a dozen shopping carts were parked, piled high with personal goods.

"The very things that judge said about them having no choice, if anyone ... sees it, how can they be aloof to such things?" Mr. Hughes later explained to reporters.

Reverend Al Tysick, executive director of Our Place, fielded questions from his flock after Mr. Hughes's presentation. Chris Lepage, a regular at the shelter, wanted to know when the cold weather emergency beds will open. "Any day now," Mr. Tysick assured the group. But Mr. Lepage was just getting warmed up. He gestured to the wall behind Mr. Hughes, lined with memorials for dead street people.

"Why? What do we have to do to end it? I'm losing friends all over the place."

Mr. Hughes is running the Coalition to End Homelessness alongside Victoria Mayor Alan Lowe, who is stepping down next month after nine years at City Hall. The mayor is frustrated by the ruling, which the city will appeal.

Mr. Lowe agreed the city does not provide adequate shelter, but he said a blanket camping permit within city limits isn't the solution.

"Parks are there for the entire community to use. For people to claim certain spaces as their own is not appropriate," he said in an interview. "We have seen tent cities before - they create issues with regard to drugs, unsanitary conditions and outright disgrace at times for the community."

During his tenure, Mr. Lowe has watched the homeless problem grow - along with associated drug and mental health issues - into a dominant issue in the city.

"I firmly believe it is due to the fact that other levels of government have cut back on funding affordable housing projects, cut back on social programs, closed down institutions," he said. "We're the ones trying to deal with these issues and there just isn't enough assistance from other levels of government."

The provincial government bristled at the criticism. Rich Coleman, the B.C. Housing Minister, did not respond to a request for an interview. But his office issued a lengthy statement enumerating the many recent provincial initiatives to tackle homelessness.

The province is spending a record $400-million on housing this year. In Victoria, it is working with the city to create 170 new and upgraded housing units. The province contributes $500,000 a year to Our Place and another $4.5-million to help provide emergency shelter beds in the city.

That's great, said Downtown Victoria Business Association chair Darlene Hollstein, but it is not enough in this, one of the most expensive cities to live in Canada.

"I met a woman today, a mother of three, she works full-time yet she lived in a tent all summer. Our housing is expensive."

She said more funding for social housing is needed and she urged the city to relax controls on secondary suites as a means of opening up rental spaces in a tight market.

But she's appalled by the court ruling. "I'm shocked they would make a bad situation worse," she said. "These public spaces are just that, public spaces, and taxpayers are paying for what will now be an unsafe and unsanitary situation for all not to enjoy."


Even before the court ruling, conflicts between the homeless and the housed in Victoria have been increasing. The small urban core serves a much broader population of surrounding municipalities. But the homeless tend to congregate downtown because that's where the services are.

"Hey folks, we can't have you here," Victoria police Inspector Jamie Pearce approached a group of well-known street people on a busy street on Thursday afternoon. The men know the drill: They started emptying their beer cans as soon as they spotted the uniform heading their way.

"Gizmo" was eating a hot dog and explained between bites that they are celebrating a buddy's birthday. Where will he go now? "Hopefully not the drunk tank," he said sheepishly.

Another man, on crutches, came over to chat. Thomas doesn't have a home but he stays on friends' couches. He doesn't plan to join the tent city. "It's going to make the city even uglier," he said. "Out of sight, out of mind, right Mr. Pearce?"


These were some of the facts accepted by the judge in her ruling.

Within the Capital Regional District, more than 1,242 people are homeless, including children and seniors, with a peak age for men between 31 and 49.

Seventy-five per cent of homeless are male.

Two-thirds of homeless are absolutely homeless.

Thirty per cent of homeless are high risk for health needs.

Mental illness and substance use are the norm, with at least 40 per cent who have diagnosable mental illnesses.

At least 50 per cent of homeless are struggling with problematic substance use including alcohol, drugs that are injected (most commonly heroin and cocaine), and drugs that are smoked (including crack cocaine and crystal methamphetamines).


Here are some excerpts from Tuesday's B.C. Supreme Court ruling from Madam Justice Carol Ross:

"The prohibition on erecting shelter is in effect at all times, in all public places in the City. I have found further that the effect of the prohibition is to impose upon those homeless persons, who are among the most vulnerable and marginalized of the City's residents, significant and potentially severe additional health risks. In addition, sleep and shelter are necessary preconditions to any kind of security, liberty or human flourishing. I have concluded that the prohibition on taking a temporary abode contained in the Bylaws and operational policy constitutes an interference with the life, liberty and security of the person of these homeless people. Finally, I have concluded that the prohibition is both arbitrary and overbroad and hence not consistent with the principles of fundamental justice. ... "

"There is simply no evidence that people would flock to sleep in the parks once they were allowed to cover themselves at night with cardboard boxes or tarps. Moreover, that is not an inference that I am prepared to draw. It seems to me to be unlikely in the extreme and contrary to the evidence of the complex causes of homelessness to suggest that such a change would result in an increase in the number of persons sleeping in public places. ... "

"There is no reason why prohibiting homeless people from using cardboard boxes, freestanding tents or erected tarps to protect themselves from weather conditions would interfere with other park users, at least to any greater extent than homeless people sleeping with blankets and tarps laid across their faces. This is especially true if the shelters were only used overnight and required to be removed in the morning, or if they were restricted to certain areas. There is no benefit to other park users in ensuring that homeless people without other forms of shelter sleep only with sleeping bags and unerected tarps, rather than under a rudimentary shelter that would actually provide them with warmth, protection from wind, snow and rain, and perhaps even a measure of privacy. ... "

"I conclude that the Defendants are not asserting a property right. They do not claim that the homeless can exclude anyone from any City property, or determine the use of any City property. They do not seek to have public property allocated to their exclusive use. What they are seeking does not amount to an appropriation of public property. They are simply saying that the City cannot manage its own property in a manner that interferes with their ability to keep themselves safe and warm."


Sitting like a Buddha, surrounded by a handful of friends in the small tent city that materialized after Tuesday's court decision allowing homeless people to camp in public parks, David Arthur Johnston couldn't help feeling vindicated.

Around him, a dozen tents circled a makeshift common area featuring a wooden table and a couple of collapsible chairs covered by a dark green tarp.

Mr. Johnston is well known locally for his battle over the right to sleep on the grounds of the provincially owned St. Ann's Academy in 2004 and 2005.

In 2006, after a string of trespassing charges and repeatedly violating the conditions of his release, Mr. Johnston served 36 days in jail.

"I've learned that there is no such thing as evil and anyone who is angry can be easily put down," he said.

Tuesday's court decision is a landmark point in the struggle, but not the last, as the City of Victoria confirmed yesterday that it plans to appeal.

Mr. Johnston said the ruling has provided the city with an opportunity to improve its supply of shelter for the homeless.

"Maybe now, no matter how much they don't want to do it, they'll come up with a proposal for a better place to go," Mr. Johnston said.

A tent city would be a suitable alternative in the absence of permanent structures, Mr. Johnston said.

From a distance, Mr. Johnston looks like the other homeless people around him. But close up, he lacks the grit and battle scars of someone who has lived outdoors permanently. His guru-like beard is neatly combed, his hair is clean and is always tied back in a tidy pony tail. Even the cuffs of his pants are rolled up just so. And then there's the ubiquitous venti-size Starbuck's coffee, a symbol of the corporate greed he claims to so despise.

Mr. Johnston is quick to reject egotism and all of its negative consequences, yet it's a moral stand of which he seems quite proud.

Part activist, part philosopher and part vagrant, he relied on something he calls "fearlessness" to carry him forward in his fight over the past four years. He says remaining unafraid of the consequences of his protests, and relying on good karma and positive energy helped him to prevail.

For the past couple of weeks, he has been staying in the courtyard of the Victoria Public Library "holding vigil" beneath the window of the Crown prosecutor's office. He said the court decision is bound to trigger other protests.

"It will start happening once they figure out they can challenge these laws and there's a precedent for it."

Editorial, The 'right' to camp on public property, October 18, 2008.

Using the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to insist that homeless people be permitted to set up makeshift shelters on public property - even in a park - pushes rights beyond where they should go. How to deal with homelessness is a political matter, and Madam Justice Carol Ross of the British Columbia Supreme Court should have left it in the political arena.

There is little question that the political response from the City of Victoria has fallen short. Victoria has more than 1,000 homeless people, according to a study by the mayor's task force on homelessness, but only 104 shelter spaces (326 in bad weather). In trying to address that problem, however, Judge Ross creates another one. She would establish for the homeless the right to set up in parks or other public spaces. While she says that right would exist only as long as the supply of shelter beds is insufficient, she also says those shelter beds would have to be deemed safe by homeless people.

Some homeless people will always reject shelters, either because they can't abide their rules (one man quoted by Judge Ross said the shelter wouldn't let him bring his dog), or because they wish to use drugs or drink (the Victoria shelter that takes in inebriated people had only four users all winter), or because they are mentally ill and simply won't, for reasons of their own, go to a shelter. They will never be "safe" for everyone.

And do tent cities tend to be any safer than supervised shelters? By giving license to homeless people to set up such makeshift communities in public spaces, she is doing exactly what Victoria argued against: "the City, and the Court risk becoming enablers that promote drug abuse, crime, self-destruction, disease and death."

Judge Ross seems to believe that the homeless can just pick up their encampments each morning, no harm done. Naively, she suggests the city could require "the overhead protection to be taken down every morning," and create "certain zones in sensitive park regions where sleeping was not permitted." To turn public parks over to homeless communities is to invite the destruction of those parks as friendly, healthy places.

There are any number of innovative ideas being tried in cities across North America. In Toronto, when a tent city on private property deteriorated into an abyss of drug use and prostitution, the city found permanent homes for most of the residents. Toronto also sends social workers out in the streets at night to roust the homeless and to offer them homes.

Victoria needs to find a better answer to homelessness, but the judge's solution would create more problems than it solves.

Anthony Quinn & Kathy Benvin, Chico Mendes, Euphrasie Mirindi:
Euphrasie Mirindi


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