Chrissy Brett is no stranger to tent cities. Back in 2016, she was one of the leaders of a homeless camp in Victoria that was forced to shut down after B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson ruled that it was unsanitary and unsafe.
Now, Brett is spending much of her time living in a tent in Oppenheimer Park since her homeless niece died while waiting for social housing. And Brett insisted in an interview with the Georgia Straight that authorities often fail to understand the sense of community that develops in these encampments. Artists visit and simply hang out. According to her, some residents began doing tai chi with others who were coming to the park.
She created a sacred space near the Overdose Prevention Society tents on the eastern end of the park.
“We’ve probably got 60 percent–plus of residents that are Indigenous,” Brett said. “And not just from local First Nations but from all over.”
She was born into the Nuxalk Nation, which is based on B.C.’s Central Coast, but she was adopted into a white home during the Sixties Scoop. Much to her surprise, she met her mom’s first cousin camping in Oppenheimer Park this summer, when authorities were trying to throw away someone’s belongings.
“As I was defending that tent, she came out of that tent,” Brett said. “She heard my mom, her cousin, and it was me.
“So I think what the government doesn’t understand is when we’re supporting our people, sometimes it means in more like a general sense,” she continued, “but sometimes it’s really personal for us. And our people are here. I met two other cousins that were distantly related to me here.”
Brett said that Canadians often help refugees living in tent cities in faraway lands. In these instances, according to her, the first things that are provided are running water and bathrooms to reduce the spread of disease and showers to promote personal hygiene. Plus, electricity is provided so refugees don’t feel like mushrooms living in the dark.
“These things we know work across the world in Third World countries that are completely in crisis,” Brett pointed out. “How come we can’t do the same thing in Canada for our people? These are my people. These are my family.”
She applauded the park board for not voting to obtain an injunction to remove the tent-city dwellers.
But she also had harsh words for some fire, police, and sanitation personnel for not showing enough respect for the campers’ possessions. In one instance, she said, a homeless person’s pet rats were thrown into a garbage compactor when they were gathered up with all of his belongings.
“How would you react if your pet gerbil was put in a trash compactor or if your child’s pet was put into a compactor in front of you?” Brett asked. “I’m sure there would be some explosive words coming out of your mouth.”
She claimed that when police include statistics about trouble related to the homeless camp, they're also including criminal acts in the neighbourhood.
And Brett pointed out that when there are crimes in Surrey, people don't suddenly call for clearing people out of the city. Rather, it's looked upon as an issue affecting the people involved and blame is not spread to all the residents.
The same is true if there's violence in an apartment building, she added. Blame isn't distributed to all the residents.
Brett then laughed when asked for her reaction to news reports that police wouldn’t enter the park unless they were in groups of four.
“I’ve got pictures and I can forward them to you with a cop playing basketball with our guys right here,” she said gleefully.
In a more sombre tone, she added a caveat: “I do believe that when they were throwing people’s entire tents and lives away without any conversation or consultation, were people resistant to it? Yes. Were they angry? Yes. Were they potentially violent? Absolutely. If I came into your house and started throwing your items into a garbage compactor, would you stand idly by? I mean, really.”
COPE councillor Jean Swanson was at the camp when the Straight visited.
Like Brett, she applauded the park board for not seeking a court injunction to evict the homeless people.
"I just think that every level of government has to get together and make a plan—a short-term plan—for the winter to keep everyone secure," Swanson said.
She added that there's only enough money for about 200 units of modular housing in the provincial budget, despite a huge surplus.
Swanson urged the public to contact federal, provincial, and municipal politicians and put some pressure on them to put money into ending homelessness.
"We desperately need it," she said. "And it will be cheaper in the long run and save lives."