Residents of Camp Namegans fight for their lives as the City of Saanich applies for a Court order to break up their sanctuary

Two years ago, a tent city with over 150 people set up on the courthouse lawn. After two expensive court battles, BC Housing was forced into creating more than 200 units of permanent social housing and 100 units of temporary transitional housing. The Victoria area has been distinguished from other cities in British Columbia by welcoming Provincial housing initiatives and by the regional municipal government taking out loans for its own, additional, non-market housing initiatives that will build 50 more units of welfare-rate non-market housing. In this context, the results of the Victoria region 2018 homeless count released on July 24th are particularly bad news. Despite their efforts, homeless numbers still went up by 10% since 2016.

The City of Saanich’s application for a Court injunction to smash the tent city set up in a City park could be interpreted as the gesture of a city that is giving up on ending homelessness. The City of Saanich is using a tried-and-failed strategy by serving Camp Namegans with a notice that they have applied for a Supreme Court injunction to displace their tent city. On Wednesday July 25th, the day after being served with notice of Saanich’s injunction application, the residents of Camp Namegans held a news conference to announce their determination to resist this displacement and their resistance against Canada’s claim to legal jurisdiction and police power on unceded Indigenous lands. In the words of camp founder Chrissy Brett, “It is shameful that the government is trying to break up this community space. Shame on Canada, shame on the Province, and shame on the City of Saanich. If they break up Camp Namegans our people will die; fighting to defend this camp is a fight for our lives.”

Tent city community supports patch the holes in Canada’s safety net

Ashley Mollison, supporter of Camp Namegans and organizer with Alliance Against Displacement, opened the news conference held under the hot sun in the open field of the camp. “For three months, this Indigenous-led tent city has done the work that the government has neglected. Camp Namegans provides a home, community, and a place for healing for over 90 Indigenous and non-Indigenous homeless people who were previously dispersed across Saanich and Victoria,” she said. “Rather than work with the residents of the camp to provide appropriate housing, the City of Saanich spent these months collecting evidence against the camp and building their legal case. By not providing anywhere for residents to go, Saanich is sending a clear message that they do not care about the lives and futures of people in this camp.”

A middle aged camp resident named Blair explained that homeless people in Camp Namegans have found themselves on the streets because they have fallen through the cracks of the housing market and through holes in Canada’s social safety net. “My wife and I were demovicted from a house a year ago. Since then we have been living in shelters where were have not been allowed to sleep together because there are no shelters for couples,” he said. “Being at Camp Namegans is the first time we have been able to sleep together and share a living space. My wife has disabilities and she needs special housing and there isn’t any. We can’t get housing, we can’t live in shelters, we can’t live on the street, but we can live in Camp Namegans.”

Another camp resident named Mike said he is on the street because he was illegally evicted from a house in Saanich where he was renting a room. Because he was renting a room in a shared house, he didn’t have any tenancy rights. He said the landlord’s son threw out all his belongings and he lost everything. Mike says he found stability in Camp Namegans. “I have lived in Saanich and Victoria for 40 years,” he said. “I lived in this neighbourhood when I was a kid. I used to play in this park and now I live in this park.” Since living in Camp Namegans and speaking in the media Mike has been reunited with my family, who had been looking for him for 3 years.

Jordan said that he also felt like he found family in the camp. A 23 year old day labourer, Jordan said, ““Before I came to Camp Namegans I was homeless, alone, and I had no community. I don’t want you guys in the media to think that what is happening here in this camp is bad, it’s good. In this camp I have found home, and family. I have found my community.”

Chrissy Brett said that providing this sense of community and peer-based resources are the main reasons she founded Camp Namegans. “People who lived on the courthouse lawn in Super InTent City in 2016 had peer support to deal with trauma and against overdose. When they were moved off the courthouse lawn and into supportive housing they lost those supports and 15 of them have died. The tent city offers people more than a tent. This is a peer-run community space with supports that work to save lives and heal from the trauma that Indigenous people and other homeless people experience in this world.”

Canada’s violation of Indigenous spiritual practices and land title

Chrissy said this community support makes Camp Namegans more than just a protest, it is doing the work of healing and decolonizing Indigenous homeless people who have been dispossessed of their lands and nations. “This is my ceremony, this is my culture; earth is our church,” she said. “Some people are taking sanctuary on our church grounds, and together with these people we have created a home.” Chrissy says that the City of Saanich’s application for a court injunction to break up the camp is an attack on Indigenous cultural and spiritual practices, and is a violation of international agreements that Canada has signed.

Chrissy said that Camp Namegans uses land in the same way as it has been used by Indigenous peoples for millennia; which is part of what she says gives the Indigenous leadership and Indigenous residents — about half of the camp — a claim against Canada’s legal jurisdiction. “This land is unceded, unsurrendered, and there is no signed treaty. There is no treaty, no sale, and therefore Canada has no legal jurisdiction,” she said. Following the Free and Prior Informed Consent protocols enshrined by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Canada is a signatory, she says that if any branch of the Canadian state want to enter or take action against Camp Namegans, they must approach and seek consent from the Camp Clan.

Displacing Camp Namegans would be an act of war

“When the police cross the line and trespass uninvited into our home, the Crown is extending its own authority into an unsurrendered Indigenous territory. If the Crown tries to displace Camp Namegans, this trespass will require force. To me that would be an act of war,” Chrissy said. “Camp Namegans runs by the rule of community; we are not the ones who are making war or being violent. It would be the ones armed with guns and pepper spray who would be violent.”

In the vacuum of care created by Canada’s dispossession of Indigenous peoples and neglect of people who live in poverty, it is low-income and displaced Indigenous people who have stepped up and created badly needed community supports at Camp Namegans. In response, the City of Saanich has filed an application for a court injunction, with evidence that heavily relies on 21 affidavits from police officers, including those who played ‘officer friendly’ with camp residents. Canadian property law has caused a crisis of homelessness that is disproportionately impacting Indigenous people because this property is the logic and power that has originally dispossessed Indigenous peoples and created Indigenous poverty. Chrissy Brett’s claim to the use of land at Camp Namegans is anti-colonial because it is opposing Canadian property forms with Indigenous economies of land relations, and it proposes a radical solution to Canada’s crisis of homelessness.