Over the past month, the BC Supreme Court heard a landmark lawsuit involving the City of Abbotsford and members of its homeless community.
Pivot Legal Society is representing a group of individuals living homeless in Abbotsford seeking to protect their Charter-sanctioned rights and freedoms—the right to equality, the right to life, liberty, and security of the person, and the fundamental freedoms of association, and assembly. The case is groundbreaking: never before has a group of homeless Canadians been able to challenge the constitutionality of their treatment and displacement by a city’s staff and police.
The Court would never have had the opportunity to hear this case were it not for the courage and determination of Pivot’s clients, Barry Shantz and the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors (DWS).
The six-week trial began on June 29, 2015. Since then, the Court has heard evidence detailing the degree to which the City of Abbotsford has attempted to displace Pivot’s clients and other members of the City’s vulnerable homeless and near-homeless citizenry. Evidence is intended to establish both the neglect and active cruelty that the City has carried out under the guise of bylaw enforcement.
The Court heard evidence of tents being cut and pepper sprayed by police, of chicken manure being dumped on a homeless encampment, and of repeated displacements, despite there being no designated, lawful space for homeless individuals to inhabit. The Court also heard evidence about the lack of support and resources that take into account the complex interactions between addictions, mental illness, and physical disability—all of which influence and contribute to homelessness.
Abbotsford’s homeless have been denied the basic necessities of life. Their existences have been effectively criminalized by bylaws that disproportionately affect those without access to permanent shelter. Unfortunately, their experiences are not isolated; they are embedded within years of marginalization and generations of colonialism, ableism, and classism.
It is an understatement to say that this regime creates barriers to accessing Canada’s justice system. Unfortunately, this too is the norm. As a result of those barriers, marginalized people are all too often denied the right to have their voices heard in Court outside of defending themselves against criminal charges; until now, our courts have rarely been positioned to consider the direct evidence of marginalized groups themselves.
This is what makes the courage of our clients so remarkable.
Despite years of inaction, frustration, and mistreatment of Abbotsford’s marginalized citizens, Barry encouraged Abbotsford’s homeless community to resist the fear of displacement, harassment, and retaliation and to heroically defend their rights. He’s proven himself to be a galvanizing personality, an effective organizer, and an inspiring leader for a community whose experience with their municipal government and the justice system has too often been negative.
It is because of Barry’s dedication to the dignity and rights of his peers that the Honorable Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson has had the opportunity to hear, first-hand, the experiences of people living homeless in Abbotsford. It was Barry who supported one of the witnesses on that person’s first day of trial, when he told the court about his experience living under a bridge, hidden away out of fear of displacement. It was Barry who drove another witness to court so he could tell the Chief Justice about what it’s like to live on the streets while battling an alcohol addiction. It was Barry who provided encouragement to another witness who told the court about having his tent -- his home -- slashed by police.
The implications of this lawsuit could be enormous, for both our clients and the thousands of others living without homes in this country. A decision in favor of Pivot’s clients could put an end to the strategic use of municipal bylaws to marginalize our homeless citizens, which in turn may inspire our governments to establish viable solutions to the crisis of homelessness in our streets.
Unquestionably, it will constitute a crucial step towards recognizing the dignity, humanity, and rights of homeless people in this country. None of this would be possible without clients like Barry Shantz.
This piece was originally published on rabble.ca.