British Columbia

Indigenous leaders must do more to help Oppenheimer Park homeless, advocate says

An Oppenheimer Park homeless advocate says most of the people living in the jumble of tents in the park are Indigenous. And she's wondering why Indigenous leaders aren't trying harder to help them. 

Assembly of First Nations agrees it could do more but says it doesn't have the capacity

Oppenheimer Park advocate Chrissy Brett says the camp's organizing committee has reached out to the First Nations Health Authority, the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Summit, but no one has returned their calls. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

An Oppenheimer Park camp advocate says most of the homeless people living in the jumble of tents in the park are Indigenous.

And she's wondering why Indigenous leaders aren't trying harder to help them. 

"We have  Tsilhqot'in, Nuxalk, Heiltsuk and Nisga'a people here. People from Manitoba and Saskatchewan. People from all corners of Turtle Island," says Chrissy Brett, a 44-year-old grandmother and member of the Nuxalk First Nation in Bella Coola.

Assembly of First Nations regional chief Terry Teegee says he's never visited Oppenheimer Park but has walked through the Downtown Eastside, where he sometimes sees his own family members.

Teegee says he's sympathetic to the plight of camp residents, but the AFN is  limited in what it can do.

"We can only do so much as a political advocacy group. We're not equipped to be on the front lines to assist people in Oppenheimer Park."

Brett lives at the park three days a week then returns to Victoria where she also resides. She stays in Oppenheimer to support and organize the homeless there.

She says that politicians like Elizabeth May, Jenny Kwan and Melanie Mark visited the camp. Yet, Indigenous leaders haven't accepted invitations.

"We've reached out to the First Nations Health Authority, the Assembly of First Nations, the First Nations Summit," she said. "We've had zero returned calls."

The park's Aboriginal residents say lobbying by Indigenous groups on their behalf could help improve their lot. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Indigenous residents say there are practical reasons why the national First Nations groups should get involved.

They can participate in the camp's ad hoc organizational group that is trying to improve their situation. And their combined lobbying would be an asset.

"Be that advocate, be that voice for people here who have lost their voice," said Brett.

Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip acknowledged that a disproportionate number of Oppenheimer residents were Indigenous in a statement last August. Brett hoped UBCIC officials would follow up, but no one one did, she says.

'We're your First Nations. We should come first'

One tent in the middle of the park is home to Amy "Yesterday" House, who is Cree from Saddle Lake, Alta. House's thin frame is bundled up in a thick coat and a homemade knitted cap. 

She spends her days at different social service agencies in the area, noting that a few come to the camp to assist residents. But she's never seen officials from Indigenous political organizations like the Assembly of First Nations at the camp and, she says, she thinks they should be there.

 "The people who voted you in obviously cared. So, do something for your people instead of whatever you're doing. They forgot about us," House said.

Police walk through Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver on Aug. 19, 2019. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Gary Humchitt has lived in Oppenheimer off and on since his father died of alcoholism.

The Indigenous man from Fort Rupert on Vancouver Island says that the area's violence may be dissuading First Nations leaders from coming to the camp.  But if camp inhabitants can endure the conditions, then leaders should be able to visit.

"We're your First Nations. We should come first.,"

Chris Livingstone, who works for the Metro Vancouver Aboriginal Executive Council and liaises with camp inhabitants, says Indigenous organizations like Aboriginal Front Door Society work with camp residents. But there's no contact with leaders or staff from larger Indigenous political organizations, which, he says, are likely focused on larger issues

Georgina Webber, 58, visits her nephew and his rats, Misty and Daylong, at the Oppenheimer Park camp in Vancouver on Wednesday, August 21, 2019. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC) (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Organizations like the AFN, the UBCIC and the First Nations Summit understand the issues of camp residents.

"They just don't have any kind of teeth or power to change anything," said Livingstone.

We may be living in the era of reconciliation, but it means something different in the context of homeless Indigenous people.

"Reconciliation should mean more than living outside in the cold and worrying about where you're going to eat," he said.

Teegee agrees and says, despite its limitations, what the AFN could and should do is advocate for more funding for off-reserve groups.

He says the conversation should involve all levels of government, and the AFN could also do more to help bridge the gap between Oppenheimer and the City of Vancouver.