British Columbia

City of Prince George apologizes for 'trauma' caused by destroying part of homeless camp

The City of Prince George has issued an apology for destroying a portion of a court-protected homeless camp, which a judge said caused "serious harm" to those who lived there.

City also withdraws appeal of court judgment that prevented it from shutting down camp

A sign put up by supporters of people living in a homeless camp in Prince George celebrates a legal decision allowing the camp to stand. (Submitted by Amelia Merrick)

The City of Prince George has issued an apology for destroying a portion of a court-protected homeless camp, which a judge said caused "serious harm" to those who lived there.

It has also withdrawn an appeal of a court case which prevented the city from destroying a homeless encampment set up on a lot along Patricia Boulevard and says it is "revaluating its approach and response to homelessness and homeless encampments."

The decision follows a new report from the B.C. Assembly of First Nations criticizing the city's approach to homelessness in the city, calling it "counterproductive, cruel and inherently racist."

It also follows a provincial report which found the Prince George region has the highest rate of homelessness in the province.

Failed legal action

The city's legal action against homeless encampment dates back to June 2021, when council directed staff to pursue a civil injunction and issue notices of trespass to people living on two city lots.

In October of that year, Chief Justice Christopher E. Hinkson ruled that while the city could shut down one of the homeless encampments, it should allow the one on Patricia Boulevard to remain, as he did not see enough evidence of there being adequate accessible housing in Prince George to justify the camp's closure.

But in November 2021, the city demolished several structures in that encampment, citing concerns over community safety and fire hazards. 

The city also filed an appeal of Hinkson's ruling and re-applied to have the camp shut down — and in February it was once again denied, this time by Justice Simon R. Coval.

Not only did Coval find there was still not enough housing to justify removing the camp, he also ruled the city had "inflicted serious harm on vulnerable people" when it sent in heavy machinery to destroy several tents and structures in November.

"Under the [previous] order, the Lower Patricia encampment was permitted to stay unless and until the city demonstrated available and accessible housing and daytime facilities for its occupants," Coval wrote in his judgment.

He also accepted several affidavits from people who lived in the camp who said they had lost important personal items due to the city's demolition of their shelters, including the remains of deceased family members, photographs and personal identification.

City says it was acting in 'good faith'

In a statement posted to its website Thursday, the city said it "sincerely apologizes to all those who experienced trauma from our actions."

However, the statement also said the city had "acted in good faith" and that it had demolished the encampments with the "benefit of legal advice, and in partnership with B.C. Housing and other service providers." 

B.C. Housing has previously said the decision to destroy the camps was made by the city.

The aftermath of the demolition of several tents and structures in a Prince George homeless encampment. (Kate Partridge/CBC)

The city's statement also said that its intention "has been to advance and protect the interest, health and safety of all ... residents — including encampment occupants, downtown business operators and residents of the nearby Millar Addition subdivision."

In a separate statement put up shortly afterward, the city announced it is withdrawing its appeal of the October court ruling, saying it is "unlikely to achieve either the immediate result of closing the Lower Patricia encampment or otherwise addressing the City's concerns relating to encampments in the city."

The city says it will not be providing further comment on the matter as there are still pending legal issues related to the homeless encampments.

'High-profile' case attracted attention of province

The B.C. First Nations Justice Council, which represented residents of the homeless camp in court, said it was pleased with the city's decision to withdraw its court case.

"While we are disappointed that the Court of Appeal will not have the opportunity to weigh in on legal issues, we are encouraged that the City is going to be taking a different approach [to homelessness]," lawyer Melangie Begalka said in a written statement.

Her co-counsel, Darlene Kavka, said had the city pursued an appeal it would have been a "high-profile" case and that the Attorney General of B.C., B.C. Civil Liberties Association, Pivot Legal Society and B.C. Assembly of First Nations had all been granted intervenor status.

BCAFN Regional Chief Terry Teegee also welcomed the city's apology and decision to withdraw, saying he hoped it would mark a more collaborative approach to homelessness in the community.

"Let's forge a path of reconciliation together," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca. You can also send encrypted messages using Signal to 250.552.2058.

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