British Columbia

Ashes of deceased loved ones lost in demolition of Prince George homeless camp, B.C. court hears

The city is seeking a court injunction to demolish the remaining structures in the camp after being told they could not do so in October. In multiple signed affidavits, past and current residents of Moccasin Flats say tents they had actively been living in were destroyed with no prior warning.

City says tents demolished in fire mitigation effort; only abandoned shelters removed

A sign in a homeless camp in Prince George, B.C., put up to try to prevent demolition after the city destroyed several other structures in November. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

The ashes of deceased loved ones were among personal items lost when the city of Prince George demolished a portion of a homeless camp in November, according to signed testimony submitted to the B.C. Supreme Court this week.

Camp residents say they also lost ID and family photos when heavy equipment was used to take down several structures along Patricia Blvd, in an area that has come to be known as Moccasin Flats.

In October, people living in the encampment had been told they were allowed to stay, after Chief Justice Christopher E. Hinkson ruled there wasn't evidence of enough housing options for them to move into. 

But on Nov. 17, heavy equipment was used to demolish several tents and other structures in a move the city called a fire mitigation effort.

The city also claimed they had only removed shelters abandoned by people who had found housing elsewhere.

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

But in multiple signed affidavits, people identifying themselves as past and current residents of Moccasin Flats say tents they had actively been living in or using to store their belongings were destroyed with no prior warning.

Deanna Marie Lindstrom, who identifies as a 59-year-old Indigenous woman from Sucker Creek, Alta., said she had a tent at Moccasin Flats where she kept personal belongings.

She said she could occasionally stay at a shelter or with a friend, but had no permanent housing.

"When I returned to Moccasin Flats, on Nov. 18, 2021, I found my tent was gone," she said in a signed affidavit. "All of my clothes for winter, my blankets, my gifts from my mom, all my important papers and precious keepsakes from my life — they were gone."

Also gone, she said, were the ashes of her recently deceased mother.

"I was so upset I just wanted to die," she says in the affidavit, adding she attempted to take her own life but was stopped by workers at a supervised consumption site nearby.

Danielle Lisa Willier, who identified as a 37-year-old Indigenous woman belonging to the Takla Nation, also provided signed testimony.

Willier said she had been shot while staying at Moccasin Flats on Aug. 28, a story that made headlines in local media.

While she was in hospital, she said, friends and family attempted retrieve her belongings from her tent, but were told they could not enter because it was an active crime scene.

Those belongings, which included bedding, family photos and a camera, were among those lost on Nov. 18, she said.

'Mistakes do happen': City lawyer

The affidavits were filed in response to the city's new application for an injunction to have the camp removed by Christmas.

In their application, the city argues enough new supportive housing has been built to justify the removal of Moccasin Flats and that as of late November, only two camp residents remained.

Speaking in court this week, city lawyer Troy DeSouza characterized the application as a "rescue operation" because, he said, if the camp is allowed to stand, more people are likely to move in over the winter, putting them at risk of dying from cold weather exposure.

He also provided testimony from the city's chief fire prevention officer, who said the majority of the camp's structures are at a high risk of catching fire, and people could be poisoned by carbon monoxide if they use heating devices inside tents.

A tent in a homeless camp in Prince George, B.C., pictured after a B.C. Supreme Court ruling prevented the city from shutting down an encampment along Patricia Boulevard due to a lack of suitable housing options elsewhere. It was among those destroyed by the city of Nov. 18, 2021. (Amelia Merrick/Together We Stand)

But lawyers Darlene Kavka and Melanie Begalka, representing camp residents, pointed out that in Justice Hinkson's ruling, he stated fire risks would occur anywhere people are homeless, and simply removing the camp would not solve that problem.

They applied the same argument to affidavits from RCMP saying police had recorded a 288 per cent increase in complaints in the neighbourhood since the camp was established.

"If there is a crime, deal with the crime," Kavka said. "It doesn't solve a problem just to displace people."

The pair also said while there are now fewer people living in Moccasin Flats, it's in part because they no longer feel safe in a place the city is targeting for demolition — despite a previous court ruling indicating the camp should stand.

"It really hurt people," Begalka said. "People were left to sleep in the cold that night. And this was in the face of an order that said they could stay."

In response to that argument, DeSouza admitted "mistakes do happen," but said the big picture should be that many of the camp's residents had been moved into supportive housing.

"Respectfully, this was not a small mistake," Begalka said.

She said the city was attempting to set a "dangerous precedent" by demolishing part of a camp that was supposed to be protected, displacing its residents, then pointing to the absence of people to try and justify a new application to remove those who remained.

Justice Simon R. Coval, who is overseeing the case, called Begalka's evidence "concerning" and gave the city until Dec. 22 to provide more evidence of adequate housing in the city to help those living in Moccasin Flats.

He also ruled the respondents would have a further two weeks to respond to that evidence, which means the camp will be allowed to stand until at least Jan. 12.

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