Legislated Poverty in Vancouver

Vancouver MLA Lorne Mayencourt has proposed a private members bill that makes it illegal to panhandle near bank machines and bus stops or to wash car windows on a roadway. Benignly tilted the “Safe Streets Act”, the law is a continuation of the vicious attack on the poor and the homeless. The proposed Safe Streets Act would make aggressive begging and squeegeeing a crime, as well as imposing penalties for unsafe disposal of used syringes, condoms and broken crack pipes. Mayencourt also wants the provincial Trespass Act amended to permit shopkeepers to ban repeat shoplifters from entering their stores. Currently, only property owners are allowed to refuse entry to business premises.

In Ontario, a similar Safe Streets Act was enacted in 2000, amidst a barrage of massive cuts to social services, while waging a relentless campaign to stigmatize the poor. Among the very first actions taken by the Ontario Harris Tory government was to slash welfare benefits by more than 21 percent. Subsequently, the government cancelled all support for social housing construction and instituted a mandatory “workfare” program for welfare recipients.

In British Columbia, the Safe Streets Act and Trespass to Property Act is only the latest in a long list of exclusionary practices that have arisen from the rise in the politically conservative climate. On the one hand, policies of social cuts and hardened tenancy laws have contributed to the increase in poverty and homelessness, while at the same time the government excludes and criminalizes victims of its own policies from public space and public view. The BC government has escalated the war against the poor in the past three years:  cutting jobs resulting in an eight per cent unemployment rate overall and a 25 per cent jobless rate for youth, establishing the new trainee wage at $6 an hour, slashing housing programs, and massive cuts to welfare, legal aid and womens centre this year that have devastated the lives of the working class, the poor and other marginalized communities. Now the people directly affected and rendered destitute and homeless by their policies are being criminalized for their acts of basic survival.

The prevalent discourse behind such legislation that re-articulates the war on the poor is one in which society is divided between those who give and those who take: the taxpayer versus the “welfare bum”. There are those who contribute and those who do not. And those who contribute require legislation and criminal justice enforcement to protect them and to render invisible the face of the displaced. Many have compared this legislation, and its Ontario counterpart, to the vagrancy laws of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, notorious for their arbitrary interpretation and enforcement. For example, the Act prohibits soliciting in an “aggressive manner” and soliciting a “captive audience.” This very notion of a ‘captive audience’ works to construct the public as vulnerable victims, constantly held hostage by those begging for survival. “Aggressive solicitation”, which is an assertion of a poor persons rights and entitlements, is used to justify the tirade of conservative policies and legislation of the BC government. This unquestioned link between safety and street people is as horrific as the racist stereotyping of immigrants and refugees as a threat to national security.

The Safe Streets Act has been drafted so as to try to avoid claims that it is discriminatory. It does not make it illegal to beg for money or to be homeless. “This law is not about people, but about behaviour,” Lorne Mayencourt said. Theoretically, registered charitable organizations could be arrested for trying to solicit donations. In fact, of course, it is poor people and homeless people whom this bill is criminalizing.

From a legal standpoint, it is interesting (but perhaps not surprising) that the Safe Streets Act in Ontario and the pan-handling bylaw in Vancouver have both withstood constitutional challenges on the basis that the laws denied freedom of expression, violated equality rights and denies life, liberty and security of the person. The judgement delivered about the Safe Streets Act in R. v. Banks (Ontario Court of Justice, 2001) states “Poverty in itself is not an analogous ground of discrimination under s. 15. Poverty is not immutable, like race, or constructively immutable, like religion. The defendants failed to establish that the Act discriminates against the extremely poor. The restrictions in the Act do not apply only to the poor.” Anatole France in the early 1900′s stated: “The majestic quality of the law forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under the bridges, to beg in the streets and steal bread.”

The Canadian constitution is meant to- at least on the face of it- protect principles of fundamental justice. If fundamental justice does not include a right to economic survival, including a right to work to earn a living, than what use are the other so-called freedoms? As Noam Chomsky has written: “freedom without opportunity is a devil’s gift, and the refusal to provide such opportunities is criminal”.  The Charter accords rights that can only be fully enjoyed by people who are fed, are clothed, are sheltered, have access to necessary health care, to education, and to a minimum level of income.

 The legislated attack on the poor has undoubtedly intensified in order to protect business interests. The Safe Streets Coalition, a band of 30 community and business groups including the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, B.C. Chamber of Commerce, Royal Canadian Legion, and Tourism Vancouver, backs the Safe Streets Act. The political arm of the state and the corporate arm have increasingly become merged to protect the interests of the elite. Whether on a local, national or global level, the assault on genuine democracy and markets are intrinsically related. Their roots lie in the power of corporate entities that are totalitarian and increasingly interlinked and reliant on powerful governments. There is not only a global increase, but also a local increase, in the proportion of those who will labour under all the hardships of life.

   At present there are large-scale protests to oppose global imperialist wars and massive anti-globalization protests across North America to protest the policies of the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank. But there is a large disjunction between those who protest such manifestations of Canadian foreign policy and the local anti-poverty struggles and other community struggles of indigenous peoples and immigrant/refugees that take place on a day-to-day basis. Increasing numbers of students, academics, unions speak of the discontents of global capitalism and injustice, but the local effects of capitalism- the fact that people live and die on the streets in Canada, mostly displaced indigenous peoples- from the policies of our governments render not a single voice of discontent. Capitalism, inequity, poverty are alive and well in the streets of Vancouver. As activist Jaggi Singh wrote about the Harris government in Ontario: “One aspect of globalization quite often underlined and targeted is these Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) that the IMF and World Bank imposes on a variety of countries. What are SAPs? They are cuts to subsidies to fuel and to food in a variety of countries, the privatization of wide sectors of government, cuts to social spending, creating competitive practices by ensuring flexible labour or by getting rid of a variety of standards. These are imposed on countries such as Indonesia or Mexico. Well, Ontario has had its very own Structural Adjustment Program, but unlike the other Structural Adjustment Programs, Ontario’s was not enforced, but voluntarily undertaken by the government.”
 With preparations beginning for the 2010 Olympics, gentrification of downtown Vancouver will only increase homelessness. Rent increases are already on the way, along with an increase in eviction notices. The political and economic forces behind the Olympics are promising massively expanded ski hills, new resorts on undeveloped mountains, hotels and roads connecting them. In Whistler, BC real estate value has gone up by 15 per cent. Most of this expansion is reaching into land claimed by indigenous communities ­ land and territory that have never been ceded under any treaty and which were affirmed in the landmark Supreme Court of Canada Delgamuukw decision in 1997. The Secwepemc and St’at’imc people and now the community at Cheam are fighting ski resort development. The Native Youth Movement has launched a No Slopes Campaign to protect Aboriginal Title and lands, while anti-poverty groups join them in opposing the Olympic bids effects on gentrification and homelessness.

 Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Regan, and Mulroney used to tell those who criticized their government’s cutbacks that ‘there is no alternative.’ There is no alternative under this system. If decent jobs, living income, adequate housing, health care and education as fundamental human rights are ‘impossible’ under this system, then we have to look beyond capitalism.  Whenever and wherever global and local elites meet to further their plans for corporate sponsored globalization we will be there to oppose them. The terror of Harris’ government in Toronto led to increased resistance, the culmination of which led to the June 15 “Queen’s Park riot” with over 1000 demonstrators including homeless people, anti-poverty activists, union members and students participating and fighting back. The scale of repression was frightening: mounted police charging and trampling down protesters, other police dressed in riot-gear pepper-spraying the crowd and then ganging up in threes and fours to beat individual protesters with clubs. Twenty-nine demonstrators were arrested with the prolonged trial of three Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) activists facing jail-time. In Vancouver, the fight back will intensify and marginalized communities will continue to protect their life and dignity and their rights to basic survival.

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