By Mike Archer. I’ve talked a lot in this space about the healing process I believe the community of Abbotsford must go through over its treatment of the homeless.

I’ve compared it to the healing process countries like South Africa and Ireland have experienced, as well as organizations like the Anglican Church or Canada’s First Nations, but I’ve never laid out what the process might actually look like or discussed why I think it is necessary.

Cover photo: Abbotsford homeless resident Harvey Clause. Photo by Jeff Vinnick

Setting aside, for a moment, the myriad court cases and human rights complaints in which both the City of Abbotsford and the Abbotsford Police Department (APD) are engaged with the Abbotsford Chapter of the BC/Yukon Drug Wars Survivors (DWS) and Pivot Legal Society, I think it is undeniable that some pretty substantial scars have been left on the community of Abbotsford as a result of the clash between some members of the homeless community and those they allege to be responsible for their mistreatment.

Whatever the courts decide, I think it is undeniable that, as a result of legislative decisions; funding decisions; adminstrative decisions; a series of policies and procedures; combined with a withdrawl/refusal of services, some serious, and in some cases deadly, harm has been inflicted on a class of citizens who suffer from the ravages of mental illness, alcohol dependence, drug addiction and poverty.

Police officers, city staff, staff at service providers, churches and other organizations on the front lines of this community’s battle with the homeless have most certainly also been emotionally damaged by the decisions of superiors and community leaders which they have been forced to carry out.

Some careers have already been destroyed, though never publicly linked with some of the most egregious misdeeds committed by people on the public payroll; policies and procedures in the handling of marginalized citizens have been questioned and found wanting; and, what I believe to be an important series of law suits and human rights complaints are being fought which will lay bare all of the ugly truths which led us to this point.

The community as a whole has been damaged by ongoing media reports (local, provincial, national and even international) for its battle with the homeless. We can’t possibly expect to attract companies, organizations or families who are forward-looking, advanced or committed to respecting human rights unless we come to terms with the harms which have been caused and the actions taken on our behalf.

The difficulties Abbotsford has faced in attracting modern businesses and developers, which bring with them well-paying jobs and the kind of intellectual wealth which cities can’t do without if they are to prosper, go much deeper than the archaic planning and economic development policies procedures at City Hall.

Those are being fixed. Our treatment of the homeless and the marginalized is far from fixed.

The insular, secretive, and self-protective nature of the community leadership which created this situation is part of the reason we, as a community, have had so much trouble dealing with it. A series of bylaws, policies and procedures which led agencies, organizations and individuals to act in ways which the rest of the world finds repugnant, were passed, and put into effect. They must still be dealt with, not only by being rescinded, but, I believe, by with wholesale re-education, from the top down, of the City, the APD and service providers, in the realities of the acceptable ways of dealing with marginalized people the modern world.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission laid the modern groundwork for a peaceful means with which a community could transcend some of the most horrendous and unspeakable acts of inhumanity which both led to and relied upon a legal and bureaucratic system which protected and idolized some of the most awful people and actions ever committed in the name of ideology.

Victims and perpetrators spoke publicly, without fear of retribution or prosecution, in a successful attempt to avoid the bloodshed and civil war predicted by the perpetrators and feared by many around the world.

The trade-off was clear and simple:

To avoid prosecution – admit wrongdoing

To avoid retribution – speak the truth

Northern Ireland’s (Truth) & Reconciliation Process

In the case of Northern Ireland, the process didn’t run so smoothly because politics became the overriding force which guided those involved.

In the end, rather than resolve or even face any of the most terrible of actions taken by either side, the process led both sides to simply agree to disagree and move on.

Though much was achieved, the process broke down in the face of the unwillingness or inability of the key actors to take the necessary risks inherent in an open and honest approach to the issues.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

While limited to the Residential Schools question and the inhumanity of the systematic social engineering experiment it represented, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has, at the very least, opened the door to a re-writing of portions of Canadian history, and an apology from a federal government whose relationship with First Nations people has hardly been a shining example of a commitment to human rights or reconciliation.

By taking one strand of the complex history of white European/Canadian relations with Aboriginal peoples, some small steps have been taken towards some form of healing, but the majority of the advances seem to have been made in court over the last 25 years.

Similar to the situation in Abbotsford, it appears the only real way forward for the victims of systematic racist policies, laws and behaviour on the part of Canadian governments and individuals,is to use laws already on the books in order to force public agencies and officials to behave legally.

It is a longer and more painful process but may ultimately prove more satisfying and effective from the standpoint of native peoples since they will have used Canadian law to establish their inherent value and rights as Canadian citizens.

What Does A Healing Process Look Like?

The examples above lay down, in broad strokes, what a healing process must involve if it is going to be successful. Though the South African experience is said to have been more successful, so far, than the Irish experience, all of these processes share some things in common.

  1. An admission that harm was done
  2. An agreement on what that harm was and who was harmed
  3. A naming of who was harmed and who caused the harm to occur
  4. An apology for the harm done
  5. Restitution/compensation
  6. New legislation, policies, procedures which will keep the harm from ever happening again

These are the basic components of a healing process in the case of human rights violations and systematic mistreatment of marginalized people. If the BC Supreme Court and BC Human Rights Tribunal order Abbotsford to go through this process or something like it, we will go down in the history books as having been forced, by law, to do the right thing.

If, on the other hand, we choose to initiate and complete the process ourselves (with whatever help we may require from outside of the community) the history books will record the fact that we chose to do the right thing.

It is up to us.

Why Healing Is Necessary

Some, especially among those who might be either blamed for, or found wanting for, their actions during the years of discrimination in Abbotsford are asking why we need a healing process. Why can’t we just be happy that things seem to be moving in a different, better direction and move on?

My first response is that we have no way of knowing if that new direction represents deep and meaningful change or simply a fear of the media limelight which has sent certain people and behaviours scurrying out of the light.

My second response is that we owe it to history and our descendants to know that we faced this ugliness, stood up and renounced it, and, changed course so that it would never happen again.

On a deeper level, my strongest response to the question is that there are citizens of Abbotsford whose lives have been destroyed; some have missed opportunities to dig themselves out of the hell in which they lived; some didn’t survive the abuse …

This is not just a matter of some policies or procedures which failed and are being replaced by more effective ones. This is a matter of man’s inhumanity to man on a systematic basis, and on behalf of a community, which was performed with the community’s knowledge and funded by the community’s taxes and donations.

Perhaps the best answers to the question, ‘Why is healing necessary?’ can be found in an article in the Anglican Journal on the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission of Canada.

Among the reasons written by participants posted on a wall in Inuvik, when asked, ‘Why it matters to me,’ respondents said:

  • Because I want my grandchildren to have a better life
  • Because I went through it; it can’t happen to me again
  • Remember my Dad
  • To my mom, I have come to peace with myself

Whether the healing process is forced on us by the BC Supreme Court and the BC Human Rights Tribunal, or we take the bull by the horns and take responsibility for the process ourselves, there is little doubt in my mind that we must go through the process.

It is my hope we can do it ourselves. But that will take political will and community leadership. The new mayor and council seem to want to do things differently. Let’s hope that represents a start in what will hopefully be a very positive opportunity for growth in our community.

Next in the series: Part Two: How Did This Happen?

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