Release. The Abbotsford Chapter of the BC/Yukon Drug War Survivors (DWS) is being recognized as perhaps the most effective and successful drug user organization in BC and perhaps across Canada for the incredible strides it has taken in recent years changing the way police and municipal officials in Abbotsford treat the poor and the marginalized.
“It is a truly great honour to be recognized for the social change we have helped to create in a community which initially showed great resistance,” says Barry Shantz, founder of the Abbotsford DWS.
Shantz says the Abbotsford DWS has followed in the footsteps of Ann Livingston and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), and is seeking and grabbing hold of opportunities for social change.
“Ann Livingston has always said that many opportunities for social change present themselves year-after-year but, unless a community has organization and social activists who are prepared to seize those opportunities, social change will never happen,” says Shantz.
Shantz, who prides himself on his Mennonite heritage, says that an important part of Mennonite history has to do with being prepared to face the costs of doing the right thing and challenging governments to act properly.
“Mennonites have paid the price for their beliefs many times in history and I believe one of the reasons we are seeing some of the change we are witnessing in Abbotsford is because of that tradition of courage,” he says.
Shantz participated in a forum November 28th, attended by over 200 delegates, at Kwantlen University in Surrey which focused on community responses to the criminalization and police targeting of the poor. Active and non-active drug users from across BC and as far away as Toronto were at the conference which was sponsored by: VANDU, the Society of Living Illicit Drug Users (Victoria), the Committee to End Homelessness (Victoria), the Critical Criminology Working Group (Kwantlen), the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society and the BC/Yukon Drug War Survivors.
Abbotsford was singled out at the conference for the legal success it achieved in forcing the City of Abbotsford to change its Anti-Harm Reduction bylaw and allow healthcare officials and support groups to provide life-saving clean needles and other harm reduction services to victims of addiction.
The Abbotsford DWS has also managed to enter the history books for the longest continuous protest in BC, and perhaps Canadian history, with its challenge against the City of Abbotsford and the Abbotsford Police Department (APD) which began in Jubilee Park in October 2013 and has continued at the ‘MCC Dignity Village’ protest camp on Gladys Avenue.
The group is also engaged in 11 different lawsuits in small claims court, the BC Human Rights Tribunal and before the BC Supreme Court over charges the APD stole and damaged the belongings of homeless people and used pepper spray in a years-long campaign described by Chief Constable Bob Rich as a policy of displacing and dispersing people.
Perhaps the most infamous of the actions before the courts is the City’s use of chicken feces to displace homeless men and women from empty land across from the Salvation Army in 2013.
“The incompetence, lack of training and ineptness of the City of Abbotsford and its police department have put both organizations at the heart of a worldwide movement to address the use of local bylaws and local police to enforce systematic discrimination against a class of people who are poor, suffer from mental illness or addiction and who lack the economic wherewithal to survive. We have to stop criminalizing these people and start the healing process,” says Shantz.
He adds that the City’s crime prevention strategy, which links drug possession and drug use with gang activity has given the APD the authority to treat drug addicts particularly harshly.
“The City of Abbotsford, its politicians, officials, and police have created a legal environment which has led to attempts to cleanse the City streets of a whole class of people who are marginalized and defenceless,” says Shantz.
“That legal behaviour has led to a whole variety of service providers, business organizations individuals and groups defining their behaviour towards the poor and the marginalized in a manner which is illegal, immoral and indefensible,” he says.