Reasons For Hope

By March 29, 2014Issues, Mike Archer

By Mike Archer. Readers have grown accustomed to the tone of much of my commentary over the last six years, especially when it comes to the old, incompetent and often foolish men and women of the upper strata of Abbotsford’s tiny little power structure.

Out of the chicken manure some hope may grow

When we launched Abbotsford Today our tag line – ‘The other side of the news’ was deliberately chosen because we didn’t, and don’t, believe that the media’s role should be to appease, promote, encourage or run interference for the well-heeled, the connected or the powerful.

We believe the media’s role is both to report and to criticize, to explain and to question decisions being made with taxpayers’ money and to reveal the identities of the men and women, many of whom prefer to stay in the shadows, who influence the spending of taxpayers’ money.

In Abbotsford that tone has been much more severe than at any of Today Media’s other community websites because, more than any other community we’ve ever run into, Abbotsford’s media has always seemed more of a public relations arm of city hall than an independent group representing the readers, taxpayers, and the citizens of the community.

Many have been angered by Abbotsford Today’s revelations and commentary on this City’s horrendous record of human rights violations, illegal legislative attempts to control the delivery of health care services, abuse of homeless men and women, relentless persecution of people who have nowhere to live while refusing to provide them shelter, and its de facto policy of criminalizing poverty and addiction.

This preamble is necessary in order to introduce this column because, for those who only visit Abbotsford Today in order to discover the latest bit of nonsense our community leaders have come up with, this column will seem like a rather startling departure.

Reasons For Hope
Just about everybody in the community who pays attention to such things is in agreement that Mayor Banman’s Task Force on Homelessness is a sham. More than that, it was a stunningly inept attempt to put Banman’s vote (along with those of John Smith, Bill MacGregor and Les Barkman) against the ACS low barrier housing proposal behind us so the campaigning for this year’s municipal election can begin in earnest.

To put all of the same people who either allowed or actively participated in creating the current Abbotsford Homelessness Crisis together in a room without even inviting any of the homeless to join was either the height of arrogance or a sad admission that, as far as the privileged power structure of Abbotsford is concerned – nothing should or will ever change anyway. Might as well just have the same tired old horses come to the same tired old conclusions. The fact that the Sally Ann, which approved of the infamous chicken manure incident, was not invited to the table is the only sign that some of the walls of secrecy around the Business of Poverty in Abbotsford may be coming down.

Despite some legitimate concerns that the society being created by Paul MacLeod and Gerry Palmer, with ADBA seed money (thanks to Bob Bos), in order to tackle the homelessness crisis, may have ulterior political motives, it deserves a chance to show us what it can accomplish. We would be remiss in the extreme if we were to allow one of the only opportunities for change to be stillborn due to our collective cynicism.

The reason I’ve titled this column ‘Reasons For Hope’ lies elsewhere. In a perverse and strangely poetic sense, a unique opportunity may actually now exist for some real change to occur in Abbotsford despite prevailing views of the entrenched political power structure.

It is a sad reflection on the people who govern this city – in political, policing, religious, social and business circles – that it has taken international embarrassment; the mounting threats of law suits which will, at the very least allow us to find out who has been responsible; and, the political suicide of Bruce Banman whose single voted ended the only opportunity we will get to begin on a new path, to create such a cacaphony of anger that no one in the power structure is immune from the fallout from this crisis.

But therein lies the hope.

Consider the following:

  • Ever since the Abbotsford Chapter of the BC/Yukon Drug War Survivors (DWS) launched a peaceful protest in Jubilee Park, which was torn down on Christmas Eve by police and city officials on the strength of a court order, the homeless men and women of Abbotsford have not been subjected to the daily Abbotsford Shuffle whereby the Abbotsford Police Department (APD) threatened, cajoled, abused, pepper sprayed, harassed them like lepers or pests and then laughed about it all. The harassment, for now, seems to have stopped.
  • Ever since those same homeless men and women moved their symbolic Teepee to the narrow strip of land opposite the Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) new building on Gladys Avenue, police and City workers have resisted the urge to harass them and left them in peace. No fire inspectors, no ambulances, no cop cars, no flood lights … it’s almost like the City has stopped caring.
  • No matter the cynicism with which it has been greeted, Bob Bos’ motion to have the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association (ADBA) donate $10,000 to a society of citizens devoted to tackling the real issues of homelessness in Abbotsford, must be greeted with appreciation for what it indicates. Setting aside questions about its sincerity, it is nonetheless a move, small as it may be, along the road to healing in this community. Five years ago it would have been unheard of.
  • That the society has had five adhoc and informal meetings and is still hanging together despite some rather frank and honest discussions is a testament to the sincere desire on the part of its members to actually get something done.
  • The fact that, at the insistence of the society’s founder and spokesman, Paul MacLeod, there are between four and six members of the DWS – yes, actual homeless people – at each meeting is an indication that somebody is finally listening to Abbotsford DWS founder Barry Shantz.
  • Rumours of an upcoming APD BBQ for the homeless may draws jeers of derision but, like Bob Bos’ gesture, it is a small step in the right direction. And in this backward city we have learned to be thankful for whatever we can get.
  • No matter their cynical choice to turn down the $15.3 million Abbotstford Community Services’ (ACS) low-barrier housing proposal, politicians like Bruce Banman, Bill MacGregor, Les Barkman and even John Smith are now talking as though some of their best friends are homeless. It’s nothing more than crass political maneuvering at its worst, but again, a tiny step in the right direction and it opens the door for some real change.
  • As the main architect of the City’s financial nightmare (Plan A) the Abbotsford Shuffle and the Abbotsford Homeless Crisis, John Smith’s career as a politician should finally be over in this fall’s municipal election. It would be nice if, on the way out, he made a sincere attempt to change the way history will judge him by doing what he never did as the chair of the Abbotsford Social Development Advisory Committee (ASDAC) and get out of the way so that those in the community with a real desire and ability to solve, or at least reduce the homeless crisis, can get on with the job of doing so.

Interests Align
In summary, despite what I believe is nothing more than the cynical posturing of several incompetent old men, for the first time in the City’s history just about everybody’s interests align. It is to everybody’s benefit that Abbostford’s mistreatment and abuse of it homeless people stop being our signature on the world stage.

Bruce Banman may be remembered as the Chicken Manure Mayor but his administration’s use of chicken feces to rid itself of the homeless has forced the community to look itself in the mirror. His vote to kill the ACS low barrier shelter sealed his fate as a one-term mayor, but it also mobilized the community in a way it has not been mobilized since it was lied to by George Peary about the lack of water in a rain forest.

This time it’s different. The community has grown sick and tired, not just of the incompetence and the lies, but of the ability of a small group of self-interested, well-connected land owners to hold sway on a matter of public policy and human dignity.

They had every right to make their case – we live in a democracy. The role of elected officials, however, and especially that of mayors, is to do what is best for the whole community. Not just a small minority of well-heeled landowners. It is the single biggest mistake Banman has made in his short and embarrassing political career.

The human rights complaints, law suits and protests by the DWS, have been, together with the media attention finally being given to this issue, here and around the world, the only reasons for any of the noticeable recent improvements in the lives Abbotsford’s homeless population.

Without Barry Shantz’s refusal to back down in the face of the hate and ugliness emanating from City Hall, the APD, the Chamber of Commerce and the ADBA, the attempt now being made by a few sincere people to solve what the power structure and the politicians couldn’t or wouldn’t, would never have seen the light of day.

The cynical decision by politicians like Les Barkman, Bill MacGregor and John Smith to refuse $15.3 from the provincial government to build the smallest low barrier shelter ever considered by BC Housing in the history of the province stunned the community to such a degree that all three men will have their names etched in the minds of voters in November’s municipal election.

Good. Their time is long past overdue.

Politicians Will Not Be The Ones To Solve This Crisis
As far as Banman is concerned, he has proven so many times on so many issues during his one and only term as mayor that we made a mistake when we were so anxious to get rid of George Peary that we settled for Bruce.

Nice guy. Good singer … but he should go back to crunching bones and leave the running of a city to those who know what they’re doing.

If only because of the desperate personal desire of a few politicians to remain at the public trough; the APD’s desperate desire to move beyond their current reputation as the land time forgot and the church community which needs to clear its name from accusations it will only help ‘the right kind’ of homeless people, we can at least begin to hope that the work of Paul MacLeod’s new society has the potential to result in more positive change than the present cessation of hostilities.

The law suits and the civil rights cases will do the rest.

The fact MacLeod’s group has turned down requests from two Abbotsford politicians to join the society is, in and of itself, a sign of hope.

But … and it is an important but … if MacLeod, or anyone else, thinks that the Abbotsford Homeless Crisis, and all of the ugly, possibly criminal indignities which may have been committed by public officials, in the employ of the citizens of Abbotsford, can be swept under the carpet, they are wrong.

There is a healing process this community must go through and it is going to have to involve some admissions of guilt, some naming of people responsible and some shaming of those who have allowed this to happen. For what has happened is shameful.

It is even possible someone may have to be fired, resign in disgrace or perhaps even go to jail for what has been done to the men and women of the DWS. We have still not been told who decided to use chicken feces on the homeless and, despite the News’ attempt to sweep it all under the carpet that may have to be revealed before we can move forward. At the very least Banman needs to publicly apologize for equating the men and women of the DWS with pedophiles.

The healing is going to take time and those responsible are going to have to face the music. Ten grand and a couple of porta potties ain’t gonna wipe this mess up … but it’s a start.

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