By Mike Archer. The healing process, which, I have argued, Abbotsford must find its way through, has to begin with an acknowledgment that harm has been done; to whom it was done, and, by whom the harm was done.
In essence – how did we get here, who did it, and how can we avoid making the same mistakes again? Unless we are to avoid making this mistakes all over again we need to know who got us us here, how and why? We need to understand what they were trying to do and, lest we be tempted to walk down the same path again at some future date, we need to figure out how to avoid making the same mistakes.
Most citizens of Abbotsford have not been aware of the actions being taken against their fellow citizens by organizations and people paid and expected to do better. Whether through taxes, donations or other support, the people of Abbotsford have paid for these decisions and actions. They deserve an explanation.
Cover: Abbotsford born and raised, Nick Zurowski is one of the most recognized faces of homelessness in Abbotsford. Photo by Bas Stevens.
Health and Well-BeingIn Abbotsford, bylaws, policies, procedures and methods of dealing with its homeless population were adopted which separated and segregated those who were suffering into two groups:
1) Those deserving of help and shelter
2) Those not deserving of help and shelter
I would argue that the process started when Abbotsford City Council adopted its infamous ‘Anti Harm Reduction Bylaw’ which made it an offence to provide life-saving medical supplies, services and assistance to drug users and drug addicts.
Just as the rest of the world was beginning to understand the scientific basis for addiction and adapt to a more humane and successful method of helping marginalized people, Abbotsford doubled down on a moralistic, abstinence based program of criminalization.
Former councillor Simon Gibson made himself the poster child of abstinence-based solutions, so much so that, when the City was forced to rescind/remove its bylaw, council waited several months to vote on the matter so that Gibson could be out of the chambers when it was voted on (he had to take up his new post as an MLA in Victoria).
That bylaw sent a very loud message to service providers, churches, health workers, advocates and homeless people that, in Abbotsford, the life of a junkie or a drug user was worth less than that of a non-drug user.
The phrase, “You appear to have used drugs recently, I cannot talk to you” became synonymous with the treatment of those who had the misfortune of suffering from drug addiction.
Many within the service community have complained about Abbotsford being labeled as having no low barrier shelters. The case has been made that, during deadly freezing weather everybody is allowed inside since emergency shelter provisions are put in place.
What happens when the weather warms up or the mentally ill or addicted citizens start to exhibit ‘unacceptable’ behaviour is another matter.
Simply put; defenders of Abbotsford’s segregationist service delivery policies argue it is the unacceptable behaviour arising from addiction or mental illness, not the illnesses themselves, which cause the need for segregation.
No one who defends the system has been able to explain why none of the services, experts, facilities and staff who are trained to deal with those behaviours exist in Abbotsford. The personnel which does exist that fits the bill is either in terribly short supply or has been handcuffed by the City’s bylaws anf peer pressures into complete ineffectiveness.
The men and women who set the tone, established the policies and procedures and supervised the workers who were instructed to use the phrase, “You appear to have used drugs recently, I cannot talk to you,” need to come forward and explain to their fellow citizens why they segregated needy people into two categories – those who received help and those who didn’t.
They also have to explain to the caregivers and front line workers who tried to help drug users, addicts and victims of the drug war or mental illness, by using modern methods of treatment, why they were told to stop or kept fromt doing what they knew to be right and correct.
Major institutions such as the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), Abbotsford Community Services (ACS) and the service providers which work with them, such as Positive Living, Women’s Resource Centre, Cyrus Center, and Abbotsford Addictions, must answer for the fact that many of the people, on whom they based their requests for funding, and who were quoted in the statistics they used to justify that funding, were denied services as a result of policies such as “You appear to have used drugs recently, therefore I cannot help you.”
Criminalization and PersecutionThe Fraser Valley and parts of the Lower Mainland took a different approach to some of the difficult aspects of marginalization and homelessness as a result, in no small part, of writings of a community college teacher from Abbotsford.
Darryl Plecas, who is now an MLA and, since the provincial government converted all of its community colleges into universities, a retired professor from the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), made a name for himself fighting gangs and criminals on behalf of Lower Mainland police forces.
In a book he co-authored and released last August called ‘Eliminating Crime: The Seven Essential Principles of Police-based Crime Reduction,’ Plecas summed up what he had spent a career arguing as the RCMP Chair of Criminology at UFV.
Some of the arguments he made throughout his educational career were used by Lower Mainland municipalities and police forces to supersede Canada’s criminal code, negate the requirement for a warrant when searching people’s homes, and invade citizens’ privacy without just cause.
It was the, now infamous, policy of sending an electrical inspector in to homes, due to supposedly suspiciously high levels of electrical usage, followed by police who were ostensibly there to protect the inspectors, which shaped the reaction to an explosion of drug gangs and muders in Abbotsford and the Fraser Valley.
Those procedures lead to civil rights suits, keystone cop blunders and civil actions against police and municipalities as innocent victims were not only invaded and searched at gunpoint but, in the case of Mission, were sent a $5,200 invoice for their troubles.
All of the municipalities and police forces which took his advice were eventually forced to climb down from their illegal perches and relinquish their unlawful usurpation of the role of writing (or re-writing) the criminal code.
While ostensibly aimed at the gangs, the ‘outside of the law’ method of crime fighting seems to have slipped over into the ways in which police have treated anyone involved in thewar on drugs … including its victims.
Despite a career devoted to helping cities and police circumventing the law, Plecas has ultimately had to accept defeat along with all of the municipalities and police forces who took his advice. The police still require a warrant in Canada if they intend to barge into your house with guns blazing – no matter what Darryl Plecas says.
On a more subtle but more damaging level, Plecas’ devotion to ignoring the law when it came to fighting gangs or the drug war, when combined with the City of Abbotsford’s Crime Reduction Strategy, effectively put some of the basic protections of the Canadian constitution beyond the reach of Abbotsford citizens and criminalized behaviour and activity which is known to be an illness in need of medical support and assistance.
By criminalizing homelessness, and through bylaws, providing powers to local police unavailable elsewhere in Canada, Abbotsford set up a scenario which played itself out in the abuse of its most marginalized and defenceless citizens.
Abbotsford effectively developed a local policy on crime which equates simple possession or use of drugs with trafficking and gang activity and thereby appeared to give marching orders to its police to treat certain homeless people like criminals.
*For a more detailed look at the relationship between the APD and the homeless please see ‘Between A Rock And A Hard Place.’
The flawed and, in some cases illegal, approach to social problems in Abbotsford, has ruined lives and destroyed people’s health, opportunities and hope. The denial of health care services and the abuse suffered by citizens in what has been documented as consistent and relentless mistreatment of a group of people by authorities appears to be slowly being undone by the BC Supreme Court (with the City and the APD delaying, objecting and appealing all the way).
Whether or not the courts force the City to heal, a simple, “Sorry things didn’t work out,’ is inadequate as a response to what has amounted to a multi-year campaign of terror. Those who were subjected to the organized abuse deserve better. So does the community which paid for it.
The organizations and the people in charge who made these horrendous decisions and, in some cases, have devoted careers to battling a class of people who couldn’t fight back, must step up, admit what they did and apologize, not only to the men and women they have harmed, but to the community they were paid to represent and in whose name they committed these acts.
Institutions don’t hurt people. The people who run or work in those institutions are the ones who hurt other people.
We may only be able to hope that, without the court forcing them to speak up, the individuals who have caused so much pain to so many people will only admit to being mistaken.
It’s not much but it will be a start.
Next: Who Did It?
For Part One of A Healing Process click here.