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Prince George bylaw targeting homeless people ‘scapegoats’ the poor, says expert

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PRINCE GEORGE — A northern British Columbia city is enacting new restrictions meant to erase the homeless from its core, intensifying the grief that COVID-19 and the overdose crisis have already inflicted on those with nowhere to live, an expert says.

The bylaw recently passed by Prince George council has tight restrictions on the homeless and is another example of how municipalities are increasingly using harsh regulations to force street people from public spaces, critics said.

It is now an offence to solicit within 10 metres of a restaurant, daycare, liquor store or a vehicle at a traffic stop, among other places. Open air burning in a park or a street is also among prohibited activities.

Joe Hermer, associate professor and chair of the department of sociology at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, said the Prince George bylaw targets the presence and means of survival for homeless people.

Hermer has studied homelessness, street policing and municipal bylaws in Canada, England and Scotland for about 20 years. Such regulations have become “incredibly popular” over the past decade, he said, although the Prince George safe streets bylaw stands out as being “particularly severe” and “particularly discriminatory.”

Vagrancy-type of laws have been around for the past 700 years since first being introduced in England and usually “scapegoat” the poor, Hermer said.

“But I think that was essentially given a new form 20 years ago in terms of municipalities realizing that they could pass these bylaws themselves.”

His research has mapped more than 200 cities and municipalities in Canada with such laws including Surrey, B.C., Toronto, Edmonton, Halifax and Montreal.

Terry Teegee, regional chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations, said the bylaw is unethical.

Indigenous people make up about 80 per cent of the homeless population in Prince George, and it’s punishing those who have mental health and addiction issues, he said in an interview.

“So really the bylaw is discriminatory in nature and it’s punishing the poor, you know, and especially now during a pandemic when there’s limited capacity for indoor space and for allowing people to go to drop-in places,” Teegee said.

“There’s no place to go to except in the streets, so if you’re loitering then potentially by the bylaw you can get fined.”

Hermer said the resurgence of such bylaws coincides with the shrinking of social services and housing. He added that those who live, sleep and use public space as a home, especially Indigenous and people of colour, are associated with high crime rates.

“There’s no direct connection whatsoever, but it is a very powerful metaphor to start these nuisance bylaws particularly against homeless people.”

Policing is a dangerous substitute for the provision of appropriate shelter, medical care, and social support, he wrote in a letter to the Prince George city council in opposition of the bylaw.

When looked at as a whole, the Prince George bylaws against loitering, sitting, sleeping and panhandling, prohibit homeless people from being in a public space at all, Hermer said.

“Is it possible that homeless people can exist at all in downtown Prince George?” he asked.

“The answer is no. Because whatever they do, no matter what they do, it is going to be illegal, right?”

Both Hermer and Teegee question the timing of the bylaw at the confluence of the pandemic and overdose crisis.

Hermer said the bylaw would drive people into using their drugs alone, which might increase overdose deaths.

“It seems very wrong-headed and severe that they would pass this type of bylaw at this particular moment.”

Coun. Kyle Sampson was one of the five who supported the bylaw during the council meeting, saying living in a community means following rules even for people who face addiction issues.

“It means we should help them understand the law,” he said while the bylaw was under discussion at the council meeting.

“And if we can’t help them, then we do need to enforce the law to whatever extent that looks like. I don’t think that’s an unfair expectation.”

Sampson said he is “a middle-aged young male” who felt unsafe walking downtown.

Downtown is “a crisis of crime and of drug addiction, mental illness and homelessness,” which need to be addressed, he said adding that the bylaw will speak to these issues.

Coun. Cori Ramsay voted against the regulation saying she researched similar bylaws in other cities and found that they were not effective.

“It really doesn’t seem to make a difference,” she said in an interview. “It really seems to be, you know, a Band-Aid solution.”

She questioned the ripple effect of fining people for simply sitting on the street.

“What are they going to have to resort to pay that fine?” Ramsay asked.

“Is it going to increase theft? Is it actually going to have the opposite effect of the intended behavioural changes this bylaw is really striving to create?”

Samson said he is open to revisiting the bylaw if evidence shows that it is causing harm.

“I’m not saying that we should repeal this, I’m saying that if there’s evidence later that shows that it’s not having the intended outcome, then we can revisit it.”

Hermer said sleeping on a sidewalk because someone has no other place to go is not a crime.

The main harm from this bylaw is that it brings isolation to people living on the streets by breaking their social connections in public space that for some of them is a last resort, he said.

“And there is a level of safety in being in public. Visibility is important, and in the fact that they’re not alone.”

— By Hina Alam in Vancouver

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2021.

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NewsAlert: Senate gives speedy passage to bill banning conversion therapy

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OTTAWA — The Senate has passed legislation to ban conversion therapy in Canada.

After minimal debate, senators have agreed to fast-track Bill C-4 through all stages of the legislative process and deem it passed.

The move was proposed by the interim leader of the Conservative Senate caucus, Sen. Leo Housakos.

It follows a similar move by Conservatives in the House of Commons last week to speed the bill through that chamber without lengthy debate, committee study or votes.

The bill makes it a criminal offence to force a person to undergo the traumatizing practice of “conversion therapy” aimed at altering their sexual orientation or gender identity.

More than half of the 119 Conservative MPs voted against a similar bill last June, which gave Liberals ammunition to accuse the party of being anti-LGBTQ during the fall election campaign.

More Coming.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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Military's former head of human resources charged with sexual assault, indecent acts

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OTTAWA — Military police say they have charged the former head of human resources for the Canadian Armed Forces with one count of sexual assault.

The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service says Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson has also been charged with one count of indecent acts.

The charges come weeks after Defence Minister Anita Anand announced she had accepted retired Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour’s call to have the investigation and prosecution of military sexual assault cases transferred to civilian authorities.

In announcing the charges against Edmundson, the CFNIS noted Arbour left open the door to leaving investigations in the hands of military police if they are near completion.

Edmundson’s case will proceed through the civilian justice system rather than the military’s justice system. 

Edmundson stepped down as head of military personnel command in March due to a police investigation after a CBC report of alleged sexual assault. He has denied the allegations.

His successor, Lt.-Gen. Steven Whelan, stepped aside in October due to a military police investigation into an allegation of sexual misconduct. He has also denied any wrongdoing.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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