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'Cattle pens': Advocate slams Vancouver's cleanup in CRAB Park

The tent city at CRAB Park in Vancouver is seen in March 2023. (CTV) The tent city at CRAB Park in Vancouver is seen in March 2023. (CTV)
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The Vancouver Park Board has begun its process of cleaning up the CRAB Park encampment, but advocates say the city's approach has been “inhumane” and “dehumanizing” for residents.

In a statement, the board said conditions in the park's designated shelter area have become unsafe and unhygienic, with “significant amounts of debris and garbage, non-compliant materials, propane tanks, rats, needles, and feces."

Long-time advocate for CRAB Park campers Fiona York does not dispute that the area needs a clean-up, but says the process has been rushed and that residents' feedback has not been properly addressed.

“It's never been said by residents that they don't want a cleaner environment—this is just not the way to do it,” she told CTV News.

Residents are required to move to a temporary sheltering area in the park by Sunday. If people refuse to relocate, they will be “escorted” out by police. On Monday, city staff put up fences in that temporary area.

“They basically look like cattle pens—these are human beings we're talking about,” said York, adding that it dehumanizes people "to their soul to be treated like this."

She says the fencing is a “horrifying step” that is a visual representation of the way the entire process has been handled.

“Now that we see the fencing, it's just kind of spelling out what's already been going on,” York explained.

The First Nations Leadership Council has also harshly condemned the board's plan, calling it a “forced eviction” and a “blatant disregard of human rights” in a news release.

It notes that many CRAB Park residents are Indigenous, and “forced evictions of encampments further perpetuate the trauma and harm that many of our relatives endured in the residential school system and in the child welfare system.”

York agreed, saying the fences in particular are “so reminiscent of things that have been done in the past,” describing them as “carceral.”

The FNLC takes particular issue with the fact that once the estimated 30 people who were already sheltering in the designated area will be able to return in early April, new structures will need to be bylaw-compliant, meaning they can’t contain “building materials” like wood or pallets.

“It’s the demolition of a community and the structures that residents have built to provide more safety than a flimsy tent,” the release reads. “Without readily available housing alternatives, confiscating the structures that have been put together by park residents is totally unacceptable.”

Since a 2022 B.C. Supreme Court decision, people have been allowed to shelter in a designated section of the waterfront park 24/7, contrary to other encampments where a bylaw requires residents to pack up and move during daylight hours. 

Starting Monday, March 25, the park board will spend one week cleaning the encampment—a plan that includes fencing off the area, using heavy machinery to raze any remaining “non-compliant structures,” leveling the ground and laying down gravel and sand.

Residents did give feedback to the board, and York says some tweaks to the plan were made, but feels their input has been mostly disregarded. “Of course nobody would ever have asked for some penned-in areas in the bright sunlight,” she said. “People who are most impacted need to have the most say and certainly that's not what's happening.”

“People in the camp are saying don't move everybody. Don't close it off. Don't move it out. Don't shut it down. Don't bulldoze it. Don't put things in storage,” York said. “People are trying their best to get their voices heard and it's just it's not happening.”

Last week, 26 residents did their own cleanup of the encampment, and collected a total of 176 bins of garbage and about 600 kilograms of scrap metal, according to York. She says the effort shows that a resident-led approach should have been on the table.

“That indicates that actually, you don't need to bring in heavy machinery, this can be done manually. I don't really grasp that this these options have been fully explored, and to work with people that live there,” she said.

The park board has maintained that the cleanup of CRAB Park is “not a decampment.”

However, York says the “distressing” environment being created by having a large park ranger presence in the area and moving people into small pens certainly looks like a decampment.

“When you're bulldozing an entire camp and moving people out of it, I don't know what else you can call it besides a decampment,” she said.

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