National News

Homeless protesters claim land rights

By Vivian Luk, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - Squatters given eviction notices for camping in a Vancouver park claim they have a right to put down stakes because they're on unceded land, but three local First Nations whose territory they're occupying are distancing themselves from the protest.

The City of Vancouver issued two eviction notices in recent days to a group of people who have built a fire pit and put up about a dozen tents — including a teepee — in Oppenheimer Park.

Audrey Siegl, who was at the Downtown Eastside park to show her support, said a handful of the campers have been living there for months because they are homeless. However, more people have moved in since the eviction notices were issued to protest against homelessness in the city.

Siegl, of the Musqueam First Nation, said many of the homeless campers are aboriginal and have nowhere else to go, and the city can't force them out because the park is on unceded Coast Salish territory.

"We've never given this away, we've never signed this away, we've never sold this away," she said. "This city is born on our cultural, our ancestral sites."

Sarah Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Tsleil Waututh Nation, said Oppenheimer Park is considered unceded traditional territory of the Tsleil Waututh, Musqueam and Squamish First Nations, but protesters who are asserting aboriginal title are doing so individually and don't represent their nations.

"It's something they're taking on themselves right now," she said. "It's not backed by any leadership with the three nations, so it's just individual members from the nations who are going down there to support other nations."

Thomas said none of the leadership was consulted about the protest camp, though council members met on Monday to discuss the issue.

There have been several territorial claims, legal actions and even an eviction notice to fishermen, loggers and CN Rail from First Nations in the province since the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the Tsilhqot'in First Nation's title to its traditional territory last month.

Civil liberties advocates said the city's decision to remove people from a public space when they have nowhere else to sleep is a potential charter violation.

"When there is not enough adequate housing available, there must be a more sensitive approach than simply forcing people out of a public park. While we understand the city is working on this, this should be done in discussion with the people involved, rather than coupled with eviction orders," said Micheal Vonn of the BC Civil Liberties Association in a written release.

In an emailed statement, the City of Vancouver said peaceful protests are allowed, but camping and erecting structures in Oppenheimer Park are not because they prevent other people from using the area for leisure. It also said the city is aware a number of campers are homeless, and is working with BC Housing to open a temporary shelter.

"We also know that amongst the group at Oppenheimer the majority of individuals are housed but have issues with the (rooms) they are living in," the statement said.

The statement said council had recently approved a focus on refurbishing SRO's, or single-room occupancy hotels and keeping those units more affordable for low-income residents.

The city acknowledged that a disproportionate number of homeless in the city are First Nations, and council is working with local bands on a housing strategy.

Siegl said the homeless at Oppenheimer Park need permanent housing, not temporary shelters. Most of them would rather live in a tent than stay in shelters or SROs, she said.

"There's a seven-month pregnant lady sleeping in that teepee because there's nowhere else that's safe for her to be," she said. "It's safer for her to be out here than it is for her to be in a shelter. Why is that allowed to happen?"

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