On Thursday July 26th, campers and supporters responded to Nanaimo Fire Chief Karen Fry’s threats against the city’s two-month old homeless camp, called Discontent City, with a rally against the punitive and unreasonable fire order. Discontent City residents and supporters, including friends from the allied Anita Place tent city in Maple Ridge, declared that they would block the gate and not allow RCMP or Fire officials into the camp until the City agreed to work with Provincial resources to make the camp safer, and back off from the Fire Chief’s threat to strip campers of essential shelter in the name of safety. By the end of the day Thursday, the City of Nanaimo had retreated from its threat to arrest anyone in camp who had a tarp over their tent, telling Discontent City’s lawyer that instead they will work with BC Housing to make the camp safer. One week after the City’s unenthusiastic showing at their application for a displacement injunction from BC Supreme Court, the Fire Chief tried to circumvent the judge’s delayed decision with a show of force against the camp – but the resistance of allied tent city communities and supporters exposed and blocked the Fire Chief’s maneuver… for a moment.
The City of Nanaimo then applied for a Supreme Court hearing for an even more draconian enforcement order. With the fraudulent claim that the camp is refusing to follow the court order, and naming Discontent City’s resistance to the punitive move to expose homeless people to the naked sun in an open lot during a heat wave, the City is applying for extraordinary police power to force the camp into compliance on their terms. Fire Chief Fry and City Council are applying for the court to award individual RCMP officers the discretionary power to enter private tents at any time of day or night and remove and arrest residents who they decide are not compliant with the fire order for contempt of court. With a camp occupant in custody, the enforcement order would give police and city officials the power to force a campsite into compliance. This application will be heard in court on August 13th.
Tent city activists struck at an internal contradiction in the Canadian state’s approach to policing homelessness in order to push back the City of Nanaimo’s attempt to displace Discontent City. After Supreme Court Justice Ronald Skolrood issued an order that the camp comply with Fire Chief Karen Fry’s fire safety order within one week, two arms of Provincial government power began moving in contradiction with each other. BC Housing, the soft power that manages homeless and low-income people with social workers and basic survival resources, promised resources to meet the fire order. The contradiction Discontent City pointed to was that if Fire Chief Karen Fry was telling the truth and tent city residents with tarps over their tents were really in danger of death by fire, then BC Housing was negligent. If the danger was not so bad that fire safe options could wait then Fire Chief Fry’s order was motivated by local politics, not fire safety. Discontent City was able to take advantage of the contradiction between the BC government’s arms of hard and soft power; their mobilization pushed Chief Fry’s brutality out of the shadows of small-city politics by elevating Nanaimo’s homelessness struggles into a part of the housing and homelessness crisis in British Columbia as a whole.
Rather than build housing in order to end homelessness – a policy shift that would also require commitments from senior levels of government – City politicians are increasingly turning to the hard power of police, bylaw officers, and fire departments to criminalize, displace, and disorganize homeless and low-income communities. The politicization of fire departments is a result of this hard power solution to visible, organized, and resistant homeless communities that disrupt business as usual in cities and towns. Some Fire Chiefs, like Nanaimo’s Karen Fry, seem eager to take on this politicized role, glad to expand their role in the political life of the city. Discontent City’s tongue-in-cheek call to “Fire Chief Fry” is a direct response to this problem, because Fire Chiefs must be trusted in order to confront real problems of fire safety – for homeless people as well as the housed. The political decision to repress and displace the people who are victims of a crisis of inequality and homelessness is a fascist impulse that demonizes outsiders and enemies in order to avoid looking at the structural changes needed to end injustices and insecurities. The City of Nanaimo’s treatment of hundreds of homeless people who are trying to survive and demanding just change carries with it a logic of municipal fascism. We should not be surprised that ringing this bell has summoned dedicated fascist mobs.
Bob, a resident of Discontent City, said that City officials had measured the temperature in his tent without a tarp and admitted that without the extra shelter his tent would be unliveable. But they still proceeded with a fire order to remove his shelter. He explained this by identifying the cold logic governing Nanaimo. “The City has no respect for our class of people, and really what it boils down to is that they don’t care if we die or not,” he said. “Maybe they even want us to.”