The Legal Roots of Anti-Homeless Hate: Understanding the anti-homeless bias of personhood and rights in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms

In July 2018, Alliance Against Displacement held a panel in Nanaimo called “Poverty and Discontent: The Legal Roots of Anti-homeless Hate.” This panel discussion took place as public hostility against Nanaimo’s Discontent City was simmering. It was another month before this hate reached its boiling point, where vigilantes partnered with the Soldiers of Odin to organize two openly anti-homeless, far-right demonstrations that threatened to attack the homeless camp. This speech was given at the panel by AAD organizer Listen Chen.

The themes in this talk resonate today, as hatred against homeless people is being verbally taken up by Maple Ridge’s Mayor Morden and BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, who are calling for a coalition of municipalities to gather around the banner of refusing modular housing projects in their communities. The Volcano is publishing this talk because it presents a helpful outline of the ways that the ideologies of anti-homeless hate originate in Canada’s legal frameworks that guarantee individual rights to own, trade, and profit from property.

In July at Anita Place tent city in Maple Ridge, cops tried to take a homeless woman’s truck, under the direction of a Parks officer. As soon as someone yelled out about what was happening, other residents came over and stood with her, physically blocking the police from moving the truck with their bodies. At the same time, an AAD organizer called the media and started recording the incident on their phone. Facing the mounting pressure of a collective resistance, the cops eventually backed off.

Now, imagine if this woman had been alone, parked by the river and living out of her truck. There is no way she could have resisted being forcibly displaced. I think this story can help us explore the relationship between poverty and the law, as well as the relationship between homeless people’s power and the law.

Surrey RCMP policing the homeless as they sweep the 135A Strip

Protecting property from homeless people

We might say that we live in a culture of anti-homeless hate, where people’s attitudes toward homeless people are discriminatory. But homeless hate is more than just social stigma and negative feelings. For this talk, I want to try to answer the question: what is the root of this hatred? How do we explain the ways in which our society is built to hate on homeless people?

The mandate of the police is to protect “people and property.” Think about how much money the government pours into a service that makes sure that property remains “safe”. What does it mean for property to be in danger? From a business owner’s perspective, the mere presence of homeless people near their business puts their property in danger.

When I put it that way, I’m sure that many of us agree that it is dehumanizing to frame homeless people as a threat to private property. But I think we should look past our own feelings to the ways in which, no matter how you and I feel about it, these are the laws that govern our society. The Canadian legal system, which the police arm, functions to protect property. People who have no property are not seen as worthy of police protection – they are not even seen as human.

This is because the basic right enshrined by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom is to own and trade property. So when I say that homeless and property-less people are not seen as human, I mean not only in the eyes of bigots, but in the eyes of the law. In other words, personal prejudices are a reflection of our decidedly impersonal legal system.

Liberal personhood under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms

The idea that the Charter is about the right to own and trade property can be hard to grasp. One way I think about it is that the Charter defines who a “legal person” is, and homeless people are not recognized as legal persons until they band together, break the law, and stand their ground. Only through collective struggle do they become legible as persons.

Another way to think about property and Canadian law is to think about how property itself is a tool of settler-colonialism. Property – whether private, public, or Crown, is a means to dispossess Indigenous people from their land and snuff out their economies. One obvious example is the Indian Act, which used the division between “status” and “non-status” to ensure that Indigenous territory would become property, that could only be passed on in certain ways. Not only did this legally impose the category of “property” onto Indigenous territories, but it attacked Indigenous practices of passing on hunting and gathering rights. Indigenous economies are about a relationship to land, not the ownership of it. But in a society based on property, land must always be owned – whether by private individuals, cities, provinces, or the Crown.  

In a nutshell, Canadian law is based on a “legal personhood” that is tethered to property ownership, so expanding the reach of the law will never, in and of itself, lead us to the end of the exploitation and violence of capitalism and colonialism. I think this is why we should be upfront about the reality that tent cities are breaking laws. They are breaking laws that are designed to make sure that the owners of property hold all the power in our society, and everyone else has to rely on methods of survival that expose them to exploitation and/or criminalization.

Gaining “rights” will not make us free or housed

Yes, we’re breaking the law, not on the basis of a technicality, but on the basis that the way tent cities relate to property is fundamentally at odds with how the Canadian settler-colonial government does – we occupy land in order to use it, which is outside of the property ownership rights framework the law enforces. Our goal, then, shouldn’t be to make tent cities “legal” – which would just mean that instead of building housing, the government would normalize tent cities as outdoor shelters. Our goal should be to keep building people’s power and fighting back against the cops while remaining outside the law. Tent cities have shown us that if people are organized and fight together, the police can be held at bay.

Breaking the law is how we apply pressure on all these powerful forces. If tent cities were “legalized”, they would no longer be sites that make the cops, politicians, and property owners uncomfortable. We can exploit the lawlessness of tent cities to our advantage, by using it to assert collective power and push for changes that will target the root causes of homelessness.

People often demand “rights” when talking about poverty or homelessness. I think we often understand demanding rights as a demand to be recognized as a human being, even if you own nothing. But changing who the government recognizes as a human being, or who the government gives rights to, doesn’t change how society is structured. For example, it is technically illegal for landlords to discriminate against potential tenants on the basis of race or gender, but that right itself does not change the reality that landlords have power over tenants. A good landlord might behave differently than a bad landlord, but at the end of the day, the laws of private property dictate that landlords always necessarily hold more power. Expanding the law to be more “inclusive” will not change the fact that we live in a society where protecting property is seen as equal to protecting people.

The discourse of rights also hinges Canada’s national door. Rights mean that “Canadians” deserve more than, for example, refugees. Sometimes I hear people saying things like, “everyone should have housing, but Canadian homeless people should get housing first, refugees later!” The Canadian government is not remotely interested in housing everybody, so mandating who should be getting housing in what order is a pipe dream that gets us nowhere. Painting some groups as undeserving in order to grasp at scarce resources will also get us nowhere, and ensures that racialized and colonized people will always come second. Poor and homeless Canadians have nothing to gain by scapegoating refugees but a transient feeling of entitlement and belonging that is not based in reality. You can feel entitled all you want, but that’s not going to get you housing!

This is not to say we should never push for changes to existing laws, rather, it’s to suggest that if our goal is to end homelessness and poverty and the exploitation of working class people and the colonial theft of Indigenous lands and genocide against Indigenous peoples, we have to build our own power that exists outside of, and threatens, the dominant structures of Canadian society.

In the case of tent cities, we are threatening the supremacy of private property by occupying land that we don’t own in order to survive. The government is not going to hand oppressed groups the power of self-determination. At best the government will recognize different groups, acknowledge they exist, and perhaps let a few representative members serve as powerful elites. In other words, if we look to the government and the law to save us we will find ourselves trapped in new, more sophisticated ways; we have to rely on one another to get free from struggle against capitalism and colonization.

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