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On Monday May 10th, the last criminal charges against Nanaimo’s 2018 Schoolhouse Squatters were brought to a conclusion with conditional discharge deals made between the Crown and the remaining two defendants.
After two and a half years of waiting for trial for their role in a short lived and publicly announced squat in Nanaimo’s mothballed Rutherford School, Listen Chen and Ivan Drury, members of Red Braid Alliance for Decolonial Socialism, decided to plead guilty for a conditional discharge for the lesser charge of Mischief in a non-cooperation agreement with the Crown that includes the dropping of a Break and Enter charge.
The Schoolhouse Squat was an attempt to house the homeless, organized by Alliance Against Displacement (since renamed Red Braid) along with two dozen residents of Discontent City, a nearly 400 member tent city that brought prominence to Nanaimo’s homelessness crisis. After lasting for six months through the long summer of 2018, including facing down two attempts by the white supremacist gang “Soldiers of Odin” to attack and displace the camp, Discontent City was ordered displaced by Supreme Court Justice Skolrood.
Unlike with previous Supreme Court injunctions, which required governments to open new housing to ensure that residents of tent cities were not displaced into greater dangers shown to be associated with scattered and isolated homelessness, Skolrood asked nothing of the City of Nanaimo, the property owner of the Discontent City lot. With the power of the injunction behind them, the City of Nanaimo gave the nearly 400 residents of the tent city 21 days to leave the site, without offering anywhere for them to go.
In response, residents of Discontent City, along with supporters in the activist group Alliance Against Displacement decided to move the camp indoors.
Ivan Drury explains their reasoning, “Justice Skolrood said that the reason he was ordering the camp displaced was that he found it was dangerous to the residents. But all the dangers he cited were the dangers of being stuck outdoors: the heat of summer, the cold and rain of winter, the difficulty of securing your belongings, the lack of privacy,” Drury said. “We had a choice: we could fight together to move the residents of the tent city into an unused, publicly-owned building, avoiding all those dangers, or we could give up and watch these hundreds of people get displaced back out into alleyways and ravines.”
The squat in Rutherford School, dubbed the Schoolhouse Squat, lasted for 17 hours, before a balaclava clad emergency response team struck with a pre-dawn raid and removed the two dozen squatters by crane from the roof.
In the days following the police breakup of the squat, an anti-squatter frenzy hit the media. Reporters repeated the open lies improvised on the spot by school board chair Steve Rae, who claimed, after an initial walkthrough of the school, staged while squatters were still laying cuffed on the ground outside, that the squat had caused upwards of $100,000 in damages. Media ran sensational stories of “open drug use” with a photo of an unopened box of hypodermic needles. The lead officer of the Nanaimo RCMP was hosted on Victoria talk radio shows to denounce the “outside agitators” who “destroyed” Nanaimo’s supposedly beloved school – which the school board had closed down against the protests of local parents and students.
With all that backlash, the rapid police eviction, and heavy criminal charges against everyone involved, it seems like the organizers would have considered the Schoolhouse Squat a disaster. But not so, says Drury. “The backlash isn’t the whole story,” he said. “I think it was because of the combined resistance of the tent city and the squat that BC Housing finally pushed through two modular housing buildings against the will of the City, and it was because of the squat that the City backed off and let people stay in the tent city until that housing opened.”
For two and a half years, Drury and Chen were determined to push for their day in court in order to see through the challenge posed by the squat. Drury explained, “I think the reason the cops came in so fast was to stop us from being able to make the political and legal case about the squat, because it really was the logical continuation of the tent city. In both cases we made a claim that Section 7 of the Charter protected unhoused people to protect themselves against the harms of homelessness.”
“We wanted to use the trial to make a ‘necessity’ defence and say: yes we broke into that vacant public building, but isn’t the real crime that a publicly owned building is standing empty with the power, lights, and water on while thousands of people die on the streets?” he said. “Between the property rights of the government and the right to safety and security of the people abandoned to homelessness, we believe the courts must find that the lives of people must be valued over property.”
But faced with the financial costs of trial, and the public-facing work that would be required to make the political case, where it’s likely the law would betray all human reason, Drury and Chen decided to refocus their struggle. “If we did go to trial at this point we would have to do a big campaign in public to make this case about ‘people over property’ in the media and in the court of public opinion,” Listen Chen explained. “The community that needs to be convinced of their power to break the rule of property over people is the community of low-income and unhoused people who will seize vacant buildings and make them homes. That’s where we want to focus our time and energy and influence, not the courts and cops that will break the law to keep buildings empty or the opinion of the white middle class public.”
Drury says, “We did not accept these conditional discharges because we are giving up the fight, but because we are recommitting to the struggle and felt investing in trial at this point would be a delay.”
With the conditional discharges closing the criminal cases for the last remaining Schoolhouse Squat defendants, Red Braid is launching a legal defence fundraiser to pay $4,000 in restitution charges levied by the courts and $5,600 in lawyer fees accrued over two and a half years of negotiating with the Nanaimo Crown Counsel. Donate to Red Braid’s legal defence fund via cheque, e-transfer, PayPal, or GoFundMe.