Homeless and nomadic people have historically been labelled with a social identity that has restricted their access to land and rights to live as free and equal citizens. According to Pivot Legal, by the 1700s, sleeping anywhere but in designated housing was considered a crime and offenders were penalized through punitive bylaws or by targeting behavioural offences. At the heart of the issue is land access, economic factors, and processes of othering. This ideology of exclusion is reflected in Squamish’s new camping bylaw which is branded as part of the “tourism management scheme.” While this bylaw is intended to target irresponsible campers and tourists, in fact, it targets people who live in vehicles and tents, many of whom consider these material possessions their home, just like some consider brick and mortar houses homes. While this bylaw gives the minimum protection to those who rely on tents, it still subjects them to daily displacement and the permissible locations are not near basic essentials like water and a toilet. This minimal provision is hardly progressive or something to be celebrated. Meanwhile, it fails to protect those who stay in vehicles. Protecting one group of homeless and not another group of homeless people is a violation of s. 15 of the Charter: equality. This bylaw explicitly discriminates against vehicle residents who work, own businesses, pay taxes, and belong in this community just as much as the more affluent residents. For the last two years, Squamish vehicle residents have been battling the District over the basic right to access public land and live in the type of housing they deem necessary. As it stands, in order for vehicle residents to have a “legally protected sleep” in Squamish, they must ditch the vehicle and move into tents. That is INSANE. Basing the right to live in a place on home ownership/ rental is wildly inappropriate, unneighbourly, and incredibly narrow minded.
In Squamish specifically, long term policy solutions need to be developed in tandem with the visitor management strategies. This immediately starts with stopping punitive bylaws that penalize sleeping on public land. Second, implementing effective and inclusive strategies such as a Permit System would not only provide a source of revenue for the District, it would create an environment of inclusivity and increased equality for all. Squamish is quickly becoming one of the most expensive municipalities to live in and yet, its population holds a diverse number of people, including vehicle residents, who range from those who cannot afford housing or prefer the privacy of their vehicle over a shelter or crowded apartment, and who consider their vehicles a home.
Regardless of situations, legally, vehicle residents are considered homeless, whether they identify as that or not. While the traditional bureaucratic solution to “homelessness” is forced integration into settled society, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, individual dignity, security, and autonomy — including whether an individual identifies as nomadic or sedentary — must be protected. Furthermore, in accordance with human rights and values of social inclusion, s. 7 of the Charter provides support for the implementation of inclusive policies (ie: permit system, land share policies). Many vehicle residents will happily pay for this “right to roam” if it allows them to live without fear of the dreaded knock of bylaw and the continuous subjugation of discriminatory and punitive policies. In fact, many Squamish’s residents, traditionally housed and vehicle residents alike, have been advocating for a permit system since 2019. Furthermore, implementing progressive land share policies and a broadening of the definition of what qualifies as a legitimate home could be the start of creating a more just and diverse society. To bring attention to the broken words of the Squamish council, they told the public five times that policy recommendations for vehicle residents were coming, yet these deadlines were never met. Finally, the hard work of the consultant (which we taxpayers paid for) has been dismissed and the local Vehicle Residents of Squamish (VRS) were told that these solutions are no longer being pursued.
Even so, many independent “homeless” vehicle residents are not even asking for something like a Permit System. All they want is the right to practice their basic fundamental rights to live their life as needed. Asking to park on publicly owned land is not asking for much. It requires nothing but a change in the wording of the bylaw — this does not involve a hand out or a subsidy. All it requires is a change in mentality that access to land is a basic right for all, not just the affluent. Asking to not be penalized for sleeping on the side of the road, a parking lot, or publicly owned crown land in order to have the basic fundamental right to sleep is a fundamental right around the world.
The District of Squamish, like all other governments, must be held accountable for these regressive and discriminatory bylaws, which only perpetuates patterns of stigmatization and exclusion and violates domestic constitutional and international human rights. Without the solutions piece in place for vehicle residents, this bylaw will negatively affect vehicle residents, and in fact, already has. Many public comments regarding the changes to the park bylaw are already targeting/incriminating house-less individuals, with unfounded fears that it might create a potential “tent city”. This bylaw only reinforces the environments of social exclusion which assist the cultural narratives (i.e., homeless people are dangerous, unworthy, tax evading) that result in increased stress, sleep deprivation, surveillance and displacement within the homeless and vehicle resident population. It is only a matter of time that discriminatory policies like these will result in a Charter challenge. Such matters could have easily been avoided with some honest consideration. Doing so would have helped create a Squamish where every human being is valued, and has equal rights and freedoms to have what type of roof they need or want over their heads.