Three Saanich fire officials including its top firefighter faced questions Monday from the lawyer representing residents of the homeless camp in Regina Park.
Saanich Fire Chief Mike Burgess told the court under cross-examination from John Heaney, who is representing almost 100 camp residents, that the camp had failed to comply with 11 fire orders issued since its start in May, a charge that camp leaders have challenged, while conceding that the camp might never be officially fire safe.
Three days of hearings are scheduled in B.C. Supreme Court to hear arguments from municipal as well as provincial authorities on removing the camp from Regina Park.
Monday’s hearing marks the official start of a legal process that started when the District of Saanich filed a court injunction against Camp Namegans tent city at Regina Park in late July. The provincial government later mirrored this move as it has jurisdiction over portions of the park running along the Trans-Canada Highway.
Much of Monday’s hearing centred on whether camp residents had followed through on fire department orders.
“I think we have all agreed that the way it’s written, it will never be 100 per cent compliant,” said camp leader Chrissy Brett outside the court.
“We will continue to work with the [Saanich Fire Department] to ensure that we are doing as much as we can to be fire safe, as well as being safe with just our lives.”
The question of fire safety looms large in the hearing as both the District of Saanich and the provincial government have argued among other points that the camp represents a fire risk that endangers both its resident, as well as residents in the surrounding residential neighbourhood.
Camp leaders have challenged this narrative in arguing that camp residents face far greater threats if authorities succeed in displacing them from the camp.
“Definitively, we are concerned about fire safety,” said Brett. But the camp is more concerned about keeping people alive, she said. She added that fire officials including Burgess have refused to provide fire suppressing training and tools.
“Rather than protecting people’s safety, he’s trying to teach them a lesson,” said Ashley Mollison with the Alliance Against Displacement in a later interview.
Monday’s hearing also marked an escalation in the public relations battle between the two sides, as local camp residents appeared before media with residents from the respective tent cities in Nanaimo and Maple Ridge.
Ivan Drury, with the Alliance Against Displacement, said Saanich’s court case against the Regina Park camp is part of a co-ordinated effort between various municipalities and the provincial government to criminalize homelessness. All of the money spent on these court cases should instead go towards supplying adequate housing, he said.