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Tyranny in Calgary

I shouldn't be writing this, but I am so angry I cannot concentrate on school. I have just read a CBC Online article documenting the police raid on homeless shelters in Edworthy Park, Calgary this morning. Neighbours had apparently been complaining that the homeless people who lived in those shelters were killing cats and dogs for food. In response, the shanties were raided -- the police confiscated the shanties and everything inside them. According to a Calgary Sun article, the police found only one occupant -- a suicidal man who was taken to a drop-in shelter. The CBC television clip features one Constable Shon Marsh, who says that "for ecological reasons, and because it is a city park and no one's supposed to reside here, that it was best to help these people find a more permanent arrangement."

This is bunk. It is not about the City of Calgary helping people improve their lives. It is not about preserving the ecological pristinity of Edworthy Park in Calgary. It is about getting rid of an eyesore, a sight that nobody -- particularly the residents of the area -- wanted to see. This situation is also about tyranny, hypocrisy and biased reporting.

I am not arguing that the homeless people living in the shanties were all there of their own volition, although judging from the fact that one man had been living in the park for four years, it seems to be a pretty safe bet that at least a few of the inhabitants would have made the park their permanent home if given the chance. I am not even saying that the shanty situation shouldn't have been addressed in some way that would have been to the benefit of both squatters and house-dwellers. I am saying that the way in which the situation was addressed -- by raiding the shanty town at dawn, by demolishing all shanties present, by tearing the inhabitants' lives apart -- was not an appropriate solution.

Let's look at the excuse the City used to raid the park: house-dwellers nearby had been hearing rifle fire, and they were complaining that the homeless people were killing cats and dogs for food. A resident interviewed by the CBC report also claimed that the homeless were eating geese and rabbits; Calgary Sun article reported that residents had also claimed to have found a quartered deer in the area.

This is hypocrisy at its most blatant. Yes, it is unfortunate that the homeless were killing animals for food -- but they were killing the animals for food. They were catching those animals, cooking them and eating them. They were taking responsibility for their diets. How is that more ecologically unsound than what respectable city-dwellers do? Most respectable people go to the grocery store and buy their meat in conveniently packaged portions. Some families opt for the bulk solution, buying half a cow and freezing the meat themselves. The homeless people were killing wild animals who had been living in the park, and cats and dogs. The cats and dogs may or may not have been pets -- none of the reports I have seen actually state that pets were eaten; they do not even imply that unusual numbers of cats and dogs had gone missing. The other wild animals were surviving on their own, sustained by their habitat. By killing wildlife for food, the homeless hunters may have eventually driven local populations of deer, rabbits and geese low, but their food supply itself left a small ecological footprint. Contrast this situation against that of the respectable person. Respectable people generally feast on farm animals -- chickens, pigs, cows, goats and sheep. These days, many (if not most) farm animals are intensively farmed -- they don't see the light of day, and they certainly do not lead pastoral Charlotte's Web lives. They are fed antibiotics to ward off illness, because a single infection can explode into an epidemic that can destroy a crop of livestock. Sometimes, the wastes from these farms leak, poisoning local water supplies. When the intensively-farmed animals are big enough, they are loaded into trucks to be slaughtered at slaughterhouses. Sometimes, they are trucked from one province to another, slaughtered, then trucked back for sale.

You can argue whether it's evil to hunt animals for food -- and believe me, I have serious issues with hunting as well -- but in my eyes it's a hundred times better to hunt one's food than to go to a supermarket and buy prepackaged meat. Not only do meat-eaters have to realize that they are killing other things by catching their own food, but the food itself lives better, and less energy is wasted on such things as transporting carcasses across the country and making styrofoam backings for the product so it looks pretty in the supermarket.

But what about the pets? I agree with the alarmists to a degree -- if I had a pet, and it was poached and eaten, I would be grieviously angry. I would want to hurt whomever had eaten my pet, because pets are like family members, and I would not want anybody to be eating my family members. However, if these were stray animals, they probably were no worse off being trapped and eaten than they would have been if the Humane Society had gotten ahold of them. Strays caught by the Humane Society are as good as dead unless they are claimed as pets. I admit: my logic is faulty here, because I am saying that catching strays would have been okay and catching pets would not have been. I can give you no good reason why this should be the case -- the best I can do is note that strays lead hard lives, regardless of whether the Humane Society or hungry squatters are after them. One thing I can say is that our reluctance to eat cats and dogs (and it seems as if the CBC and National Post are playing on that disgust in order to build a case against the squatters) is cultural, not biological. Our culture has decided that it's okay to eat chickens and cows and pigs and sheeps and goats and fish and crustaceans, but it has decided that eating cats or dogs or people or lizards or spiders is bad. These choices are arbitrary. Socially, people avoid a lot of awkward situations by refraining from eating cats or dogs or people, but biologically it doesn't make much difference. I honestly don't think that the disgust factor should be a factor in this case.

Regardless of whether or not pets were eaten, I can't help but think that there must be a better solution than staging a crack-of-dawn war raid on the squatter encampment. Make no mistake: this was a war raid, designed to wipe out the homes of undesirables in the community. Those who carried out the raid might well believe that they were acting in the best interests of the squatters, but it was an act of war nonetheless.

How can I say that? I can say that because people were living in their makeshift community, and their homes were razed. Their possessions were confiscated -- and you can bet that the squatters will never see those possessions again; I would not be surprised if the squatters' personal belongings weren't lining a landfill dump right now. What are the squatters going to do? Go to the police and ask for their stuff back? Do you think that the police would give them their sleeping bags and blankets so that they could find another park to sleep in? Do you think that any of the squatters that fled will actually go to the police? If you do, you are nothing less than a fool. I cannot believe that any sane homeless person would go to the police for help. If nothing else, the police represent rules, and laws, and order -- and even naive little me has enough experience to know that when you are squatting to survive, you don't want the police taking notice of you. Of course, the Calgary police might be the sweetest people in the world. They might be sensitive to homeless needs. They might be willing to let a homeless person live his or her life, and maybe they would never dream of harassing a homeless person. But regardless of how kind the police are in reality, I don't think any homeless person would trust them enough to go to them for help.

Play with me here: You're living in a squatter's shanty. Your leave because your home is about to get razed. Your home gets razed. Whatever possessions you can't carry are confiscated, never to be seen again. The police make public statements that they will be monitoring your former home closely, to make sure that you and your ilk don't come back. How is this a humanitarian act? It seems that you are considerably worse off than before -- at least before you had a place to sleep. Now you have nothing? How is this not an act of war? By squatting on some land, you were claiming it as your own. Another party (in this case Civilized Society, represented by the City of Calgary) doesn't share your views. They use force to stake their claim -- this is the City's park, and no squatter shall claim a single tree of it. That sounds a lot like war to me: two parties fighting over land. The only difference is that there is no fight -- Civilized Society has the might to push you out of the way, and there's no way you can fight back and win, because you are nothing but a squatter.

Can you as a respectable citizen understand how that feels? Probably not, unless you have learned the grand lesson: nobody has the God-given right to anything. You might think that you could own land if you bought a house and got a mortgage. Wrong. You don't own that house, and you don't own the land that house sits on. All it takes is somebody stronger to come along and claim that land -- and suddenly you lose everything. We rich human Canadians might be unfamiliar with the idea that we own nothing unless our society supports it, but other people around the world certainly aren't, and neither are the lifeforms who are displaced every day when people decide to take over their homes for their own purposes. All you have to do is take a look at what has been happening in Zimbabwe recently -- their government decided that white farmers no longer have any right to their land, and poof! They have no right to their land, unless they are willing to fight off the other people who would claim that land. The exact same thing just happened in Calgary, but we don't seem to care because we are on the oppressing side, and because we believe we are taking "humanitarian measures."

Let's look at these humanitarian measures for a bit. Unless some homeless person gets the media's attention and grabs headlines over this issue, you are probably never going to hear about the shanty town dwellers again. What will happen to them? Maybe some of them will hit bottom, decide that they don't want to live the way they do, and turn their lives around. I suppose that is what the social workers and the City would like. But what if (and I am not trying to imply that this is the case) some of these squatters aren't willing to turn their lives around? Even if they are dragged into the social welfare system, how effective are treatment programs going to be when the participants don't have the motivation to change their lives themselves? Furthermore, what happens to those people who have made a conscious decision to live the homeless lives they lead? Homelessness sucks in a lot of ways -- it wrecks your body, and you have to live on the fringes of the law if you want to survive. However, homelessness is also liberating, and I sometimes find myself drawn to it; it is a dangerous, dirty life that wears out your body, but I don't know if it is all that much worse than being trapped in an empty materialistic existence. I think a minority of people do choose to live the homeless life, and I have no problem with that so long as it is voluntary, and so long as the people choosing that life are willing to live with the consequences.

How about the others, the people who feel degraded living in shanties, the ones who would honestly like to improve their lives. Are they going to get what they need to get back on their feet? And what does "getting back on one's feet" mean? In his series Seven Days on the Street, reporter John Stackhouse reports that many of the people who wanted to get their lives together couldn't because of their addictions. He believes than the first step to "getting back on one's feet" means overcoming those addictions. I agree with that much. And beyond that? I think that people should have the opportunity to make a decent living legally, if that is what they want. I do not think that turning a homeless person into somebody who just scrapes by working full-time at a minimum wage job is doing that person any good; if anything, it makes the person's situation worse, because they lose the freedom of homelessness, but gain none of the benefits of getting off the street. Finally, I agree with Jack Layton when he says that affordable housing is a key issue -- having a job is not worth anything if that doesn't pay enough to cover rent and food.

There's only one problem: curing addictions and training people for good jobs is not cheap. Allowing people to be homeless or desperately poor is -- so long as they are out of sight and out of mind. I bet that some of the people living in those shanties weren't on any social assistance at all; they would be the successes Mike Harris talks about when he boasts of reducing the welfare rolls. Putting those people back on social assistance so they can turn their lives around is would be expensive. Furthermore, the kinds of programs that I believe would be needed to truly help the homeless are not sexy at all: they are not newsfriendly one-shot events, they are not going to work for everybody, and the well-off love accusing the participants of being lazy leeches and freeloaders. What government wants to deal with that? I bet that Ralph Klein doesn't. I find it interesting that none of the news articles I read bothered to elaborate on the kind of help that would be made available to any squatters the police found. I found the police promises that they would be patrolling the park so that homeless people didn't come back even more interesting: to me, that says that the city is not expecting these homeless souls to turn their lives around. Rather, it expects them to go someplace else with their problems. It's a classic case of NIMBY, which is why the homedwellers in the area -- although saddened that people had to lose their homes, "even if their home is a bush" -- weren't condemning the city for clearing out the park.

In short, this issue is about removing an eyesore. The city might claim to care about what happens to the squatters, but what they want more than anything is to brush this problem out of sight. The squatters are ugly, and they are of no worth to the city, because they live outside the economy. By trapping their own food, they deny grocery stores of their business. By being poor, they don't consume many material goods. Those that do contribute to the economy do so through their addictions to alcohol and tobacco (and indirectly through their addictions to illegal drugs, which spurs on the black market). In the city's eyes, in the homedwellers' eyes, in our eyes, these people are of no worth. That's the message I see in all this, and that is what makes me so angry. We rob these people of their dignity -- evicting them of their homes based on complaints, depriving them of their possessions, sweeping them and their problems under the rugs -- because we don't feel that they deserve our dignity. Because they have no economic power, we tell them that they live backwards lives, and we patronizingly tell them that they should live as we do, despite the fact that, in the long run, our First World lifestyles are more destructive than theirs will ever be. I don't have a problem with trying to help the squatters out. I don't even have a problem with negotiating living arrangements with the squatters if it is truly unacceptable for them to live in the park. But I have serious problems with denying them basic human dignity because they are poor and ugly, because if somebody turned around and tried to treat us in the same way, we would revolt. Why are we so smug about treating other people in ways we would not tolerate?