Canada's federal housing advocate says the eviction of more than 30 encampment residents in Prince George, B.C., was a "serious human rights violation," stating the city did not ensure "safe and adequate housing alternatives" before displacing people permanently.
In an interview with CBC News, Marie-Josée Houle said the decision by Prince George city council and staff was "among the worst practices" her office has seen in municipal approaches to encampments.
In a written statement, the Office of the Federal Housing Advocate expressed further concern "that residents may have lost important survival equipment and significant personal belongings in the process of eviction."
The City of Prince George razed the Millennium Park encampment on Sept. 11, 11 days after delivering eviction notices to residents, saying the situation at the encampment had "deteriorated" and was unsafe for residents and first responders.
Marie‑Josée Houle, pictured in front of the Women's Centre of Calgary, says the actions by the City of Prince George is 'among the worst' violations her office has seen in their review of encampments across Canada. (Rukhsar Ali/CBC)
City staff and bylaw officers, with support from RCMP, forcibly removed the few remaining residents from their shelters before demolishing everything left behind. Three people were arrested for refusing to leave their homes, and were later released.
Houle says her office is undertaking a systemic review of encampments across the country, with the initial report set to be made public this fall. She points to Hamilton, Halifax, and Saskatoon as municipalities that have taken a "less punitive" approach to encampments locally.
In 2021, the City of Prince George demolished parts of another encampment, called Moccasin Flats, despite failing to get an injunction from the B.C. Supreme Court to do so.
"It's devastating to say that we're back in the same place as we were two years ago," said Amelia Merrick, a community member and organizer who has been supporting displaced residents of both encampments.
"Our city has shown an absolute resistance to learning, an absolute resistance to doing better and, quite frankly, they continue to enact violence."
CBC News has contacted the City of Prince George for comment on the federal housing advocate's concerns, but has yet to receive a response.
Human rights framework
The Office of the Federal Housing Advocate falls under the umbrella of the Canadian Human Rights Commission and is mandated to "advance the right to housing for all Canadians" through a human-rights approach, among other goals.
Houle said the former encampment at Millennium Park was "a crucial survival space for the city's unhoused and unsheltered residents" and believes the forced eviction was in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"Encampments themselves are a symptom of exactly how broken our housing and homelessness system is in Canada," Houle said. "And then to take action to forcibly remove people ... is a violation of right to life and dignity, and safety."
Heavy machinery moves in to raze the encampment in downtown Prince George, B.C., on Sept. 11. (Kate Partridge/CBC News)
Houle calls living in encampments "a choice of last resort" for residents with few other options.
"People are very unsafe in encampments, but less unsafe than other choices that have been provided to them," she said.
She says some are at risk of violence at shelters or at home, and that the displacement will put them at risk once again.
"It often forces women back in to very unsafe relationships, sometimes trading sex for a roof over their head. It can force people into criminal activity because it's the only way they can afford a roof over their heads. And it takes people further away from the supports that they have," Houle said.
Merrick says there is still a lack of services at the Moccasin Flats encampment — where the city has encouraged displaced residents to go — including running water, electricity and safe sources of heat.