A coalition of groups, including Indigenous leaders, in Vancouver are continuing to voice their opposition to Vancouver Police Department’s (VPD) Trespass Prevention Program.

The program allows police officers to remove people who have allegedly violated British Columbia’s Trespass Act (B.C.) without an initial complaint having been made. Business owners sign up to the program to allow police to move people.

Commenting on the system, Vancouver Councillor Pete Fry expressed his support and urged patience to allow it to work.

“I don’t think this is a bad initiative … I think it’s how it’s implemented that is going to be the test of its merit,” Fry told CityNews.

“At the end of the day, this is a standing British Columbia law: the B.C. Trespass Act. So this isn’t something that the VPD have created as law. Their job is to enforce the law and what they’re doing here is a proactive approach.”

Fry further expressed his hope that if implemented properly, this initiative could work alongside programs which aim to improve health and housing in the community.

This ‘proactive approach’, however, is being labelled by some as systematically racist, classist and a way to criminalise the homeless.

Chief Don Tom, Vice President of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, spoke on behalf of his organisation and community on what he sees as “institutionalised racism”.

“We are appalled by the Vancouver Police Department’s Trespass Prevention Program,” said Tom.

“For Indigenous people, especially our Indigenous unhoused relatives, to now be criminalised as trespassers on our own lands is a cruel legal fiction … this is simply unacceptable.”

This ‘proactive’ application of the law will disproportionately affect Indigenous people, as they continue to be overrepresented within the homeless population of Vancouver.

Whilst the Indigenous population made up 2.2 per cent of Vancouver’s total population at the 2016 census, they currently make up 39 per cent of the city’s homeless population.

A further objection to this policing of the Trespass Act (B.C.) comes from the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. Meghan McDermott, a lawyer at the Association, said the Association sees the initiative as undemocratic, broad and arbitrary.

“We are so disturbed to see the police roll out a program seeking to expand their jurisdiction to displace, arrest and gather information about people,” McDermott said.

“In addition to the undemocratic aspect of the program, it also severely undermines local and provincial efforts to promote unbiased policing and to limit unjustifiable police stops.”

Objections to the initiative come from a wide range of sources beyond the Indian Chiefs and Civil Liberties Association.

Local residents and advocates; WISH Drop-In Centre, a social services organisation which aims to improve the health and safety of women; Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, the Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War; and members of the Pivot Legal Society have all voiced their disapproval of the decision.

This approach to policing minor and non-harmful trespassing (a civil offence) through the Trespass Act (B.C.) paves a pathway to violations of rights, particularly of those in lower socioeconomic groups and those facing hardship.

By Aaron Bloch