A war of words that erupted earlier this week between two B.C. politicians is, according to the premier, part and parcel of Canadian democracy.
On Friday, the province announced funding for student housing in the Okanagan, with Premier John Horgan taking part in an online meeting with media.
Following the announcement, Horgan fielded a wide range of questions, including two by Okanagan reporters regarding the decision by city council in Penticton to deny a year-long extension of a temporary winter shelter that’s set to close later this month.
On Tuesday, Penticton city council flatly rejected a request by BC Housing to extend a temporary-use permit at 352 Winnipeg Street until March 2022.
Council gave permission in October for BC Housing to fund the 42-bed shelter on Winnipeg Street, albeit just until April 1, 2021.
After council unanimously said no, citing concerns regarding the site, B.C.’s housing minister weighed in.
“It’s … mildly astonishing that in a middle of a pandemic, knowing that the 42 people who live in this emergency shelter have nowhere else to go, that the city council would vote to kick them to the curb because that is what they did,” said David Eby.
He continued, stating “to see a city council willingly flirting with establishing an encampment in their own city is astonishing to me.”
Eby pointed to a B.C. Court of Appeal decision that determined those experiencing homelessness can pitch their tents in parks if there is nowhere else for them to go.
In response to that, Penticton’s mayor John Vassilaki said “a minister of the Crown should never threaten the public of any municipality, especially the mayor or city council, that he’s going to come into our community and establish an encampment. That’s despicable.”
“He’s bullying and trying to manipulate us to do his bidding,” Vassilaki claimed. “And I will not be intimidated.”
Enter Horgan, who was first asked about Friday’s rally in Penticton, which saw people gather to protest council’s decision.
“I’m very mindful that we are a democratic society, and the right to dissent and to protest is part and parcel of who we are as Canadians,” said Horgan.
“Having said that, I would hope that people will be mindful that we are still in the clutches of a global pandemic, and our actions as individuals affect those around us.
“And I would encourage people to be mindful of that, to be abiding by the law and not disrupt the activities of other people as they go about their lives – intruding into the liberties of others is not OK.”
The premier was then asked by Ron Seymour of the Daily Courier about the war of words between Eby and Vassilaki.
“I’ve asked Minister Eby to focus on a daunting task: To address homelessness crises not just in our major urban centres, but indeed right across British Columbia,” said Horgan.
“We need to build new supply. The announcement we’re taking today is bringing on new student housing, which will relieve pressures in communities so that we can have more housing for folks that are hard-to-house and are not finding a place to live, and therefore are out on the streets.”
Horgan said the pandemic has affected B.C.’s shelter beds – not just in urban centres, which draws much of the attention, but in places like Penticton, Kelowna, Vernon and so on.
“I’m hopeful that all elected representatives will work together for a common purpose. That’s the expectation of the public, but there are times when disagreements become public, and that’s again part and parcel of our democratic society.
“Engaging in debate and dialogue is normally constructive, and I’m confident that this will be constructive at the end of the day as well.”