Government tarp rattling over tent city

UPDATED VERSION On Friday, government staff hammered a "No Camping" sign into the lawn of the Yukon legislature in front of a cluster of more than 25 tents set up to protest a lack of affordable housing.

UPDATED VERSION

On Friday, government staff hammered a “No Camping” sign into the lawn of the Yukon legislature in front of a cluster of more than 25 tents set up to protest a lack of affordable housing.

“I was incensed,” said NDP Leader Liz Hanson.

When she found out about the sign, she marched upstairs to the cabinet offices to find out what was going on.

The premier and most of his ministers had already left for the weekend but she was able to talk to deputy premier Elaine Taylor.

“I expressed my distaste of the actions taken by the government, and suggested, and maybe insisted, that they take the sign down and that it would be more appropriate for the ministers to do their jobs,” said Hanson.

It was especially insulting to Hanson that the sign was going up the same weekend as Steve Cardiff’s funeral.

The NDP MLA, killed earlier this month in a car crash, had been an active supporter of the tent city protest.

He dropped off supplies to the campers and personally made sure that security guards took a hands-off approach.

“His passion for this issue wasn’t something contrived or for the politics. This was something that was part of him,” said Hanson.

After speaking with Taylor, Hanson visited the protesters.

A short time later, government staff took the sign down as quickly as it was put up.

“It was a mistake,” said Aisha Montgomery, spokesperson for the Department of Highways and Public Works.

But that doesn’t mean the government has given its blessing to the makeshift campground.

“The Yukon government is mindful that there are people camping at that location for a variety of reasons, but it is not a designated campground and it doesn’t have the facilities to support the significant number to people who are there,” she said.

The government plans to make an announcement later this week about the tent city, but offered only scant details.

“We will be working with individuals there that do require assistance but at this stage we’re working towards being able to announce actual developments that are coming this week,” said Montgomery.

The government has hired a consultant to interview residents of the tent city and find out why they’re there.

“I am shocked they have to get consultants to talk to the homeless to find out what the issues are,” said Hanson, during a public forum on housing, Monday night.

“The government has done this again and again – we don’t need more studies.

“Either they have an acute hearing problem or they should open the blinds they have closed on tent city.”

It’s a diverse group of people camping on the government’s lawn.

There are people with nowhere else to go, alongside professionals on vacation, and people who work during the day and camp at night.

Robin Reid-Fraser, 22, has been camping out at the legislature between stints house sitting for friends and family.

The environmental studies major, who grew up in Whitehorse, has a summer job but will be returning to Montreal in the fall to go back to school.

Finding a place to rent in Whitehorse is tough, and the only things being built are condos, she said.

“If I won the lottery, I’d build a rental building,” said Reid-Fraser.

Many people camp at the site for a few nights and spend a few somewhere else, but often return.

“Everybody comes back because they miss us,” said Helen Hollywood, who was the first to pitch a tent on the lawn.

She’s since become the de facto mayor of the makeshift neighbourhood.

There have been some problems with people drinking and causing trouble, and she’d like to kick out the guy who refuses to pick up after his dog.

But for the most part people have been getting along, she said.

With a large tarp that spans three tents, Helen’s campsite acts as a focal point for the burgeoning community.

She takes in donations of food that people drop off, and shares it with people who need it.

On Tuesday night, two hitchhiking Quebecois musicians, who had passed through the tent city a few days earlier, came back with two bags of groceries they got from the food bank, along with a much-needed can opener.

Using those supplies and a pound of donated moose meat, the two made a spaghetti dinner that fed six people.

Helen doesn’t think that the government is going to shut the tent city down, but others aren’t so sure.

A government crackdown might bring some much-needed attention to the problem of affordable housing, said Kyler Ringlet, a hunting guide who brought the moose meat.

Though he’s not a resident of the tent city, he supports the protest.

If the government started kicking people out, “It’ll make some noise,” he said.

“It would be a bad thing for the people of tent city, but it would be a good thing for the issue,” said Ringlet.

Contact Josh Kerr at

joshk@yukon-news.com