The B.C. government’s appeal of a ruling that banned overnight sheltering in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park was heard in a Vancouver courtroom Tuesday, and for the first time the hearing included representation from the local First Nations historically connected to the land.
The decision was handed down earlier this year by a B.C. Supreme Court judge in response to a question referred from the City of Victoria, which has held the park in trust since receiving it in a Crown grant in 1882.
Justice Robert Punnett said that use of the prominent park space for temporary sheltering by homeless people was contrary to the trust’s stated purpose, which is “preservation of the park for the use, recreation and enjoyment of the public.”
Then-B.C. Attorney General and soon-to-be-premier David Eby filed an appeal of that ruling, saying it could have significant impacts on similar trusts and homeless people in those parks.
He also raised questions about whether the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was not considered in the B.C. Supreme Court ruling, would apply, in that it could be contrary to homeless campers’ rights, a concern echoed by homelessness advocacy groups.
A Victoria group called Friends of Beacon Hill Park Society, which initiated the legal action that eventually resulted in the decision clearing campers out permanently, countered that it would be “unusual” for the Charter to be considered in a case like this, if that is what the province intends to do.
In his appeal, Eby also raised questions about how the province would address local First Nations’ concerns about Beacon Hill Park.
Earlier this month, those First Nations — Songhees and Esquimalt — successfully applied for intervener status in the appeal, with Punnett ruling that their involvement was in the public interest.
“They have a unique perspective that will assist the Court, as no parties to the appeal address how a restrictive interpretation of the Trust terms may affect future Indigenous cultural activity in the Park,” he wrote.
His decision notes the First Nations are descendants of the Lekwungen, the Indigenous people whose traditional lands have become what is now known as Greater Victoria, and Beacon Hill Park was home to a small village used as a defensive site and for fishing, agriculture and burials.
Taking the latter into account, the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations have considered establishing a cemetery in Beacon Hill Park as well as building other cultural structures such as a long house.
They chose to intervene in the appeal as a protective measure to ensure future Indigenous uses of the park are not impacted by the court’s decision, according to Justice Punnett.
A decision on the province’s appeal has not yet been made public.