On Tuesday, March 21st, activists interrupted a City of Victoria consultation process to protest the “re-visioning” of Reeson Park, better known as Whale Wall. The City plans to construct a new pathway through the park and has proposed to redevelop the space in line with its vision for a poor-people-free Victoria. During construction the 6 to 20 homeless people who camp there per night and many more who use it during the day will be displaced. The City plans to install a “playable” art structure which could permanently displace campers if the art is characterized as a playground due to a bylaw that says people can’t camp on or near playgrounds. Since acquiring the park in 2014, the City has talked about developing the park to counter a problem of “public safety” as a way to gentrify the space for incoming luxury condo owners.
The displacement of homeless, disproportionately Indigenous, people through the “re-visioning” of the Whale Wall is a continuation of Victoria’s history of colonialism. The City’s redevelopment of the Whale Wall is catering to tourists and real estate developers, most obviously the “Northern Junk” development, which proposes to build 114 luxury condos next to the park. Despite a 0.5% vacancy rate and no affordable housing, the City continues to allow developers to build luxury condos at an alarming rate without tenant protections for those being demovicted or renovicted.
The gentrification of the Whale Wall also shows that the city is prioritizing the comfort of homeowners over the safety of those without homes. Ironically, the Whale Wall is the site of a vigil is held every year on National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day recognizing that the life expectancy of homeless people in BC is half of the National life expectancy. The park is a safe alternative for those who can’t get (or won’t accept) a mat at a shelter or need independence from shelters and supportive housing.
Residents of the park contradict the Victoria Police Department and City line that the park poses a safety risk. One resident who has been living there for almost a year said, “The park is the safest it’s been in 25 years. The City doesn’t look after the park, we do. We are safer here than in the shelters because we keep each other safe.” Another woman told us that she was beat up in a shelter previously and felt safer at Whale Wall.
Tuesday’s protesters – including members of the park community, housing activists, downtown workers, raging grannies, and passersby – spoke out against displacement as a solution to homelessness and demanded that the City not gentrify the park. The campaign to Save the Whale Wall is calling on people to fill out the City survey and send letters to the Mayor, Council, and Parks to halt the re-visioning of Reeson Park. Any extra resources should be spent in providing amenities to people who sleep in the park (e.g., toilets, running water) and building housing at welfare rates. We will continue to fight for a vision of Victoria that includes homeless and low-income people.