Vancouver — At four in the afternoon on Wednesday, August 19, a crowd of 160 people gathered to pay their respects to Curtis Brick — a well-known and popular homeless aboriginal man. Flowers were placed at the spot where he was found. His friend, Dwayne Koe, pulled out a guitar and sang a song called, “We are one.”
Curtis Brick, 46, died on July 29 on one of the hottest days of year, mere meters away from a water fountain and children’s water park.
Eric Schweig saw Brick in the morning that day and became alarmed when he saw him convulsing almost six hours later.
Schweig told the Vancouver Sun, “This guy is dying of heat stroke and there’s hippies sitting over here dancing around, playing guitars. It was just a bizarre setting for the seriousness of what was going on.”
There were also insensitive and offhand comments made by an emergency official related to Lysol use.
Kat Norris of the Indigenous Action Network, David Dennis, president-elect of United Native Nations and other aboriginal leaders from the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the Vancouver Aboriginal Transformative Justice Services Society called for an immediate coroner’s inquest. The incident has already drawn comparisons to the case of Frank Paul, a homeless man who was abandoned in an alleyway by the Vancouver Police Department in December 1998.
In January 2008, Darrell Mickasko, a homeless man burned to after using a propane stove to stay warm lit his sleeping bag on fire. In December 2008, Tracey, a homeless woman burned to death in her shopping cart after a candle lit her sleeping bag on fire. In 2006 and 2007, there were 56 homeless deaths — a number viewed to be a vast undercount due to other homeless people dying in hospitals.
The most conservative estimates for homelessness are 10,500 in B.C. and 150,000 in Canada. The national number is more likely to be between 200,000 to 300,000 people.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing made 111 recommendations to all levels of government in Canada in February 2008 — the excellent report and blueprint on how to solve homelessness through public policy reform has largely been shelved by every level of government.
Homelessness is a health and human rights disaster. It’s a national emergency that requires urgent changes. Thirty-two per cent of the homeless population in Metro Vancouver is aboriginal.
Since the 2010 Olympics were awarded to Vancouver, homelessness has more than doubled while we’ve been building speedskating ovals and luge tracks.
The notion that we have all become desensitized to death, to suffering, to caring, dehumanizes us all. Three or four time a year, these deaths become public and the subject of outrage. Many more people die, below the radar, marginalized and in the periphery.
People clamour for change, but very little of substance happens. Bureaucrats and politicians continue to fail us. Many of the recommendations of the Frank Paul Inquiry have yet to be implemented.
There needs to be much more outrage, much more anger, much more a sense of urgency of what is at stake.
In the fall, depending on where you live in the country, the rain and the snow come — the weather gets colder. More homeless people are in danger of dying across the country. We repeat this vicious circle year after year.
In September, NDP MP Libby Davies is bringing forward Bill C-304 to call on the government to have a national housing and homelessness strategy. Everyone has to do their part to make sure that this piece of legislation passes; it is just the beginning of many, many changes that will need to happen so people don’t keep dying in our streets, alleys and parks across the country.
Am Johal is a rabble columnist and the founder and Chair of the Impact on Communities Coalition.