Protesters occupying empty Nanaimo school arrested

Protesters on the roof of an empty Nanaimo school were arrested and escorted down in the bucket of a fire truck on Saturday, as an angry crowd of as many as 400 watched.

“We could have easily lost it if we didn’t take the action we did when we did,” said Nanaimo RCMP spokesman Const. Gary O’Brien, who was concerned about a vigilante-type uprising by the crowd of onlookers.

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With the occupants of the homeless tent city, called DisconTent City, facing an Oct. 12 eviction date, the province announced on Friday that 170 units of modular housing could be ready as early as November. In response, homeless advocates likened the proposed homes and associated services to jails.

Twenty-six people protesting the plight of the homeless then occupied the empty Rutherford School at 5840 Hammond Bay Rd., draping it with banners reading “Fight4Homes” and “Fight4Justice.” The school had closed in June.

Nanaimo RCMP arrived immediately and stayed through the night, but did not enter until Saturday morning, not knowing what awaited them inside.

“We had unknown numbers in the building, we didn’t know if they had weapons, we didn’t know if there were booby traps, we didn’t know if they were hiding in the building or barricaded,” O’Brien said. “Officer safety is paramount in any situation like that, so we contained the scene and kept them in the building and others out.”

Three protesters left about 2 a.m. and were arrested, he said.

Police returned at 10:30 a.m. Saturday with about 50 officers, including Vancouver Island’s emergency response team, police dogs, a forensic team filming the events, arrest teams and general duty members blocking areas of the street. B.C. Ambulance was on standby.

Police entered the building, and for two hours negotiated with the protesters who were on the roof. The two sides agreed the protesters would leave peacefully.

After searching the interior, a tactical team went onto the roof.

The remaining protesters were arrested for break-and-enter and mischief, O’Brien said, and individually escorted down in the bucket of a fire truck, about four metres below. They were released unless they had outstanding warrants.

The incident concluded at 2 p.m. and no one was injured.

Amber McGrath, a tent-city supporter who was not on the roof, said the number of people yelling “hateful slurs” was heartbreaking. “People should be angry at our government for allowing homeless people to be left on the streets and living in camps when there are empty buildings all over the city.”

The provincial government spent $2 million to buy a lot at 250 Terminal Ave. in Nanaimo, where 80 units of modular housing will be located. A City of Nanaimo property at 2020 Labieux Rd. will receive another 90 units. The cost to buy and install the supportive housing at both sites is about $1.6 million.

McGrath said what the province is offering is eight-by-10 modular-construction homes with no kitchens. The shelter homes are also monitored and come with curfews, “so it’s basically a prison.”

O’Brien said the majority of onlookers were not sympathetic to the protesters. Had police not taken “decisive” action, he said, “we could have had a serious situation on our hands.”

Those in support of the protesters were escorted out “for their own safety,” he said, adding that angry and “stupid” words were spoken by some in the crowd.

Rutherford School was swept by school district staff for any damage and boarded up again.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

Asked on Saturday what she’ll do now, McGrath said she would “wait by the phone and wait for direction.”

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