January 24, 2004: From David Arthur Johnston’s Journal of the Occupation of St. Ann’s Academy
Last night I had gone to bed early (around 8PM). Around 9PM a security guard came up and fervently asked me to leave.
SG- “Please leave. I must ask you to leave. You cannot stay here. Please leave.”
me- “I cannot. I’ve nowhere else to go. I sleep in peace.”
SG- “Please! You cannot stay here. If you stay I will have to call the police.”
me- “I’ve nowhere else to go. Do what you must.”
SG- “Please! I am going to call the police.” (begins to leave)
me- “Do what you must.”
In late 2003, David was about to bed down for the night in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park when he noticed an unusual smell. “I found the ground covered in fertilizer [ground up fish] and subsequently my blanket was filthy,” he later wrote in his journal. “It was obviously placed there on purpose and from then on the fertilizer came to be known as ‘bum-away.’ To hold those responsible accountable, the ‘right to sleep’ campaign began in earnest on January 16, 2004.”
David began spending his nights on the grounds of St. Ann’s Academy, a former convent now owned by the provincial government. He was eventually joined by others, who brought along tents. When St. Ann’s was granted an injunction forcing the inhabitants to move, the encampment relocated to Cridge Park, a small green space nearby. For two weeks, it boasted “35 tents at peak” and served as shelter for “about 70 or 80 people,” David says.
The City of Victoria and most of its citizens were not pleased with the tent-city, and it wasn’t long before police began enforcing the city’s anti-camping bylaw. With the help of two pro bono lawyers, Cathy Boies-Parker and Irene Faulkner, David and a handful of other defendants challenged the bylaw, asserting that it was unconstitutional and violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
His campaign continued to attract support. Kristen Woodruff, 29, identified with the “right to sleep” movement so much that she relocated to Victoria to join the campaign. “David’s journal account of his struggle for the right to sleep came into my hands in the winter of 2008,” she says. “I was inspired by his work, and interested by the similarities between his philosophy and mine. We became close friends shortly after this.”
Kristen has been without a home since June, 2008, around the same time she moved to Victoria. “I have lived simply for years, mostly on Salt Spring Island, in small cabins, often without electricity or indoor plumbing, in a van, or housesitting. I became more ‘officially’ homeless when I left Salt Spring Island to go live in Victoria, to lend support to David and the right to sleep campaign.”
Others remain unenthusiastic. Ask citizens, business owners, or officials in Victoria to comment on David and the Charter challenge and a certain chill sets in. One business owner writes in an e-mail: “I cannot be associated with David and his cause, even though I agree with much of it, because I own a business downtown. In the business community, supporting David could have a negative impact on my relationship with neighbouring businesses and even some of my clientele.” Another e-mail from a resident of Victoria simply reads: “He has no value to me.”
“David is profoundly threatening to the establishment,” says Kristen, “to a degree that can seem absurd, given his gentleness. But he’s not afraid to die for the truth, and that’s a rare quality these days. Loving him is a strange phenomenon, because I know that at any time he may well go to jail, and that he is absolutely committed to not eating in jail, and that if he gets sentenced to longer than 40 days or so, he may well die that way.”
For Johnston, the point is to refuse powerlessness, and to defend oneself and others as human beings. “You can allow yourself to be moved along,” he says, “to live the hell you’ve always tried to avoid by getting a job spending 50 hours a week so you can sleep. Or you sit down and you figure out exactly where your suffering is coming from and you find what to do about it.”
March 5, 2004: From David Arthur Johnston’s Journal of the Occupation of St. Ann’s Academy
This morning I went to court to confirm the trial which happens on March 25 at 10:00AM in courtroom 102. The ‘crown’ stayed the proceedings on the ‘Assault by Trespass’ charge and are going to press the ‘Obstruction of Justice’ charge.
So, essentially, everything is still the same. There will still have to be a ruling for me to be released. The ‘crown’ will recognize pride as a lie; will recognize the illegality of being discompassionate; will recognize that compassion does supersede ‘private property’ and in doing so will set high precedence — every municipality will endorse and establish tent cities within walking distance of their downtown cores; every municipality will recognize the emergent state that has been created because of a dependency on ignorance (the emergent state that will exist when money is no longer used)…… or the ‘crown’ will pretend great offence and put me in jail, where I will not eat and eventually die (even if I am to be strapped down with tubes in me).
On a normal day, David Johnston goes where his feet take him, conversing with friends and acquaintances, often settling at centres like Our Place in Victoria’s downtown, where the less fortunate congregate to drink coffee, and talk. He goes there for its atmosphere of community, of shared experience, struggle, frustration, and mutual respect.
On the street, you won’t find him panhandling, or asking for any kind of handout. Instead, he does his best to provide for himself. “[I eat] karmically. I check what I affectionately call the ‘trapline.’ The garbages — there’s enough food thrown out every day to feed an army.” He’s not alone in his scavenging; social stigma may still attach to a homeless, jobless man subsisting off food found in dumpsters, but a growing movement of freegans also limits food purchases, instead relying on the perfectly edible food discarded daily.
Back in the library in 2007, he told me a little bit about his family. “We’re very prosaic,” he said. “We will talk when there’s news to share; otherwise we just presume there’s love and affection.” His mother “really appreciates” what he’s doing and her support “helps as far as media stuff.” He laughed. “If you have a mother that loves you, you can’t be a terrorist.”
Later, as we exited the library, David told me we had to walk straight through the courtyard and onto the sidewalk without stopping — this the result of his earlier arrest for camping there to protest the “No Loitering” sign posted nearby. Looking over my shoulder, I saw, seated throughout the courtyard, a couple of people reading, a girl talking on a cellphone, an emo kid beside her rolling a skateboard back and forth with his foot, and a man in a shirt and tie eating a sandwich. There’s little
doubt that, if a police officer had strolled by at that moment, the “No Loitering” sign would not have been enforced. Had David or another homeless person been sitting there, though, things might have been very different.
For David, that’s the nub of the problem. In his worldview, all people should be treated with respect, dignity, and love. To be “moved along” or arrested for trying to sleep is offensive. “Loitering implies purposelessness,” he told me, as we safely reached the sidewalk. “And I don’t think any person is without purpose.”