Jodi A. Shaw
“I think, if luck were real,” David Arthur Johnston says, “that I’m one of the luckiest people on the planet. To have a grand scope in my head, that’s weird, but makes me feel like a superhero most of the time.
“A lot of people love me, though most of them think I’m strange.”
He’s right. Johnston is nearly as well-known to the citizens of Victoria, BC as Batman is to Gothamites. If they haven’t encountered him personally, they’ve read about him in the newspaper or seen him on the news. And many do consider him decidedly strange — for his decision to leave his job as a baker and live without income, for his campaign to earn the homeless “The Right to Sleep,” adequately sheltered, on public property. He’s been described both as a man on a mission and a public nuisance.
“It’s ostracizing somewhat,” he says of his crusade and the high profile that has come with it, “just because every conversation leads back to the same thing.”
Lately those conversations have been about Johnston’s astonishing pair of legal victories. Late last year, after several years in and out of court, jail, and the media, he scored an upset win when BC Supreme Court Judge Madam Justice Carol Ross overturned Victoria’s anti-camping bylaw on the grounds that it prevented homeless people, forced to sleep outdoors due to a shortage of beds in shelters, from protecting themselves from the elements. Inadequate protection, Ross stated, can lead to fatal health conditions.
The City immediately reshaped its enforcement policy to allow camping on public property only between the hours of 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. (later revised to 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.). Johnston and some others promptly broke the new ban and were arrested. But on January 28, 2009, Judge Brian McKenzie found them not guilty, ruling that the City was enforcing a bylaw that, because of the earlier decision, effectively no longer existed. “I would like if the city sat down with a map,” Johnston wrote later the same day in his online journal. “I would like a well advertised public forum to discuss where to go from here and the feasibility of areas where enjoying the liberty of survival can be legal.”
In other words, sections of cities set aside for tents. The alternative, he says, will eventually be internment camps for the poor.
January 20, 2004: From David Arthur Johnston’s Journal of the Occupation of St. Ann’s Academy
It was a good night— got some sleep that I had been needing— there wasn’t a lot in the dumpster (few apples, some mustard, tomato basil dip, some bread, case of diet 7-up(yik))…
cool thing- take a larger can (one up from a regular ‘Campbell’s soup can’, pineapple or chick peas size)- keep the lid- poke three small holes on the side near the bottom- poke three small holes on the side near the top- poke a few tiny holes in the end- place a candle inside- have the flame supported about halfway up the can- you can put the lid on top if you could fry- or you can use a smaller can with water/liquid to boil— just a candle- it’s so cool
I first met David on a crisp autumn day in October, 2007. He had arranged the use of a small seminar room at the Victoria Public Library, where we spent over an hour discussing his life, philosophies, and court cases. David sports a long, curly brown beard that covers most of his face and neck. His long, straight hair is tied in a ponytail at the base of his neck. That day, he wore a pair of patched, brown pants, rolled up mid-calf, and a brownish yellow V-neck sweater with a collared shirt beneath it. Had I not already read about him, I might have assumed him to be a hippie, or perhaps a musician or artist.
He had been living off the economic grid for 10 years. “I knew contentment was impossible with the nine-to-five and knew that I needed to really think about that, so I gave everything away and put myself into a position where I could think without distraction,” he told me. So in the summer of 1997, he quit his job and moved out of his Victoria apartment. He hasn’t chased a paycheck or paid rent since.
David ended up back in Alberta, where he grew up and where the majority of his family still resides. He bounced around the province from 1997 to 2000, when he returned to Victoria because “it was a place I knew and an international high traffic spot.”
He lived outdoors and, in 2003, ended his relationship with money. “I was probably getting by on $1000 a year. So my progression into not using money anymore was gradual. And then come the time that I did it, the only thing I was spending money on was cigarettes, marijuana, beer, and coffee.”
Most people panic when money is tight, worried about car payments and phone bills and groceries, but for David, letting go of money meant finding freedom. He says he now lives “moment by moment. I’d rather be dead than use money.”