NANAIMO — Heavily armoured RCMP tactical team members descended upon a central Nanaimo suburb, putting a swift end to a homelessness demonstration at a closed Nanaimo elementary school.
Upwards of 50 officers were involved in the Saturday morning operation at Rutherford Elementary school which ended with more than 20 protesters being arrested for breaking into and occupying the school since Friday evening.
Nanaimo RCMP spokesman Const. Gary O'Brien said officers moved in shortly after 10 a.m., sending the small group of demonstrators scampering onto the building's roof. O'Brien said they discovered no one else was actually inside the school beyond those on the roof.
He said after about an hour without any contact, the squatters initiated a dialogue which eventually led to them being plucked one-by-one off the roof with a firetruck's ladder and arrested.
"We have to take a stance on this. What we are very concerned about is copycats," O'Brien said. "We're working with the district and they've actually increased security at other facilities around the city. We have to move on this quickly."
O'Brien said he understands why people were upset the arrests didn't happen immediately after the break in occurred on Friday.
"We would've moved on this last night but we did not have enough resources to deal with it safely. We didn't know how many people were inside, if they had any weapons or if there were any traps set in the school."
He said 21 people were arrested from the roof, while another three were taken into custody when they left the building earlier Saturday morning. Another young man who strode past police lines towards the school was arrested during Saturday's operation.
O'Brien described the ordeal as a "tremendous drain on resources."
The demonstration was organized by the Alliance Against Displacement with assistance from locals who were also involved in setting up downtown's Discontent City.
"It's obvious the government doesn’t care. We're claiming this space as safety for homeless people and we're basically telling other homeless people to start claiming public buildings," organizer Amber McGrath told reporters Friday night.
She said the 170 units of temporary supportive housing for Nanaimo announced by the province on Friday wasn't enough, nor was it suitable.
Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools board chair Steve Rae said the district understands and empathizes with the city's dire homelessness problems.
"This is not the right way to solve anything," Rae said, adding there's substantial concern about damage to the building.
"I'm extremely frustrated about that because we're going to have to spend money to fix whatever went on in there and that's money that's going to come directly out of the classroom. That's money they're taking away from the kids."
Literature distributed by the Alliance in the lead up to Friday's break in urged people to occupy empty buildings all over Nanaimo.
"We've heard there's other schools they want to target and I hope that's not the case. We have put security in place at all our buildings right now," Rae said.
The ordeal seemed to grip the normally quiet and sprawling neighbourhood around the school for its duration. A crowd of several hundred gathered on Friday night, trading verbal barbs with the demonstrators and their supporters well into the night.
Another large crowd surrounded the school Saturday morning. While the vast majority were angry over the occupation of the school, some did voice support for the protest. That led to a variety of heated exchanges and shouting matches within the crowd over the course of several hours.
— with files from Kyle Ireland