It wasn’t that long ago that British Columbians were saying, “What the hell is going on in Maple Ridge?”
In 2014, voters elected Nicole Read as mayor of the region’s eastern outpost …and then subjected her to a virulent strain of online harassment which, after two years, resulted in threats that prompted an RCMP investigation, and ultimately her decision to not rerun in the 2018 election.
The reason for the harassment? The appearance of a homeless camp in an empty lot at a cul-de-sac on Cliff Avenue within six months of her election, alongside Mayor Read’s apparent desire to project empathy for those occupying it, and efforts (fruitless for some time) to work with the provincial government to house them permanently in the ‘regular city’. While that work was underway, the camp at Cliff Ave begat one at Anita Place and, well…it’s still a work in progress. But this time, despite sustained inner conflict amongst the city’s leadership, Maple Ridge is doing the work in cooperation with Coast Mental Health, BC Housing, and the Province of BC.
The problem with the ‘protest camp’, says councillor Ahmed Yousef in this wide-ranging interview, were the three types of people thwarting progress. First, the ‘sympathy brigade’ in Maple Ridge took it upon themselves “to be so righteous” in providing sympathy for the homeless, many of them “aggressive panhandlers”. Next was the ‘revolutionary brigade‘ — non-residents who came into the city “to do away with capitalism and private property”, and espouse free everything to everyone. Then there were those behind the ‘so-called treatment centres’, who he felt were not there to help individuals, but to go after government contracts for the funding (“as long as you have a body in the bed,” was his view of their motivation).
While homelessness and criminal behaviour in Maple Ridge may reflect the impact of the lack of non-market housing, poverty, and social and health challenges afflicting the most vulnerable of the city’s 80,000-plus residents, Yousef — who experienced hard times and homelessness himself in Maple Ridge, at one point sleeping in his car — is skeptical that housing is a moral right in Canada. A resident since 2010 and a citizen for 3 years, Yousef claims there’s a difference between people who have fallen on hard times and deserve the social safety network (like himself), and those with mental health issues, who legitimately require medical care, but perhaps not a home, and certainly not to be warehoused.
It is perhaps for this reason — the tyranny of being lumped in the same category as those who, for some reason, lacked the bootstraps, or the will to pull them up, or the necessary medical support needed to learn how to pull bootstraps — that he dislikes the term ‘homeless’.
What else do we learn about Yousef? That in his journey from Egypt to Nebraska to Kuwait to Canada, the well-educated, interfaith-curious anywhere person found a home in Maple Ridge, and has slowly become a community-oriented somewhere person. That his initial sense of the community, and eventual inspiration to run for public office, came from a shared, neighbourly love of pick-up trucks. And that more recently, he experienced the weaponization of Twitter against himself, and also for the ugliest of reasons.
But he saves the best for last — something about electric boats serving local transportation needs along the pristine highway of the Fraser River.
Forget Maple Ridge…Yousef may well represent the changing face of politics in Canada.