One-woman protest at Coquitlam city hall to last: ‘as long as it takes’

Her tent wasn’t supposed to be in Buchanan Square.

Tired of dealing with discrimination in general and abuse from landlords in particular, Ramona Shirt says she was packing up her apartment with a camping trip in mind when an impulse took hold of her.

“I was packing up my house and I was going to go travelling with my kids,” she says. “I just wanted to go and be in the bush and away from society.”

She didn’t. In fact, she did something like the opposite.

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“It’s like something just took over my body. Next thing you know I ran into city hall – exactly what my grandma did . . . I said, ‘Where’s the mayor’s office?’”

After conferring with a staffer at Coquitlam city hall, Shirt had one more question. “Can [the mayor] see my tent if I put it right there?”

Told the mayor could indeed see her tent, Shirt pitched that tent on June 8.

photos Jeremy Shepherd

Family tradition

A Cree woman from Cold Lake First Nations, Shirt was raised in Treaty 6 territory in Alberta.

Shirt isn’t her legal name. However, she prefers it to the surname given to her father when he was adopted during the Sixties Scoop.

The name Shirt also has a special resonance. In the spring of 1969, Shirt’s grandmother, Lillian Piché, Shirt, erected a teepee outside Edmonton’s city hall.

“She was protesting for Indigenous rights and human rights and those same problems are still going on,” Shirt says. “If anything, the crisis is even worse.”

Getting to Coquitlam

Besides the Sixties Scoop, Shirt discusses the torment her mother and grandmother suffered in residential schools. Shirt talks about being in an abusive relationship, struggling with addiction and being in and out of jail in Alberta.

She says she moved to the Tri-Cities to have a fresh start with her children, both of whom love the ocean and the outdoors.

Both of children have disabilities. Shirt has severe social anxiety.

Navigating an often unforgiving housing market while trying to support her children has been a challenge, Shirt says.

“There’s a lot of short-terms solutions for housing,” Shirt says.

Shirt says she’s moved three times since arriving, including one stay at a women’s shelter. She’s currently facing eviction.

“How can I know my neighbours when I’m bouncing around?” she asks.

Camping out in Coquitlam is a plea to recognize the challenges faced by both the Indigenous and disabled communities.

Shirt likens the abuse of Indigenous children in residential schools to the mistreatment of patients at mental hospitals.

“There needs to be a whole worldwide disability movement,” she says. “The barriers we face are systemic.”

A light rain is falling when we wrap up our interview. Shirt says she’ll pack up the tent in the evening, sleep at home, and then head back to Buchanan Square the next morning and the next.

The square is generally cheerful. Young people play table tennis on one side. Kids amble up the slide leading to city hall.

But while some people are dismissive of her protest, Shirt says she’s also heard from well wishers.

“I’ve never felt more support since being here,” she says.

Asked how long she’ll be here, Shirt laughs.

“As long as it takes,” she says. And then she heads into the tent with her kids.

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