The present incarnation of Cottonwood Falls Park dates to the 1980s as part of Nelson’s sister city relationship with Izushi

Izushi Society frustrated by transients in Cottonwood Falls Park

Second in a series about the Railtown district.

The group that maintains Cottonwood Falls Park is frustrated with transients hanging out and camping there.

“Regular citizens, the mother with the little kids in the stroller, they come here and then they are scared to walk through,” said Jim Sawada of the Izushi Society. “They turn around and leave.”

“People don’t come down here and have lunch any more,” fellow society member Bruce Walgren added.

“We brought the Trafalgar school garden club down here at midday, and six people were having a bath naked underneath the waterfall. You’re a teacher coming down here with kids to help out, what are you supposed to do?

“People use the rocks as toilets, doing whatever they need to do, and we have to clean it up.”

Sawada, the pivotal figure in the formation and maintenance of the park since the 1980s, says he doesn’t know how to relate to the transients.

“They don’t want to say hello, they just walk through,” he said. “We just don’t talk to each other. That is bad, actually. I should say hello to them. Maybe I should say, ‘Can you help me?’” I am really disappointed that they are taking over.”

The Star talked to some other people about this issue.


Jesse Woodward, events and markets director of the West Kootenay EcoSociety, which runs the Saturday Cottonwood market

I would not bring my two-year-old down there. It is too edgy. You don’t know if someone is going to lose their mind because of mental illness or drugs.

I took over as markets director in 2012 and it was really bad, horrendous, up to 30 people sleeping down there, piss and shit everywhere. Gross, destruction, garbage. In 2014 I started talking to them, getting them to respect the space. It got some traction, and it got better. I don’t know why.

This year has been almost devoid of issues, no graffiti, destruction of property is way down, people sleeping there is way down.

When the market is happening it is a crazy mix of everyone, but on non-market days it is one of the last places where you can smoke dope and bang drums.

If we scrubbed Nelson clean, is that a good thing? Do we want to make it so there is no weirdness or freakiness in Nelson? That park is one of the last free zones in Nelson.

The market structure is coming down at the end of this year, and that will shift the vibe down there and it will be way less hospitable to them.

That is the direction the city and police are pushing — those transients will not feel comfortable there any more. Travellers are going to come through, and do we want to make it so uncomfortable so they don’t come here? Some people in the power structure in Nelson would like that.

The flip side is I think that park is one of the most fantastic places in Nelson and that crew has made it super uncomfortable for everyone else. That is the sad part of it for me: it is not a mixed use park.


Karen Macdonald, public works supervisor, City of Nelson

It is one of the nicest parks in town. It is a jewel of a park.

But it is a big problem for us. It really stretches my staff resources because of the messes we have to clean up. We have to do that twice a day. We have had to go in there with equipment to clean up human feces because I didn’t want my staff handling it. We clean the washrooms early and then close them because we have had sinks and toilets smashed.

I don’t like my staff going down there later, after about 8 pm. They don’t feel safe because of people in there doing drugs, making drug deals, bedding down for the night. I will be happy when the market structure is demolished. That is where people sleep and do their stuff.

I have seen many people come down, elderly people, families with kids, and they just leave again because of this.

We have an excellent relationship with the Izushi Society. We try to help then out. We supply plantings and top soil.  My arborist does some pruning for them. There is no formal agreement about this, we just help each other out.


Rona Park, Executive Director, Nelson Community Services Society

This is happening because there is not an appropriate response in this city to homelessness and transience. This is an example of another sector [city parks] being affected by this issue.


Pastor Jim Reimer, Kootenay Christian Fellowship

There are a few people in society that mess it up for everyone. That is the reality. That is community. There are a few people who abuse the hospital, and we have to just manage it. It is part of the community. If you go to the golf course and somebody causes trouble there, you don’t close the golf course down, you manage it.

What is the solution? Have an ambassador program. Have volunteers down here to explain what the park is about. We should play a more proactive part at Cottonwood Falls. If we don’t manage it then a few people with emotional issues are going to mess it up.

The challenge is, where are people going to go for residence, all people? We need a place for everyone to go. And just because people look different doesn’t mean we need to be afraid of them.


Sgt. Dino Falcone, Nelson Police Department

We are just as frustrated as everyone. We are aware of the frustration of city workers who feel intimidated by the nomadic campers and alcoholics down there. They are mostly transients, not local homeless people.

You are not allowed to camp in the park. We go down there every night and move campers along. Most are cooperative. We have a park patrol that goes out on bike or vehicle to every park in the city and we try to be proactive about things like vandalism.

It is not just Shambhala. There are 78 festivals in the East and West Kootenay and we get an annual deluge of fruit pickers in the summer travelling between the Okanagan and Creston.  Since 2011 our July-August call load has gone up 39 per cent. About 10 per cent of those are related to festivalgoers.

We have a stakeholder group, TENT, which means “Trespass Enforcement networking team” — the RCMP, the ministries of environment and transportation, the committee on homelessness. We touch base with each other, make sure everyone is in the loop. We have met once.

As a member of the public, I would be nervous going down there. Most are peaceful but there are a few that make it worse for everyone, with dogs, drinking, fighting, causing a disturbance, and at night people sleeping under the market shelters.

We try our best to go out there in the day to make sure everyone is safe. But at night we may have only two members on, even though the call load has gone up. We have the highest call load per member in BC right now.


Michael Dailly, Nelson city councillor

As a councillor I have not had calls from people complaining about this. I have seen no letters to the editor about this.

But I go through there on my bike to see what is going on. I don’t think they [the Izushi society] are exaggerating. And I have heard reports from the city staff about feces.

I go through there and talk to people. Sometimes I wonder what I was talking about because not everyone is coherent there, but there are some people that are just coming through, visiting, need a place to hang out for the day.

The park becomes who uses it. I bet there are people who don’t go to the dog park. I don’t go to the beach too often because it is for people who like the beach.

But it should not be exclusive. It is everyone’s. When one group dominates a site we need to make it welcome for everyone. How do we do that?

It is a polarizing topic. When anything is polarized there is a moderate position in the middle and we need to find that.

There is a story coming around about this. The Cottonwood market stalls are scheduled to be torn down, redesigned and rebuilt. And there will be a public consultation about developing all of Railtown.

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