Know Your Neighbour

Penniless: why a Victoria man has gone two decades without money

David Johnston won’t touch money, except to destroy it

By Tori Marlan
July 14, 2021
Know Your Neighbour

Penniless: why a Victoria man has gone two decades without money

David Johnston won’t touch money, except to destroy it

By Tori Marlan
Jul 14, 2021
James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Know Your Neighbour

Penniless: why a Victoria man has gone two decades without money

David Johnston won’t touch money, except to destroy it

By Tori Marlan
July 14, 2021
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Penniless: why a Victoria man has gone two decades without money
James MacDonald / Capital Daily

As David Arthur Johnston takes a seat next to me on a bench in the courtyard of the Greater Victoria Public Library’s main branch, I can see that his greying beard is so long and bushy it hides his neck and that his eyes are a light shade of blue, but it’s his coffee that has caught my attention. It’s in a to-go cup. A to-go cup.

I ask him how he got the coffee. I realize it's an abrupt conversation starter, but it’s also a fair question for someone who claims not to ever use money. He answers without hesitation: “The 9-10 Club. It's a kitchen that's open on weekday mornings for the homeless. They have food and coffee there.”

Throughout our conversation, and in many later conversations as well, I repeatedly find myself asking where or how he’s acquired something. Not because I’m looking for a gotcha moment, but because Johnston has organized his life around something that seems impossible and I want to know how he pulls it off.

For those of us who struggle to make ends meet or who are disorganized or negligent with personal finances, or who can’t seem to ever create a cushion for unexpected expenses, the idea of doing away with money might seem spectacularly appealing. We all know financial problems can wreak havoc, leading to health-compromising stress, divorce, homelessness. Who but the wealthy hasn’t had to rack their brain to figure out how to bring in more money?

But what if instead of always trying to figure out how to get more money, you could figure out how not to need it? What if it were possible to sever your dependence on it? To banish it completely from your life?

For most of us, such questions would remain a thought experiment absent a major reorganization of civilization and the global economy. But, motivated by reasons more pure than stress relief, Johnston ditched money almost two decades ago, and he says there’s no going back.

His last purchases—beer, cigarettes, pot—occurred 18 years ago, he says, on his 31st birthday. He claims he hasn’t spent any money since. It’s true, his friends have told me. No money at all.

David Shebib, who befriended Johnston after testing his integrity—he offered Johnston $20—has provided a room for him to sleep in at times in the various houses he’s rented over the years. He says Johnston refuses to even touch money. “People can’t give him money to give to me,” he says. “He won’t take an envelope from me with money in it to give to somebody else.”

Cliff MacLean, who met Johnston in 2003 while protesting the second Iraq war, says Johnston does touch money—but only to destroy it or render it unusable. “I’ve seen him throw toonies or loonies in the ocean,” he says.

Johnston also throws found change into gutters and garbage bins and cuts out serial numbers on bills. Before 2011, when banknotes were still made of paper instead of polymer, they were easier to destroy—he could just burn them.

He doesn’t seek out money for this purpose, he says. Rather, he handles it like an offensive picture littering the sidewalk or a swear word carved into a tree: “The idea is to not let kids see it.”

That’s because Johnston’s feelings about money are inextricably bound up in his certainty that refusing to spend it is the only moral way to live. Feeling fortunate to have broken out of “set conditionings,” he hopes his example—as well as his writings, conversations, YouTube channel, and activism—inspires others to do the same. For all Johnston’s proselytizing, he lacks a pushiness. Instead, he exudes—and has worked on cultivating—patience and calm.

Shebib considers him a “prophet.” MacLean compares him to the Stoics and says he has immense respect for Johnston’s ability to stand firmly for what he believes. “He's just a little out of phase with this century,” he says.

Strangers often take a harsher view. Johnston is aware of how he can strike people as “nice” but “crazy.” They’re right about the nice part, Johnston says. Shebib concurs: “He's actually quite nice all the time. It annoys me because he doesn't have flare-ups like I do.”

After Johnston and I talk for a bit outside the library, he suggests that we walk over to St. Ann’s Academy, a historic, provincially owned property on Humboldt Street that spans six acres and houses Victoria’s first Roman Catholic cathedral. It’s also the site of a monumental years-long showdown he had with the city, when his insistence on sleeping on the grounds of the national landmark led to his being arrested or detained so many times he lost count (he believes it’s somewhere between 40 and 60).

The showdown, which began in 2004, also paved the path for Johnston’s involvement in a constitutional battle that fundamentally changed the way Victoria responds to its unhoused population and that has implications for other Canadian cities as well. Two copies of his self-published journal from that period, The Right to Sleep: The Occupation of St. Ann’s Academy, are available through the Victoria Public Library: one is in circulation; the other sits in the heritage room.

As we walk through the city, Johnston offers a small disclaimer, putting out in the open what he calls his one “debatable” act of spending, post-31st birthday. If you count a gift card that someone gave him back in 2012, which he used on Big Macs and coffee, then, he says, he’s been money-free for only nine years.

***

You would think that if someone has disavowed money—has completely stopped using it—that life for that person would become a non-stop scramble to survive. But Johnston doesn’t scramble. If he’s meant to eat on any given day, he will cross paths with something edible. People offer him food, or they don’t. He finds it in dumpsters, or he doesn’t. Under no circumstances would he buy groceries for himself, he says. And though he will accept gifts, he doesn’t beg. Good karma has enabled him to survive, he says. But survival isn’t what’s most important to him. What’s most important is living in a way that’s right and true. And if living right and true doesn’t end up sustaining his life, well then so be it. He’s not built for this world.

Johnston started catching on to what he calls “the truth”—there is no “his” truth or “a” truth—24 years ago, after the first of two life-altering epiphanies obliterated his self-image.

Prior to 1997, he had thought of himself as an “Average Joe.” Growing up poor in central Alberta, he suspected that he and his family were perhaps a little smarter than others—his mother’s generation claimed valedictorians—but he felt, overall, that his life was unremarkable. He lived with his mother and sister in the country, about ten kilometres southwest of Lacombe, and visited his father, a mailman, in the nearby town of Red Deer every second weekend. His mother worked as a cashier at her brother’s general store.

Johnston was naturally social, but like so many others, he experienced anxiety and rejections. Still, he made friends easily and in high school became part of an eclectic group that included athletes, musicians, nerds, and drama geeks. (He says he evolved from basic nerd to drama geek.)

Johnston’s longtime friend Earl Oberst, who was part of the group, says Johnston had a big heart and could connect with anyone. He also had an open, curious mind. “He could take two books from the library and have them done before the end of the day,” Oberst recalls. But Johnston skipped a lot of school, and when, in his senior year, he learned he’d be expelled if he missed another day, he dropped out.

Johnston and his friends often congregated around a campfire in his backyard because his mother, who’s now deceased, allowed for such gatherings. She was a “surrogate mom” figure for Johnston’s friends, says Oberst, who remembers her fondly as a “God-fearing, homemade-wine-drinking, free-spirited woman” affectionately known to the group as “Mama Lea.”

Today, many in Johnston’s high school group remain friends. While most of them have followed a conventional trajectory—partnered up, settled into careers, had their own families—Johnston, though he has two children, stands out for being “on his quest,” Oberst says. “That’s what a lot of us call it.” He adds, “I honestly didn’t think it would last this long.”

Shortly after leaving high school, Johnston made his way to Vancouver Island, moved in with an uncle in Gordon Head, and found work making bread at Rising Star Bakery. He briefly considered trying to enrol in university, despite not having a high school diploma, but he says he lacked the “gumption” and the idea fizzled.

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He left the bakery job for a stint teaching English in Seoul, South Korea, where “the monkishness” that would eventually dominate his life began to assert itself. After only three months in the city, he says he was overcome by a desire to flee its metropolitan culture, its decadence, its pharmacy walls dedicated to hangover medications, the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, the lack of fresh air and bodies of water.

He returned to Victoria and the bakery. He worked the early morning shift. By noon, he’d be down at Dallas Road, meditating by the ocean and pondering the meaning of life and the nature of the universe.

The job eventually got in the way of all the meditating and pondering. So, being a “responsible monk,” he quit.

Then came the Epiphanies.

The first one occurred on his 25th birthday,  June 28, 1997. He’d recently given away his motorbike and rid himself of all the belongings he couldn’t carry in a backpack. But on that day, Johnston’s drift from societal expectations gained an unstoppable momentum. While meditating down at the ocean—and tripping on acid courtesy of the motorbike’s new owner—he experienced what would become for him unshakable insights having to do with patience, fate, and love. He says he emerged with a new understanding: that free will wasn’t real; that although the world was in a state of suffering and everything was wrong, no one was to blame; that evil wasn’t real;  that the whole of society was built on lies. He felt intense love. He knew that everything had changed.

He could never again hold a conventional job. He needed his only responsibility to be to the truth. “Essentially, I had seen that truth was more important than life,” he would later write in the preface to his self-published journal.

But he didn’t yet have the words to describe what was going on in his head. With “a scrambled brain” and “barely communicative,” he returned to Alberta. He planted himself on his mother’s couch and remained there for the next year, working through his thoughts.

“There's nothing healthier than a nervous breakdown,” he tells me. “We don't have nervous breakdowns if we don't need them.” As he sees it, “If a brain sees truth and our ego tries to ignore it, our brains will make us crazy. So that's the fail-safe—that in the end, we will be so unhappy that we will force ourselves into enlightenment or kill ourselves. We either self-destruct or we get enlightened.”

Believing he had definitive answers to the unresolved ancient philosophical debate about free will and its connection to moral responsibility, Johnston, of course, felt enlightened. And when he felt ready to articulate what he’d come to understand, he wrote it down.

He returned to Victoria, armed with a small book he’d typed out that espoused his worldview. Titled A Love Virus, he sold photocopies of it at the Inner Harbour for a dollar apiece or gave them away for a donation. “Basically, I wanted to let everyone know they didn't have to be so sad and crazy,” he says.

While adjusting to living outside, he often felt sleep deprived. He stayed on Mount Doug for a few months before discovering Beacon Hill Park and Streetlink Emergency Shelter. Despite the exhaustion, he says, “I was sort of in a resigned bliss.”  

Most of his waking hours were spent on the causeway in front of the Empress Hotel. He’d lay out copies of A Love Virus (which he updated a few times) and set up a cardboard sign that changed daily but always carried a pithy handwritten message—often about patience or fate and always an “attempt to articulate the highest truth with the least amount of words,” he says.  

People—usually tourists, sometimes downtown workers—would see his signs and engage him in conversation. Some would give him meals or money. In addition to those donations, and whatever he made from selling his book, his uncle provided him with about $20 a month, he says. He was also still cashing GST checks at that time. Without expenses, he figures he was getting by on about $2,000 a year.

One day Johnston looked up from his meditation spot on the Inner Harbour and saw that a tent city had sprung up on the lawn of the legislative building. “It was university students just doing a protest about the tuition or something like that,” he recalls. “But right away, it turned into people taking advantage of the ability to sleep, and so houseless folk started living on the lawn as well with the university students.”

Johnston settled in and befriended a crew of people who were “all looking for ways to be creative and save the world.” One was on a speech fast and hadn’t talked in four months. Another—an “inspired angel” named Jason—had just returned from a trip to India and had stopped using money.

Epiphany Two happened a few months after they met, on June 27, 2003, almost six years to the day after Epiphany One. Johnston’s father had sent him $50 for his birthday. With it, he bought beer, pot, and cigarettes, and then threw himself a small party at Beacon Hill Park. He overdid it and found himself lying on his side behind a bush. “I was just pukey drunk,” he says. “It was embarrassing. And then it just hit me. Like, I've had enough of this. I'm not playing this game anymore. And I was done. I had no use for money.”  

It was an inspiration, not a decision, he points out. By then, he’d spent several years reevaluating every societal and cultural norm he could think of, and there was just no more room in his reevaluations to feel OK about money.

Through long talks with Jason about the meaning of life, the nature of God, and how to make people happy, he’d come to see money as plain bad. How could it not be? It enabled organizations and “people who rely on the belief in evil” to do bad things. Armies, borders, possession, ownership—all bad. And not only did money enable what he deemed insane behaviour on a grand scale, the dependence on it, the fear of losing it, the focus on acquiring it wrecked people’s lives and drove them to be dishonest with themselves and others.

“People have gone completely psychotic in the thinking, ‘I'll do anything to not be homeless,’” he says. “And so people are putting themselves through hell, living in situations that are just making them nuts to avoid being homeless—like how many marriages are built on that? I'm saying that death is better than perpetual anguish. And so once you get to that point, it's not about inviting death, it’s just about ‘rathering not’—like, I'm not going to be bad, and if that means I have to die, then I'll die.”

Johnston says he hasn’t had any close calls, that in fact, his fearlessness has been rewarded. People, he explains, just give him things.

He tells a story about playing a bamboo flute down by the ocean. As he was reaching a crescendo and crows were flying dramatically overhead, he felt the urge to throw the flute into the water. So he did. He thinks he was making a point about attachment and impermanence in the universe. “And the universe loves that,” he says. “It's like, ‘Oh, yeah? Oh, yeah? Well, here's a nicer flute.’”

The nicer flute arrived the next day. “I'm sitting at the harbour. And some guy is sort of dressed like me, I guess casual, has this three-foot-long bamboo flute and a cup of coffee, and he is walking. And I say, ‘Can I have a sip of your coffee?’ ‘Is that a flute?’ ‘Can I try it?’” The man gave Johnston permission for both requests—and then he gave Johnston the flute.

Stuff like that “happens constantly,” he tells me.

If one needs little and has good karma and is resourceful (he has posted survival tips, such as how to make cardboard insoles, on his YouTube channel), getting by without using money is doable, according to Johnston, and it doesn’t require disengaging from the world. The library, when it’s not coping with a pandemic, has computers and internet for public use. Until recently, he was using an old computer at Shebib’s house, where he stayed for nearly a year. He’s designing a game, set in post-apocalyptic Washington, DC. It’s backed up on a USB, so when he moved on from Shebib’s place in early July, he was able to take it with him.

USBs are “more accessible than lighters,” he says, because “people are always throwing them away.” For the past seven years, he’s been using an Android HTC phone that a friend who’d upgraded gave him. “It was like being given an Iron Man suit,” he says. He doesn’t have cell service for it, though, so he can’t reliably use it for calls, but as long as he’s hooked into Wi-Fi, he can get onto the internet and send messages. He understands that the device could stop working at any moment, cutting him off from easy access to the digital world, but if that happened, he’d probably just spend more time at the library.

Smoking is “the one addiction that’s maintainable when you don’t use money,” he says, because tossed-out butts usually contain usable tobacco. Shell them like a peanut and soon you’ll have enough to roll a whole cigarette, as long as you have rolling paper, which he usually does because he has friends who are both generous and who smoke. It’s a “moderately rare” occasion when he finds himself craving a cigarette and lacking tobacco. “When it rains, there's less tobacco,” he says. “But then just wait an hour after it's done raining, and people resume throwing their tobacco on the ground.”

Johnston sleeps outside if he has to, but he doesn’t have to all that often. After leaving Shebib’s place, he secured a spot in one of Our Place’s mat programs and is now staying in a gymnasium on Pandora Street with about 20 other unhoused people. He would have stayed longer if he could have, but Shebib will soon be moving on too. His rental house is being torn down so developers can build a large apartment building with commercial space on the site. It’s a major disruption for Shebib, but Johnston has taken the uprooting in stride. He estimates that since 1997 he’s lived equally outside and under a roof (either in a shelter or with a friend or friend’s family).

Shebib has been a recurring source of food and shelter over the years. He considers Johnston a good houseguest—Johnston likes to cook, has a good sense of humour, cleans the kitchen, and even sometimes does his laundry—but he and Shebib have never had an official arrangement.

“He does what he does willingly, and I do what I do willingly,” says Shebib, who, until recently, operated a junk hauling business. “I never try to buy him, never try to bribe him, and I don't expect anything of him. So it works perfectly.”

He adds: “What he does willingly satisfies me. I like this guy, I like him around. And he does things on his own that are for the greater good. And so I support him because of what he is doing. What he's doing is remarkable, and it's changed the law, and he has established himself as a person who does what he says—is a practice of what he's preaching.”

***

Johnston leads me up a small set of steps on Blanshard Street, under an arched wrought-iron sign that bridges tall hedges, and onto the grounds of St. Ann’s Academy. An urban oasis lies behind the hedges. Its arboretum, orchard of fruit trees, formal gardens, and historic footpaths are open to the public, and it’s here that Johnston took his most significant public stand: fighting the city over a bylaw that prohibited overnight camping in public parks.

In late 2003, Johnston noticed an increase in “deterrent events” aimed at public sleeping. He says officials, such as police or groundskeepers, targeted the unhoused with condescending and menacing tactics—such as scattering smelly ground-up fish (what he refers to as “bum away”)—in spots where people were known to sleep.

In response, Johnston posted flyers in laundromats and on telephone poles, announcing his plans to erect a tent on the grounds of St. Ann’s. The historic property at the time was under the stewardship of a Crown corporation. The flyer said he expected to be arrested, and invited others to join. Johnston had set the date for a couple weeks away—Jan. 16, 2004—to give himself time to acquire a tent.

When the date arrived, a small group of tenters showed up. But after police came through the next day, ordered everyone out, and removed their tents and belongings, most people left. Johnston stayed—and kept on staying.

For a while he slept under a tree; later he lived for five months in the tucked-away Novitiate Garden. He hoped to get arrested so he could challenge what he saw as the criminalization of a basic biological need, and, in effect, a requirement that people spend money to sleep in peace.

For the next two years, Johnston was locked in a cycle with the city in which he’d occupy the grounds of St. Ann’s and then police would forcibly remove him—by either holding him overnight in a cell, arresting him, or driving him out of the city and dropping him off in another jurisdiction.

The Provincial Crown Commission grew frustrated by Johnston’s persistence. A private security guard was hired specifically to keep him awake, in an attempt to discourage him from thinking of St. Ann’s as a suitable spot to camp. Johnston says the guard’s tactics included standing over him and clapping loudly, playing a loud radio, and shining a flashlight on him.

Like the Crown, Johnston grew frustrated. His early arrests didn’t lead to charges, or the charges would get dropped. “I needed a judge to say whether or not I was lawful in sleeping under a tree in the park,” Johnston says, as he’s showing me the Novitiate Garden. “They didn't want that. And so I forced their hand. All these trees, everything, had two giant garbage bags of shredded paper hanging in them like tinsel. Like I just put it everywhere.”

He also built and set up numerous cardboard houses. “If they want to give me a ticket for ‘littering’ they may go right ahead though I’m pretty sure they know it will never get paid,” he wrote in an Oct. 25, 2004, journal entry. “If they want to arrest me for ‘Assault by Trespass’…well, it would be about friggin’ time.”

Johnston was eventually charged with (and later convicted of) mischief and released on conditions that he refused to sign off on. He was then repeatedly arrested for breaching those conditions and sentenced to jail for terms that increased each time he found himself back in front of a judge. Whenever he was behind bars, he protested with a hunger strike.

In between stints in jail, and with the help of an Anglican priest, Johnston held potlucks and Right to Sleep information nights at St. Saviour’s church, educating others on the policies prohibiting sleeping in public and hoping to inspire tent cities.

In late September 2005, a tent city started to form at St. Ann’s, before an injunction caused it to migrate across the street to Cridge Park, another provincially owned property. Over the course of a couple of weeks, the tent city there grew to encompass about 70 people, according to court records. “Pretty freaking amazing,” Johnston wrote in an Oct. 11, 2005, journal entry. “Over 30 tents (and growing fast), a kitchen, a tire swing and a straight swing, a bunch of very strong angels and many dancing lessons.” According to court documents, residents jerry-rigged two kitchens by running electrical cords from their cooking areas to outdoor outlets on a church building adjacent to the park’s north end.  

After the City of Victoria obtained a temporary injunction to enforce two bylaws that were intended to protect its parks and public spaces, police moved in and disbanded the tent city. The city then moved to make the injunction permanent.

Lawyers Catherine Boies Parker and Irene Faulkner defended the tent city residents against the injunction in the BC Supreme Court, alleging in Victoria (City) v. Adams that the city’s bylaw provisions prohibiting sleeping overnight in public spaces were unconstitutional and violated the Charter rights of the city’s unhoused population.

Johnston was one of the nine defendants. “He was really critical to that case going forward and finally being resolved,” Boies Parker says.

Johnston joined the case while he was in jail on a hunger strike. Boies Parker remembers visiting him there and speaking with him about how lending his efforts to a legal challenge would be a better way than starving himself to get some movement on the issues he cared about. “We sort of made an arrangement with him that if he were to eat and continue on, we would follow the case to the end,” she says.  

She adds, “He was clearly a very principled person, very gentle person, and very powerful personality in many ways. We didn’t like the idea of him wasting away at Wilkinson Road Jail.”

Johnston says the arrangement was possible only because they connected him to a lawyer who was able to help him get out of jail so he could end the hunger strike in good conscience. To get released, he agreed to not reoffend while the case played out.  

In August of 2007, in an apparent move to end the case, the city repealed and replaced the Parks Regulation bylaw that prohibited loitering in public places. It then argued that the amended bylaw allowed for sleeping in parks and public spaces in some circumstances. But the bylaw still prohibited taking up “temporary abode overnight.” The definition of “abode” was incredibly broad and applied to any kind of erected shelter. “If you so much as hung a tarp over a string,” Boies Parker says, “then that was still prohibited.”

The broader questions at play remained the same, according to Boies Parker: absent enough indoor spaces to house everyone, what’s the city’s approach to unhoused people doing things outside that others do inside? Do we recognize that people without homes have no choice but to eat and sleep? Do we allow them space to do those things, or do we criminalize them?

After changing the bylaw, the city filed a Notice of Discontinuance. “My partner, Irene Faulkner, was just so outraged at that,” Boies Parker recalls. “She said, ‘We promised David that we would do it,’ and so we had to go to court and say, ‘No, the city can't walk away from this constitutional case.’”

In a sense, Boies Parker says, the ban on erecting shelter turned the case from being about the right to sleep to being about “the right to sleep and wake up because you haven’t frozen at night.”

The judge wouldn’t let the city off the hook, and the case went forward, with the city defending its bylaws as necessary to maintain and preserve the city’s parks and the BC Attorney General and BC Civil Liberties Association joining the litigation as interveners.

In an Oct. 14, 2008, ruling, Justice Carol Ross cited various causes of homelessness, including deinstitutionalization, federal withdrawal from social housing, rising housing costs, and changes to BC’s income assistance policies, and noted that the number of people experiencing homelessness in Victoria—more than 1,000 at the time—far exceeded the city’s available supply of shelter beds, which numbered 141 and rose to 326 during the city’s Extreme Weather Protocol.

People did have a right to protect themselves from the elements, the judge found.  “[T]he prohibition in the Bylaws against the erection of temporary shelter in the form of tents, tarpaulins, cardboard boxes or other structures exposes the homeless to a risk of significant health problems or even death,” she wrote. “The prohibition constitutes a deprivation of the rights to life, liberty and security.” It was also “arbitrary and overbroad” and therefore “not consistent with the principles of fundamental justice.”

The BC Supreme Court later cited the ruling extensively when striking down bylaws prohibiting camping in public spaces in Abbotsford.

In the wake of the Adams ruling, the Victoria Bar Association recognized Boies Parker and Faulkner with its 2008 Contribution to the Law Award.

But for Johnston, the victory was quickly tempered. The Court of Appeal narrowed the scope of the ruling by rendering the contested bylaw provisions “inoperative insofar and only insofar as they apply to prevent homeless people from erecting temporary overnight shelter in parks when the number of homeless people exceeds the number of available shelter beds in the City of Victoria.” And in the wake of the Adams decision, the city limited camping in public parks to the hours between 7pm and 7am. Johnston unsuccessfully challenged that new restriction in the BC Court of Appeal, without legal counsel, hoping for a ruling that would extend the Adams decision to daytime hours.

As he sees it, no one should ever have to pay for the ability to engage in a  life-sustaining act—even eating, as food grows on trees, he likes to point out, and belongs to everyone.

“David has another argument someday that somebody might make on freedom of conscience under section 2a of the Charter,” Boies Parker says. “The right to freedom of religion in Canada is the right to freedom of religion and conscience. So I think that he feels that it is part of what he believes is right, to live the way that he does, and so there's an argument to be made for him there. It's a little bit different than the arguments that have been made thus far in cases, which are mostly about people who can't get shelter.”

On the grounds of St. Ann’s, Johnston rolls a cigarette and looks around at his former home. The city could turn this entire place into a garden, he tells me. “It could say, ‘Here’s the gardener tent city—you’ll never have to pay rent again, just put ten hours a week into planting food everywhere.’ But we can't do that, because self-sufficiency is economic collapse. You can't have self-sufficiency and money in the same place. Because money needs dependence. And if you don't depend on money, you're not going to voluntarily want to be dependent on money.”

Johnston believes that economic collapse is coming anyway—that a monetary-based system is doomed to fail.

Money requires faith. For it to work, people have to agree that it has value. From Mesopotamian shekels backed by barley to Western banknotes backed by gold, money used to be tied to physical commodities. Today, it requires an almost absurd buy-in from the public, which is expected to have faith in pieces of paper or numbers on a screen with no intrinsic value, backed not by commodities but by the word of governments.  

Money will stop working because “it’s not maintainable without mass psychotic behaviour,” Johnston says.

He believes that tent cities can save us. “But we can't have tent cities until we do something about the addiction epidemic,” he says.

Johnston is not the first to argue that money’s grip is too tight, that it stands in the way of people’s freedom, and that it inspires corruption and greed. Nor is he the first to envision a world without it.

Communists and anarchists have dreamt of such a world for over a hundred years, Niall Ferguson points out in The Ascent of Money. “As recently as the 1970s, some European Communists were still yearning for a moneyless world...” he writes.

French philosopher Jacques Maritain made the case for abolishing money in a Review of Social Economy essay that was published posthumously in 1985. “Communism, Capitalism, neither system is good,” he wrote, “and to resign oneself to accept the lesser of two evils is unworthy of the human spirit. Only one solution appears just and good, and that is a society without money.”

The founder of the Venus Project, inventor and industrial designer Jacque Fresco, who died in 2017 at the age of 101, devoted his life to mapping out an entirely new and sustainable global civilization. He envisioned a radical re-engineering of society, one that relies heavily on science and technology to create a world in which money has no place and Earth’s resources are a common heritage.

The Money Free Party echoes Fresco’s vision for a resource-based economy. Billing itself as a “global political party,” it has attempted to run candidates in various elections in New Zealand, the UK, and the US, albeit without much success.  

Johnston, unaware of the Money Free Party, ran for mayor in the last election on a platform of ending the addiction epidemic (which would have included doing away with harm-reduction measures) and paying down the debt. He says he wouldn’t have accepted the $106,458 salary. I ask him how he’d have been able to reconcile his way of living with taking a job that required him to spend on behalf of others.

“Every taxpayer is an indentured servant until this debt is paid,” he says. “You don’t get to have the city you want.” He would see his actions as mayor as a step toward the  ultimate goal of moving toward a society that doesn’t use money. “We can't progress to non-money using until the debt is taken care of,” he says. “As long as the debt is there, we're owned by whoever we owe the debt to.”

He says he would have adopted “serious measures” of austerity. “Basically, it would be preparation for a mindful response to economic collapse. Growing food everywhere.”

The pandemic has made the idea of economic collapse easier for the Average Joes to imagine, he says. As a result, the time could be ripe for considering alternatives to the status quo. Ideas previously believed too radical for consideration have already entered the mainstream, like a universal basic income.

“We are slowly coming out of a once-in-a-generation pandemic, and we are all wondering what kind of world we want to come back to,” MP Julie Dzerowicz, said in the House of Commons in June, at the second reading of a bill she sponsored that would establish a national strategy for a guaranteed basic income. “We are all asking ourselves questions about how we want to live, inquiring about some of the models and systems that are currently in place. We are looking with new eyes at the economic model that has been the foundation of global growth.”

Johnston believes he can save the world by helping to make people smarter and seeing them through the collapse he anticipates. “It would be a lot easier if everyone quit money at the same time, make a day of it, and then everyone can co-ordinate and start planting.”  

He takes a drag on his cigarette. “Yeah, it would be a shitshow. But there's certain steps that need to be taken, and I'm sort of the disposable one that can't be bought. So I can make the horrifying decisions that no one else can make. Because my strings are not being pulled by the Downtown Victoria Business Association or the Chamber of Commerce.”

***

Living without money as he waits for a moneyless world has required numerous sacrifices. Long before the pandemic, Johnston faced the reality of not being able to hop on a plane to be with his mother when she was sick and dying. He’s had little face-to-face contact with loved ones in other provinces. He cannot necessarily travel to visit friends, though he did manage to take one cross-country hitchhiking book tour in 2012. (Shebib spent $3,000 to get about 200 copies of the book made.)

Johnston’s way of living has taken a toll on his health. He doesn’t choose the foods he eats (though he’d argue no one gets to choose anything), and he expects that soon he’ll lose his bottom front teeth. Chunks are already missing, and he’s preparing himself mentally for not being able to have dentures. “It will seem like a fast aging,” he says. “I will instantly become 80 years old.”

But then he remembers karma. “Last summer I made friends with a dentist. I wouldn't be surprised if my friend would say, ‘Well, you know, let's see what I can do.’ But, again, not depending on it.”  

Johnston takes most things in stride. Shebib tells me he has never heard Johnston complain, that he lives day by day, moment by moment, accepting whatever comes his way.

Johnston has been able to both maintain relationships with devoted friends and win over new ones. “People make friends easier when they know you'll never jack them of their dough,” he says, “which is also funny because my actions have directly cost people a lot of money.” (When he ran for mayor, for example, Shebib paid the $100 nomination deposit; when it was time for the refund, Johnston refused to sign the necessary papers).

But he has also lost friends. “Whenever I’m around they know what I would do in certain situations, and so it becomes annoying because they want to do other things.” He even lost his “inspired angel” friend, Jason, who started using money again shortly after Johnston had stopped. “It got to a point where he couldn't hang out with me anymore,” Johnston says.

Most of the sacrifices are easy to roll with. But the big one—the one he says he thinks about every day—is the loss of contact with his children, whom he hasn’t seen in about a decade. They were born after he’d stopped using money, and now one is 10, and the other is almost 14. While he says their mother knew before they became involved that he didn’t use money—and was warned that he wouldn’t start using it, even if she got pregnant—it became a problem. “It drove her mad,” he says, “like no matter how much we tried to make it work, not using money was not going to allow it to happen.” It made him unreliable as a father because he couldn’t promise his children consistency. How would he know if he’d be able to get to them at any given time for pre-planned visits? And where would those visits take place?

“I think of them every day,” he says. But the loss has only strengthened his resolve. “It gives me that extra grain of seriousness. This isn't all for nothing. The entirety of my being is set to make the world a better place for my kids. Not that I wouldn't do it if I didn't have kids. But having kids is not going to be the thing that detains me. I don't have anything to offer them but integrity.”

Correction on July 15 at 11:20 am: The court that heard Johnston's challenge to the city's new restriction on temporary shelters in the wake of the Adams decision was the BC Court of Appeal, not the BC Supreme Court, as the story originally stated.

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