Cretien refuses to meet homeless, sends riot cops instead (fwd)

Leslie Schentag (wy497@victoria.tc.ca)
Fri, 12 Feb 1999 11:12:18 -0800 (PST)


  "When Freedom Is Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Be Free"


---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 12 Feb 1999 10:40:42 -0800
From: Grassroots News Network <gnn@grassrootsnews.org>
Subject: Cretien refuses to meet homeless, sends riot cops instead

Tuesday, February 9

By eight o'clock on Tuesday morning a much larger than normal crowd had
gathered at the Open Door drop-in at All Saints Church in anticipation
of OCAP's mass homeless delegation to Ottawa to demand a meeting with
Prime Minister Jean Cretien.  A light breakfast of cold cereal and fruit
was provided as arrivals confirmed their registration for the buses and
speakers outlined the basic intinerary and purpose for the trip. The
overwhelming mood was one of excitement mixed with anger - the combined
abandonment and persecution of homeless persons by all levels of
government, the repeated evasion of responsibility and blaming of
homeless people for their own situations (ranging from accusations of
laziness to the widespread labeling of many homeless people as being
'mentally ill' or substance abusers) had emotions running high. The
final straw had been the death of a man the previous Thursday who had
been sleeping on a hot-air grate outside of Queen's Park - directly
under the window of Premier Mike Harris's office.

Ten o'clock - the buses had arrived and sleeping bags were distributed
to people who were unable to provide their own. (We were to be billeted
at four different Ottawa churches on Tuesday night. A local agency had
donated 170 blankets and sleeping bags for the trip). The Toronto
delegation was to eventually number some 150 people - probably
two-thirds or better of whom were actually homeless themselves. By
ten-thirty or so we were off and running!

1:30 PM - we arrived at the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory (east of
Belleville, Ontario) to a tremendously  powerful welcome - the community
had organized a feast for the delegation at a local community centre.
Several weeks earlier a hunting party from Tyendinaga had gone to
Presqu'ile Provincial Park to perform a cull of the park's deer herd
(the unusually heavy snowfall in January was placing a tremendous strain
on the park's ability to sustain the local deer population) with the
expressed intention of distributing the meat to Toronto's poor and
homeles people. Three of the hunters were subsequently  charged with
trespass and illegal hunting and possession of firearms in a provincial
park.

Following a prayer from one of the community's Elders we sat down to eat
and listen to brief speeches from Mohawk Nation member Shawn Brant (one
of the organizers of the Presqu'ile hunt, and a long-time OCAP
supporter), OCAP organizer John Clarke, and A.J. Rhomer from People
Against Coercive Treatment (A Toronto-based group fighting against the
increasing use of forced psychiatric intervention against people labeled
'mentally ill' and against homeless people in particular), among others.
This incredible solidarity from the Native community had many people
overwhelmed - in addition to the splendid feast, a large delegation from
Tyendinaga would be joining us on Parliament Hill the following morning.
And this wasn't the first time this particular  community has shared so
generously of itself among Toronto's homeless population. (At least 25
per cent of whom are Native people). The speakers had stressed that the
leadership of this country had completely lost it's heart - and that it
was our role to ensure that it was brought back.

Six-thirty PM - we arrived in Ottawa and proceeded to a local community
centre for another meal and to be directed to our billets. (Earlier on
we had stopped in Kingston, Ont. to pick up a group of ten young
people). I found myself throwing my sleeping bag on the floor at St.
Luke's Anglican Church. The hall we were billeted in was a drop-in and
soup kitchen during the day, and the woman who ran it went out of her
way to make us feel welcome, even spending the night there herself so we
wouldn't have to pay for security arrangements! (This was typical of the
attitude we'd been encountering since we began organizing for this more
than a month earlier - the support offered was  really inspiring). After
getting settled many people scattered to go about their own business for
the next few hours.

Lying in my sleeping bag on the hard floor that night brought back vivid
memories of the times I was homeless in the 1980's as I listened to the
medley of whispered voices, footsteps, snores and various and sundry
other noises from the forty-odd people who were staying at St. Luke's.
And this was a far more optimum situation than what you'd find in most
shelters nowadays not only in terms of the physical conditions but due
to us being there united with a clear sense of purpose, rather than
succumbing to an atmosphere of imposed squalor and hopelessness.

Anticipation around the following day's events prevented me from getting
much sleep that night.

Wednesday, February 10

Ten o'clock, Parliament Hill - the buses had collected people from the
various billets and delivered us to the Hil, where we were to await the
arrival of the Tyendinaga and Montreal delegations. At this time things
were complicated by a couple of unexpected situations. In the first of
these a verbal confrontation occurred between a few Psychiatric
Survivors and a large, organized contingent of 'supporters' from the
Schizophrenia Society of Ontario bearing placards stating that '35% of
homeless people are mentally ill'. The members of this group (who have
been a major lobbying force for the 'right' to lock people up and
force-treat them, and for the implemention of 'outpatient committal'
legislation, based on deliberate misinformation about psychiatrically
labeled persons) appeared to be making a determined effort to exploit
the massive media presence by repeatedly sticking their signs in front
of the cameras. Their presence had quite a few people pissed off but a
compromise was reached where they would not display their signs, and a
subsequent speaker affirmed OCAP's policy of solidarity with the
Psychiatric Survivor community.

A few minutes after this, the first of several politicians was to make
his appearance - in this case it was none other than former Prime
Minister (and recently re-elected federal Conservative leader) Joe
Clark! I still can't believe the sheer audacity of this man, not only in
terms of how the policies of the Tories under his leadership had
basically sent into motion the events that have precipitated the current
disaster, but also the fact he walked right into the middle of the
crowd! He was immediately confronted by a knot of angry people and a
wild media scrum ensued that was to continue for nearly ten minutes.
After the dust settled people moved into the Middle of Wellington
Street, completely blocking traffic as the last of our delegation
arrived, bringing the crowd to more than three hundred strong.

The cops had been sniffing around the perimeter but had kept a pretty
low profile up to this point. Speakers from the various members of the
delegation were heard as well as from the Canadian Union of Postal
Workers, the Canadian Labor Congress, and the Federal NDP caucus. A
chant of 'We want Cretien!' swelled to a roar - then people poured
forward onto the circular driveway in front of the House of Commons and
moved towards the entrance. The speakers had asked the question as to
whether this government was prepared to deal with the issue as a
political one, or as a police matter. We quickly discovered it was to be
the latter - as we neared the House we saw two cruisers from the RCMP
parked so as to partially  block the driveway, and as we approached
dozens of uniformed Mounties moved into position in front of the cars in
a line three deep. I don't think they were counting on the determination
of people to seek this meeting with the Prime Minister, because the
delegation marched without stopping right up to the police lines - and
then attempted to pass through.

A furious struggle ensued as the Mounties tried to push the crowd back,
and people responded by forging ahead as a unified group. We could see
dozens of fully-equipped riot cops from the Ottawa-Carleton police
scrambling into position behind the RCMP as we pushed slowly ahead.

This massive police response has become typical of a Federal government
which has become increasingly intolerant of dissent, as illustrated by
the vicious RCMP assault on students protesting the APEC summit in
British Columbia in November 1997 (in which Cretien himself is being
revealed to have been directly complicit) and at the more recent attack
by the Mounties and Vancouver police on demonstrators outside a Liberal
Party dinner at the Hyatt Hotel, which put several people in the
hospital. Our demands were hardly radical - we were approaching the
federal government in good faith, demanding a meeting with the
government leader(s) around the current crisis of homelessness, and that
future Federal budgets be increased by one (1) per cent for the creation
of affordable housing. But once again, this government responded to the
people with violence and disdain.

The struggle with the cops must have continued for at least twenty
minutes (with several arrests) before both sides backed off slightly.
After a heated 'negotiation' it was eventually decided that a delegation
of seven people would be allowed to enter the building to approach
Cretien's office. (Much gratitude to our friends from the Mohawk Nation
who were instrumental in brokering this arrangement).

As it turned out no one from Cretien's office would speak to this group,
who were blocked at the office door by a security guard. This came as no
surprise, but the fact this body of people was even allowed entry was a
victory. The mass delegation's determination forced the police to make
this concession - they even withdrew most of the riot squad at this
point.

In the course of the event a total of ten people were arrested. (The
cops tried to grab several others but were prevented from doing so when
members of the crowd clung to their friends and pulled them back). At
one point we were of the mind that if they had grabbed one more person -
several of these arrests appeared totally random - that we were going to
surge forward again as a body and they would have to bust all of us. The
people arrested were charged with (I believe) obstructing police and
except for one man from Montreal who was held overnight, all were
released by four that afternoon.

It is obvious that all levels of government are totally unsympathetic
towards the needs of the people, and are completely unwilling to accept
any responsibility for the legacy of misery and death being sowed among
our society's most vulnerable members. It is becoming increasingly
apparent that rather than depending on so-called 'democratic'
institutions to provide for us, people have to become prepared to
actually take what they need. The homeless delegation had the effect of
totally 'outing' this government and exposing it's true nature to the
international community. The Canadian government can no longer pretend
to be democratic or compassionate - we saw to that yesterday.

GRAEME BACQUE
FEBRUARY 11,1999




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