Action Against Homelessness: Ottawa arrests, Vancouver occupation

Tom Boland (
Sat, 13 Feb 1999 18:31:00 -0800 (PST)

FWD via  A-Infos News Service


[The following report is based on eyewitness reporting in Ottawa, and
three telephone interviews with members of the Poverty Action Network in
Vancouver during their occupation. An update will follow if necessary.]

by Jaggi Singh <>
for A-Infos and the Direct Action Media Network
posted 8:05pm, February 11, 1999 from Montreal

About 250 demonstrators were confronted by riot police on Parliament Hill
in Ottawa late yesterday morning as part of a protest demanding immediate
action on the homeless crisis in Canada. A few hours later, a crowd of 100
marched to the offices of Revenue Canada in downtown Vancouver in a
pre-planned solidarity action. A group of about 50 initially occupied the

The two main demands of both protests, agreed to by anti-poverty groups in
Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver, were: 1) an immediate spending
increase in income support payments such as employment insurance, welfare,
disability benefits and child credits; and 2) a doubling of the federal
budget for social housing. The latter demand has been called "the 1%
solution" since social housing currently accounts for just 1% of the
federal budget. Finance Minister Paul Martin will be announcing this
year's budget on February 16.

The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee has declared that homelessness in
Canada is a national disaster, a resolution endorsed by municipal
governments in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa. It is estimated that there
are 100,000 homeless in the country. Every Canadian winter sees the death
of many homeless people due to exposure. One lawyer and professor in
Toronto has even stated publicly that homeless people are justified, by
necessity, in breaking into homes if it gets too cold outside.

The Parliament Hill demonstration was organized by the Toronto-based
Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), with support from the Canadian
Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) in Ottawa and the Tyendinaga Mohawk
community near Belleville.

Four busloads of activists drove in from Toronto, stopping in Kingston to
pick up more supporters.  There was also a bus from Tyendinaga, and
another from Montreal organized by the Comite des sans-emplois [the
Committee of the Unemployed]. They joined local activists from the
Ottawa-area, including many homeless or near-homeless people who made up a
large portion of the crowd.

Gathering in front of a banner reading, "Don't leave homeless people in
the street," protesters occupied the road in front of Parliament Hill to
hear an array of speakers, including representatives of OCAP, the Comite
des sans-emplois, CUPW, and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).

Many protesters, and some speakers, were insistent that their demands were
not just about more hostels or shelters, institutions that many find
corrupt, condescending and degrading. Rather, they emphasized the need for
livable incomes and affordable, accessible social housing.

One organizer with OCAP broke down in tears as he recounted the death just
four days ago of a homeless man in Toronto. He was found dead on a grate
within sight of the Legislative Buildings at Queen's Park.

At one point, Joe Clark, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party,
waded into the crowd, attempting to speak to the protest. He was shouted
down, jostled and forced to retreat into a press scrum away from the
protest. Asked what the neo-conservative Brian Mulroney-led government of
1984-93 -- in which he was a senior cabinet minister -- had ever done to
help the homeless, Clark replied, "I want to talk about the present, not
the past."

Two Members of Parliament (MPs) from the right-wing Reform Party, Werner
Schmidt and Eric Lowther, were also shouted down later in the protest.
Lowther seemed pleased that "no one was asking for handouts." When
informed that the main demands of the protesters necessitated
significantly more federal spending on welfare, employment insurance and
social housing, Lowther said, " We're going to be giving a formal
statement later."

Libby Davies, an MP for the ostensibly social-democratic New Democratic
Party (NDP), did address the crowd. Aside from a few negative heckles
about past and present NDP provincial governments [Bob Rae's in Ontario,
Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark's in British Columbia], Davies was allowed to
participate fully in the protest.

Protest organizers had notified Prime Minister Jean Chretien days earlier
of their demand for a personal meeting in Ottawa. After the speeches,
demonstrators proceeded to march up to the Parliament Buildings to ensure
that such a meeting would happen. The House of Commons was in session, and
Chrtien was in Parliament.

Chanting "Let the people through!", "We want Chrtien!" and "Homes not
jails ... housing not hostels!", demonstrators attempted to push through a
barricade and a row of officers made up of Ottawa City Police and the
Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), who were lined up several metres
from the main entrances to the Parliament Buildings.

Initially, seven arrests occurred as the police pulled away protesters who
tried to break through the line. The RCMP riot police were quickly
deployed from inside the main entrances. Armed with batons and shields and
wearing helmets, a battalion of about 40 riot police took positions just
steps away from the front of the demonstration. In all, at least 75 police
officers were present in uniform.

Two more arrests occurred as people who were sitting on ledges and refused
to move were taken into custody. All nine arrests were for "obstruction of
a police officer" according to the RCMP spokesperson on the scene. A tenth
arrest happened when the protest was over and dispersing. Ottawa police
ambushed a Montreal activist while pointing a large canister of pepper
spray to his face. He was charged with assault, allegedly for grabbing the
fur hat of an officer at the barricades and throwing it into the crowd.

According to many regular parliamentary journalists, yesterday was the
first time in at least a few years that riot police have actually been
deployed on Parliament Hill. Their presence further inflamed a crowd that
was already genuinely angry about the homelessness crisis. Many people
knew firsthand of friends who were suffering, or had even died. The anger
and frustration of the crowd was real and palpable.

"We can't go back to the cities without something," said Shawn Brant of
Tyendinaga as a stand-off ensued between the riot police, other officers,
and the hundreds of protesters. Of particular concern to many of the
Tyendinaga protesters is the $50 clawback to welfare recipients with kids.
In Ontario, welfare recipients who receive child tax benefits have that
amount deducted from each monthly cheque. The policy has badly hurt the
2500-member Tyendinaga community, and according to Brant, effects
tens-of-thousands of children in Ontario.

When asked under what pretext protesters were being kept out of the
Parliament Buildings, a RCMP media spokesperson stated that the protest
was "too loud" and "too disorderly."

A delegation led by Libby Davies did eventually enter the building for a
press conference that had been pre-authorized. Accredited media were
allowed to hear the testimonies of homeless people and some protest
organizers. The delegation also visited the Prime Minister's office, but
the door was shut.  No official from the Prime Minister's office
acknowledged the protest until after it was over.

"This government is one pile of arrogance and ignorance," said Sue Collis,
an organizer with OCAP, after returning from inside the Parliament
building. "This is not a government to be trusted," adding, "This is a
government to be fought."

Organizers vowed to increase their protest efforts if their basic demands
were not substantially met in next week's budget.

Just a few hours after the rally in Ottawa ended, another protest in
Vancouver was beginning. Social activists, the homeless and others
gathered at Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside. There they heard
from speakers from local community groups, including Vancouver Rape Relief
and the Poverty Action Network (PAN). The speaker from Rape Relief
underlined the desperate situation for some women caused by the lack of
social housing; many are often bound in abusive relationships due to lack
of affordable housing choices.

The Poverty Action Network added two more demands to those made in Ottawa:
1) tax the rich; and 2) an end to the favoritism and nepotism which is
rampant in the allocation of the little social housing that exists in

The rally then took to the streets, and marched along Hastings Street into
downtown Vancouver. At its high point, about 100 people participated. The
march ended at the Revenue Canada office at Burrard and Pender, where
about 50 people proceeded to occupy the main floor.

The office closed early, and Revenue Canada officials were reportedly
seeking a court injunction to expel the occupiers. After a few hours, a
core of 25 activists remained, and by 10pm, more than 8 hours after first
taking over, the occupation ended. Throughout the whole occupation, no
food was allowed in, including a serving from Food Not Bombs and an
ordered pizza.

Participants described the march and occupation as very festive, with much
singing, dancing, juggling and the participation of many kids. According
to organizers, there were several new faces at the action and occupation.
Many obviously identified with the issue at hand and with PAN's poster
slogan, "Time to Move!"

Tina Arsenault, an organizer with PAN, said during the occupation, "There
are solutions to the housing crisis, but they're just not being
implemented. There's plenty of excess housing that's just not being used."

She added, "For me, [occupying] is a way of showing just how committed and
upset people are becoming."

Yesterday's actions in Ottawa and Vancouver mark the first time that PAN
has collaborated with radical anti-poverty groups in Toronto and Montreal.
PAN, OCAP and the Comite des sans-emploi plan on many more coordinated
actions in the future, with an emphasis on attacking the symptoms of
poverty and misery, and engaging in occasional direct actions to make
their point.


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