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(en) The fight for housing heats up in Canada

From Mick <mickblack47@yahoo.com>
Date Wed, 13 Nov 2002 03:48:50 -0500 (EST)


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An abridged version of the following article is printed in the December
2002 issue of Barricada, the monthly agitational magazine of the
NorthEastern Federation of Anarcho-Communists. Available for $3 mail order
or $15 for a six month subscription (US and Canada, please leave pay to
field blank on all checks or money orders. Very important. Cash at your
own risk). email: barricadacollective@northernhacking.org (Please note the
change of email address)  Address: Barricada, PO Box 73 Boston, MA 02133
USA 

----------------------------------------

The fight for housing heats up in Canada
By George Sweetman (OCAP, NEFAC-Toronto)

This year has seen a wave of housing and squatting struggles spread across
Canada from Vancouver to Halifax. Some have had limited success, while
others have been brutally crushed by the state. This is a brief overview
of the struggle for housing and squatters rights that many people have
been fighting in Canada.

The squats this year were actually started in the summer of 2001 when the
comite des sans emploi opened a squat on rue Overdale in Montreal. They
were then offered a deal by the city where they moved to a much larger
(and more livable) building in Prefontaine. While police shut down the
Prefontaine squat a few months later, the idea that open political
squatting was possible in Canada touched the minds of housing and homeless
activists like a flame to gasoline.

2002's first crack at an opening political squat was the Ontario Coalition
Against Poverty's (OCAP) attempt at squatting the former Mission Press
building in Toronto on March 22nd. Meant to be a one-night occupation in
conjunction with a weekend of protest against the ruling provincial
conservative party's leadership convention, the Mission Press squat was
brutally repressed and evicted in a couple of hours resulting in over 60
arrests.  

The next attempt was a lot more substantial, and effective, as community
housing committees affiliated with Quebec's largest tenants union, the
Front d'action populaire en réaménagement urbain  (FRAPRU), had a week of
temporary housing occupations across the province in May. It was this
campaign that opened the squat in Quebec City that lasted four months (see
issue 18/19 of Barricada). The success of the squat in Quebec City was
inspiring and key to kicking the "squatting summer" into full gear.

Soon the "7 year squat" (named as such as that's how long the building was
empty) on Gilmour St. was opened in Ottawa as part of the "Take the
Capital" demonstrations against the G8 meeting taking place in Alberta.
The "7 year squat? lasted 7 days before riot police evicted the squatters.
Of note is the vigorous defense and extensive barricades that squatters
erected, it took longer for the police to evict the squat than it did for
them to raid the fortified clubhouse of the Hells Angels. Also of note is
that this eviction brought the heaviest charges with squatters charged
with multiple indictable offenses (equivalent to a felony for US readers).

On July 25th, OCAP then opened another squat in Toronto, this time when
the Pope was visiting Toronto. 1510 King St. W. was an abandoned rooming
house that previous owners and various levels of government left to rot in
legal limbo where nobody technically owned it. The building was opened
with a massive demonstration that had a lot of popular support and
participation from neighborhood tenants. This support carried on
throughout the occupation with many people putting in long hours
renovating the squat and making it livable. In the end it housed between
30-50 people all of whom were homeless previously. It was open for just
over three months before being shut down by fire officials. But we'll talk
more about that later.

Suddenly the squatting struggle jumped to the west coast with activists
and homeless people taking over the Woodward's Department store, a
building that's 10 stories high and covers an entire city block, in East
Vancouver on September 14th. The building, which is owned by the
provincial government and has actually been slated for conversion to
social housing several times in the past, is capable of housing hundreds
of people in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Canada. Evicted eight
days later 58 squatters were arrested only to set up a "tent city" under
the large awning in front of the building. The Woodward's tent city, as
well as the fight to convert the building into social housing, continues
despite two police raids, destruction of squatter's property, and more
arrests. 

On October 16th, a squat was opened on Pandora St. in Victoria only to be
evicted a couple of days later. However, as a squatter wrote on Victoria
indymedia,

"Victory comes in steps. Victoria has never known a political squat.
Taking this action was one of these steps to victory for poor people.
Eventually we will win our demands and there will be enough housing for
everyone. The fact that there is not housing for all who want it shows the
corruption of our system that allows some to hoard incredible amounts of
wealth while others are crushed beneath. "

However, probably the biggest blow to the squatting movement in Canada was
the eviction of Tent City on Toronto's waterfront. Tent City was a
shantytown in Canada's richest city that was founded in the mid 90's
erected on land owned by Home Depot that, ironically, can't be developed
due to the City's master plan to gentrify the waterfront. Over 150
squatters who lived at tent city were evicted by Home Depot and the City
on September 24th. Tent City residents, some who had lived there for
years, were rudely awakened by large numbers of private security and
police. Activists from the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) and
OCAP mobilized to support the squatters, shutting down a Home Depot press
conference the same day as well as occupying city council chambers and
confronting the politicians and bureaucrats responsible. TDRC later issued
a call for pickets at Home Depot locations and held an information picket
at a Toronto store. 

As a result of this show of resistance (and the resulting bad press) the
City was forced to cut a deal to save face. Evicted residents of Tent City
were offered a housing subsidy so they could get apartments in Toronto's
rental market, which is so overpriced that the subsidy will barely cover
rent in most apartments. Despite this concession only a handful of evicted
squatters have been able to find landlords willing to rent to them and the
vast majority remain on the streets and in Toronto's shelter system. It's
also only a "pilot" program that will be up for review in six months,
which probably means that after the media frenzy blows over squatters will
lose the subsidy and be back on the streets.  


Give it or guard it!

On Oct. 26th, 2002, there were occupations of abandoned buildings across
Canada. Initiated by OCAP, the Oct. 26th housing actions happened in
Toronto, Vancouver, Sudbury, Guelph, Montreal, and Halifax.

In Toronto the demonstration was met with heavy police repression with
riot squads from Barrie, York region, and the Ontario Provincial Police
augmenting Toronto police, including the mounted unit.

After marching confined to the sidewalk and withstanding several police
attacks the demonstration made it to Sherbourne Street in Toronto's gritty
east end. As we marched up the street we could see our neighborhood being
torn down and hauled away before our eyes with a long abandoned rooming
house being demolished. We continued on Sherbourne to Dundas where we meet
up with TDRC as well as Flying Squads from the Canadian Union Of Public
Employees, Canadian Auto Workers, and The Toronto Teacher's Federation.
They were holding vigil at yet another long abandoned building. A few
speeches were made at this point, but the day wasn't over yet. 

We continued up the street to Gerrard where we tried to turn east only to
be blocked by police. Instead of getting into a big fight before reaching
our destination Gaetan Heroux from OCAP, and an east end shelter worker,
talked about how a women he knew died in the Allan Gardens park which was
across from us. While he did so, OCAP members were going through the crowd
letting people know that when Gaetan announced that the demonstration was
dispersing to go to Parliament and Shutter St to defend a squat there that
was occupied by OCAP members.

The ruse worked and we soon found ourselves outside of 213 Parliament
Street, a building that was labeled as "surplus housing" by the City in
the middle of a housing crisis! We found ourselves split between the east
and west side of Parliament cut off by riot police. It was at this point
that the police arrested a Ryerson student who was holding a banner
reading "Ryerson against war and racism". Toronto police are fuming from a
Toronto Star article, backed up by community activists and regular people,
that wrote what poor and working people have always known; that the police
target people of colour, especially young black men, through racial
profiling.  

The standoff didn't last long as the City sent the order to evict the
building and clear the demonstration from the street. However, as the
police were breaking in through the back of the building the activists
inside the building managed to escape right through the front door.
Protected by the crowd the squatters escaped arrest altogether as the
demonstration re-grouped across the street leaving lines of riot police to
guard an empty building from people housing themselves. 

Three days later OCAP went to the City council meeting to try and address
the issue of 213 Parliament being sold as "surplus housing". However the
item was moved to the front of the agenda and rammed through very quickly
in order to deny us the right to speak on the topic. Angered by this
blatant display of disregard for poor and working people OCAP members
objected and were then forcibly removed from the city council chambers by
police. Before we were cleared out councilors yelled at us to "get jobs".
So much for meaningful dialogue with the state.

Dialogue or no dialogue, OCAP plans to follow up on 213 Parliament and
other sales of "surplus housing" in Toronto. After all, these
neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, these buildings are our buildings,
and we're not going to stand by while our housing is torn down and
replaced by condos for yuppies.

In Ottawa, activists with the Ontario Coalition Against the Tories, and
the Anti-Capitalist Community Action held a picket of Home Depot for
evicting Tent City.

In Vancouver, the Anti-Poverty Committee (who were involved in the
Woodward?s squat) released the location of several empty government owned
buildings that should either be converted into social housing or, failing
that, squatted by people who need housing.

In Guelph, activists held a march through the small city?s downtown before
arriving at a large abandoned building, recently sold by the provincial
government to a private developer, where they unfurled a banner reading:
?This should be housing?.  According to the Guelph Action Network ?The
City of Guelph had first right to buy the building, but did not. The
building is an ideal location for affordable housing or a much needed
emergency shelter. Guelph has very few emergency shelter beds, and the
shelters are located far away from the downtown core, where resources
people living in poverty would use are.?.

In the northern Ontario city of Sudbury, the newly formed Sudbury
Coalition Against Poverty held a demonstration that brought out about a
hundred people. The demonstration started with speeches and a free meal in
a downtown park then activists walked the picket line with locked out
workers at the Sudbury Star newspaper before occupying St. Alouysius, a
large unused school building. A banner was dropped from the 3rd floor
demanding social housing. 

In Montreal, the CLAC's housing committee organized a "guided tour" of
abandoned building in the St. Henri neighborhood. They stopped at the site
of the building occupation last May by the Housing Committee for St-Henri
and Little Burgundy. Their next stop was 4110 St-Ambroise, an abandoned,
rotting building near-collapse, that is attached to 4120 St-Ambroise, an
old industrial complex. The building was targeted due to the fact that a
company that builds luxury condominiums slated it for demolition. The
building was occupied briefly and a banner reading "Non aux condos; des
logements sociaux" (No Condos - Social Housing) was dropped from the
second floor window. The demonstration then went on to the condo
developer's office where they sent yuppies running to their SUV's and put
them on notice. As a member of CLAC Logement said;

"Today we have occupied a building in disrepair that should be turned into
housing for people who need it. This is just a first step. We don't think
people should occupy disgusting buildings; instead we are announcing to
the condo developers that we consider this site to be the property of the
people of St-Henri and we refuse to have luxury condos built here. If the
developers continue building these condos, than we will consider them ours
too and will come back to occupy clean, brand-new luxury housing as the
social housing we deserve and are entitled to."

Halifax was the day's biggest success with housing activists barricading
themselves in an abandoned hospital for 24 hours, winning wide community
support and media coverage before being arrested by police. They were
released with no criminal charges, but with trespass tickets totaling over
$1000.

A couple of weeks earlier activists from the Suburban Resistance group
temporarily opened a squat in Oakville in response to the city canceling a
plan to build a shelter for the homeless. Suburban Resistance along with
OCAP held a march that was meet with a heavy police presence that stopped
the march from reaching the squat by blocking various bridges that
activists would have had to cross. While police lines were pushed back in
several instances they eventually held and activists were kept away from
the building.

 
Pope Squat evicted... but for how long?

On Friday November 1st the first snowfall of the year hit Toronto, and the
residents of the Pope Squat, occupied since July 25th, 2002, hit the
street. Not by their choice mind you, the occupants far preferred living
in their home than on the cold winter streets of Toronto where scores of
homeless people die every year. The reason they are out on the street is
because City, Fire Department and Police officials threw them there.

The Fire department ordered the eviction of the squat claiming that it
wasn't up to code and was "an immediate threat to life". Lisa Kocsis, a
squatter, responded by saying "Freezing to death on the streets is a
fucking immediate threat to life!"

The eviction was the finale in an escalating campaign of harassment by the
City against the squat. Earlier in the week the City shut off the water to
the building. Squatters promptly turned it back on but the city came back
the next day and turned it off again, this time sealing it with a special
cap that couldn't be removed. A couple of days later the fire inspectors
came with a throng of police and "inspected" the building. Instead of
providing occupants with a list of things that could be done to improve
fire safety Fire Marshal Jack Collins sent it to the owners, which is the
Provincial government. The government, predictably, did nothing to remedy
the situation. Collins also posted two private security guards at the
building supposedly on a "fire watch".

The next time the squatters heard from Collins was on a cold Friday
morning when fire officials, backed up by about 50 police officers
including the mounted unit, showed up to evict. Most occupants decided to
leave the building, though there was loud opposition to the eviction from
the front steps resulting in several shouting matches between squatters
and police, fire marshals and the head of the City neighborhood and
services committee. 

The situation changed after Sam Tassew, who has lived at the squat since
it was opened refused to comply with the eviction and was carried out by
police. As people objected to his treatment police officers attacked a
young and very vocal OCAP member, Josh Zucker, starting a big pushing and
shoving match between police and activists as people tried to protect Josh
from being further assaulted. In the end Sam, Josh and L. were
arrested. Sam was released without charges while Josh and L. were
charged with assault police.

The next day OCAP and squatters held a public meeting at a neighborhood
drop-in. Squatters and OCAP members spoke about the harsh reality of
living on the streets and how the eviction of 1510 wasn't going to be
tolerated. After the meeting about a hundred people marched to 1510, past
the security guards, and started ripping off the boards that the city had
placed over the windows.

As OCAP member Gaetan Heroux stated, we were at the squat not to move the
squatters back in but to fix the building up to fire code so they could
move back in without fear of eviction.

After renovating the building for several hours Deputy Fire Chief Terry
Boyko showed up and stated that we were in violation of the order. The
crowd was tense as police were on hand to arrest anyone who refused to
leave. After a meeting with squatters and supporters it was decided that
we would leave on the condition that we have a constructive meeting with
fire and city officials the next day.

However, the meeting with Boyko didn't yield anything more than a
re-statement that we weren't allowed in the building, even if we were
inside to fix it up to fire code! 

As this did nothing for the people facing living on the street this winter
squatters and OCAP members went to city officials to try and get people
housed. Visits to the offices of Chris Korwin-Kuczynski (councilor for the
ward that the squat is in), and others proved futile, forcing the group to
descend upon the office of Phil Brown, head of Toronto Shelter, Housing
and Support. For hours we tried to explain the reality that squatters were
facing, and the city's responsibility to house people they evicted under
the emergency rooming house act. Brown's response was yet another slap in
the face; squatters were welcome to try their luck in Toronto's
overcrowded and disease ridden shelter system. 

Well, a shelter bed for one night and a couple of coffees and donuts isn't
enough. As of this writing the squatters and OCAP are organizing to
re-take the pope squat again, bring it up to code and move people back in.
After all, OCAP's motto is "whatever it takes."


Who?s winning the fight for housing?

It?s hard to tell what the long-term effect of this summer of struggle
will have. Certainly, the struggle for housing in Canada hasn?t been this
intense for many years and the links and shared experiences housing
activists have made through this summer of housing occupations lays a good
base to continue the fight. The squatting summer of 2002 was a significant
radicalization of the housing movement in Canada, with anarchists and
radical community organizations like OCAP winning not only the argument
that direct action is needed, but actually winning buildings for short
periods of time. At the same time we?ve seen the housing and anti-poverty
movement organize a lot of new people in our neighborhoods and in cities
across the country. It?s this heightened level of radical, community based
struggle that offers us the opportunity to embark on a nationally
co-coordinated campaign of squatting and other actions next year. It is
this type of radicalization, the type where we?re not just radicalizing
other activists but regular tenants, workers, and poor people, that holds
the seeds for building a truly revolutionary movement based on the
principles of direct democracy and direct action. 

However, as there?s still a lot of work to be done prior to a revolution,
one concrete thing that?s been pointed to as a government concession is
the 630 million dollars that the Federal government announced it was going
to spend on social housing this year. While this is a start it still falls
far short of the amount required. For example, FRAPRU is asking for two
billion dollars to be spent on social housing immediately, and that?s only
meant as a down payment on a longer term vision for housing in Canada.

Overall, I think that the fight for housing in Canada is just starting to
heat up. More than ever we are in a position to pressure the state for
concessions while building a movement against the bosses, politicians, and
landlords that keep us working for 60 hours a week so we can afford to
live in overpriced apartments or, if we can?t make the rent, struggling to
survive Canada?s cold winters on the street. 

As long as we live under capitalism our labour will be exploited and we
will be under the thumbs of landlords or the state. The only way to get
rid of the problems we?re facing is to get rid of the capitalist system
and the state altogether replacing it with a system where we get all the
fruits of our labour and have direct control over our workplaces and
neighborhoods.  That system is anarchist-communism and it?s through
building radical mass-based movements based on people?s daily needs, like
housing, that we?re going to be able to build a movement capable of
defeating the politicians, bosses, landlords and cops once and for all.




=====
I need land, a place where no money is spent, then kick back and live life immaculate. - The Coup.


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