Images of Ottawa Showdown over Affordable Housing

Two days ago the Federal government once again decided in its arrogance to turn the crisis of homelessness into a police matter when the homeless and their advocates from several Canadian cities encountered choking, eye-scorching jets of pepper spray courtesy of the RCMP when marching on Parliament.

While 'homelessness' Minister Claudette Bradshaw toured cities and delivered hugs to street people across the country and Finance Minister Paul Martin gloated of a Federal Government surplus of $22 billion dollars (projected to increase to upwards of $95 billion over the next five years), people have continued to die on the streets - two men were found dead in Toronto last weekend, and in Oshawa, Ontario (just east of Toronto) a homeless man had been viciously kicked to death just a few days earlier by two strangers who followed him from a doughnut shop because they 'didn't like' his appearance and demeanor.

Needless to say the level of anger was running pretty high when people gathered in Toronto on Tuesday, November 16 to board buses for the second mass delegation of poor and homeless persons to travel to Ottawa this year. The first trip, in February this year, ended in a wild scrum with the RCMP a few yards from the House of Commons and resulted in eleven arrests.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who was 'in the House' at the time and knew we were coming, refused to honor our demand for a meeting and repeatedly dodged questions posed to him by the Opposition parties. This time Chretien was not even in the country.

This time the demand was not for a meeting, but for immediate action in the form of a $2 billion annual budget increase for affordable housing construction, restoral of Federal monies taken from social programs, and amendments to legislation to prevent the Ontario Government's clawing back of the child tax credit from social assistance recipients.

Residents of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory (near Belleville, Ontario) once again displayed their incredible hospitality with a magnificent feast for the nearly 250 persons in the Toronto delegation and by providing their community centre as a place for people to sleep. Speeches from organizers and members of the Mohawk Nation followed by a traditional social rounded out the evening before people tried to catch a few hours' sleep prior to going to Ottawa the following morning.

November 17, 1999 - 12 Noon

The day was bright and cold when people began to assemble in Ottawa's Byward Market area prior to marching on Parliament Hill. As the Toronto crowd was joined by delegations from the cities of Kingston and Montreal, the Ottawa/Hull region and a small group from Tyendinaga, short speeches were made by OCAP organizers John Clarke and Sue Collis, Mohawk Nation member Shawn Brant and reps from the other participating cities. A little after 12:30 PM people lined up, the sound of rage swelling to a roar as we made our slow way towards the House of Commons a few blocks away.

This time the Mounties had set up a reinforced double line of steel barricades across  both driveways leading up to the building. (In February they simply partially blocked the path with two police cars before essentially meeting us head-on in the middle of the driveway).

The crowd of more than four hundred approached to within fifty feet before pausing briefly - then a tremendous yell went up from the crowd as we advanced once more. The people at the front seized hold of the barriers, and all hell immediately broke loose as the RCMP struggled wildly to prevent the line being breached. The crowd pushed forward, at one point forcing the entire assembled barricade almost vertically into the air. It was at this point that the first volleys of pepper spray were fired into the crowd, leaving several people writhing in agony on the ground as dozens of riot police scrambled into place in front of the large gap that had been torn in the barricades.

Drums pounded and police dogs barked wildly as both sides backed up slightly - the cops forming a solid wall of shields and Kevlar some five deep in front of the shattered barricade as we tended to our injured. (In addition to the pepper spray casualties a young woman suffered a possible cracked rib when the barricade collapsed). This situation continued for better than half an hour, with police and protesters standing almost nose to nose and the noise level periodically rising to a crescendo before subsiding once more.

Clouds of pepper spray erupted again a few minutes later as a second concerted effort was made to advance on the Parliament buildings, with a number of determined individuals forging ahead despite being hit directly in the face from inches away. Probably the one thing that prevented it from being any worse was the wind, which was blowing from behind us - the front line of police shields was soon coated thickly with the dark orange concoction. However, this second assault left numerous people blinded and gasping for breath, prompting a decision to retreat at this point as the situation was clearly becoming impossible.

Incredibly, there was only one arrest - a 23-year old Toronto man was charged with obstructing police during the early stage of the confrontation when he became separated from the crowd. He was later released on $500 cash bail. One of the Toronto buses had to detour to a hospital near Ottawa's outskirts as we were leaving due to a number of people experiencing considerable respiratory distress and pain from the spray. (Several were treated and released).

The RCMP had met with protest organizers at Tyendinaga the previous day, obviously concerned about their public image, stating to the organizers that they 'didn't want' any television images of the Mounties beating up on homeless people. However, the pepper spray appeared within minutes of our arrival on the Hill and no verbal warning at all was uttered before it was used. This encounter hammered the point home once again that the poor and homeless in this country and elsewhere have been essentially abandoned to a fate of persecution, misery and premature death. The Government of Canada and its uniformed goons have clearly demonstrated the fact that they have no regard for the lives of anyone who is poor, or who has no place to live, or who otherwise doesn't 'measure up' to the standards of the elite.

Graeme Bacque
November 19, 1999