REFUSES TO MEET WITH
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 Chretien. 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 homeless 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 Hill, 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 Chretien!' 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 Chretien 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 Chretien'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 Chretien'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.