|TORONTO: Tent City Evicted!|
This morning, Canada's largest and oldest squatter community, the so-called 'Tent City' located on Toronto's waterfront, was forcefully evicted in a massive sweep-and-clear operation involving dozens of city cops and private security guards. The hardware giant Home Depot (which owns that tract of land) had earlier this summer bailed out of negotiations aimed at re-settling Tent City residents and creating interim housing on another nearby piece of city-owned land. Instead, earlier today without any warning at all to residents, they decided to proceed with the eviction of more than 120 people who had been calling that place home.
It had apparently been leaked to the media that an eviction was likely to happen this week. Over the past couple of months police harassment of Tent City residents had been escalating, with cops shining lights through peoples' windows in the middle of the night, photographing residents, entering homes unannounced and dropping ominous hints that the folks living there 'weren't going to be doing so for much longer.'
When I arrived outside the site at about 11 AM today, most residents had already been forced off the land by the cops. People weren't even being allowed back in to collect personal possessions at this time and a couple of people who had balked at leaving had been arrested. One woman who needed medication for a heart condition was stopped from going in to get her pills for more than seven hours. Other people who had left their personal identification and other essentials in their homes were likewise prevented from obtaining their belongings.
About fifteen minutes after I arrived a whole caravan of large trucks hauling bulldozers, dumpsters and assorted other heavy equipment including spotlights and rolls of fencing were escorted through the western gate by the police. There was something like twenty of these big vehicles altogether. Immediately after their arrival, a roll of heavy-duty mesh was deployed across the driveway, sealing it shut.
Supporters kept trickling in and by about one o'clock something like 75 people had assembled. We learned at that point that Home Depot was planning a press conference at a downtown hotel for two o'clock. Toronto's Mayor Mel Lastman had already gone before the media to spout off that a 'blight' had been removed from the city's waterfront, and that there were '200 beds available' in the shelter system for those who required them (A poll done of shelters in the Toronto downtown that morning revealed that in fact, exactly seven male and seven female beds were all that was free). Many of the people present headed in the direction of the Holiday Inn on King St. to intervene in Home Depot's media event.
A few of us who had bikes arrived ahead of the main body of people. We headed into the meeting room where the media were assembling, only to be accosted by hotel security and escorted right back out. We waited outside for the rest of the folks to arrive - then went right back in, some fifty strong. Outmaneuvering the hotel security, we went back up to the conference room, chanting loudly and demanding an explanation from Home Depot. There was media crowded around on both side of the meeting room's glass doors, that by this time had been closed and locked. Dozens of press people were there. We ended up controlling the agenda, with word coming back to us that Home Depot had in fact cancelled the press conference not long after we arrived.
Next stop: City Hall. People (and the cops) gathered in Nathan Phillip's Square, than proceeded in a noisy group toward Mel Lastman's second-floor office. More folks had been arriving as the word got out and by this time nearly a hundred people were present. Predictably, Mel's office had been closed off and the only people inside were police. A group of people marched around the rotunda area inside City Hall, angrily demanding that The Mayor stop hiding and deal with us. From there, we proceeded as a group to Council Chambers, where a meeting was underway to discuss (if you can stomach this one) Toronto's 'official city plan.'
Well, their 'plans' changed at that point. People were majorly angry by this time, and made no bones about it. After some heated back-and-forth between Council members and Tent City residents and their supporters, a meeting was set up with the City's Chief Administrative Officer in a committee room downstairs. The angry debate continued there until nearly four o'clock, when the CAO suggested a separate meeting with a smaller group to try and resolve things at least temporarily. This proved agreeable to most folks, who made their way back toward the Tent City site, where an emergency rally had been called for five o'clock.
Back outside Tent City, 5 PM. I arrived at the west gate, which was still sealed off. The existing six-foot chainlink fence fronting most of the property had been increased to a height of ten feet, with struts across the top where barbed wire was to be strung. There was not much happening in this area - a few cops and assorted other hangers-on were all that was in the immediate area. I headed east along the bicycle trail that bordered the land, only to spot what looked like every media vehicle in Toronto parked close to the eastern gate, located near the mouth of the Don River. Peoples' houses had not been disturbed as of this time, but a wide band of brush had been cleared inside the entire length of the fence.
A sizable crowd was gathering and a small army of police and oversized private security guards had been amassed. Two helicopters whirred around overhead. A group of volunteers were distributing sandwiches and bottled water from a table they'd set up nearby. Finally, a sign appeared on the fence stating the hours when people would be permitted to return to pick up their belongings. As the rally proceeded, residents started going onto the site in groups of two or three, and returning with their stuff. Near as I could tell about 250 people were assembled outside the site by then, although it was occasionally difficult to distingiuish between some of the protesters, the media and undercover police. The situation was chaotic to say the least.
Folks hung around until a little after seven, at which point we learned that the city was preparing to invoke their emergency response protocol, meaning that various relief agencies would come together with city officials to seek a means of accommodating the numerous people who had suddenly found themselves displaced. A local community centre was pressed into service as a site for co-ordinating this effort and transportation was being set up to get folks there. Many people were drifting off by then as the sun set and the early fall evening began to turn cooler.
A meeting has been called for noon tomorrow outside the western gate of the former Tent City site to discuss possible strategies, which are likely to involve some form of campaign tatgeting Home Depot for their act of extreme bad faith. I mean, prior to today's events the Tent City residents had essentially been staying on the land with H.D.'s consent, and had even received some donations of building materials from the company. ('Tent City' had actually become a misnomer, what with most residents eventually constructing their own small cabins and shacks, mainly using found materials).
Negotiations had been ongoing for over a year following a resolution made by City Council that would have involved re-settling these people on another piece of land the city owned nearby, and possibly constructing some form of transitional housing project there. The City of Toronto, Home Depot and a non-profit property management outfit called Homes First Society were involved in this process along with the Tent City people and their supporters from the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. Unfortunately, thanks to stalling by the city and now Home Depot's treachery, these plans currently appear to be extremely uncertain at best.
Graeme Bacque September 24, 2002
Graeme Bacque <email@example.com>
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