Canada: Anti-poverty activists on trial

Last Thursday, 6 March, saw the opening of the trial of three leading members of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) charged in relation to a June 15, 2000 anti-poverty demonstration in front of the Ontario provincial legislature at Queen’s Park. This trial marks a serious attack on the rights of all government opposition campaigners and must be resisted by activists and socialists.

The province’s Tory government has waged war on the poor since it came to power in 1995 (under Ontario Prime Minister Mike Harris and now Ernie Eves) on a platform of cutting welfare rates by 21%, instituting "workfare" (a programme forcing welfare recipients to perform menial labour for benefits), eliminating rent control and freezing construction of social housing. The result of this assault has been increased poverty and homelessness (there are an estimated 40,000 homeless in Toronto alone), an increase in anger and heightened despair on the part of the victims.

Under the slogan "Fight to Win", and with demands for housing, higher welfare rates and an end to police harassment, over 1500 anti-poverty demonstrators marched to the Ontario legislature on June 15, 2000 demanding the right to address the legislature. They were met with riot police, many on horseback, who responded to the overturning of one barricade by charging the crowd and attacking protesters indiscriminately in a police riot. Two and a half years later, the vast majority of charges have been withdrawn or dismissed against the 45 demonstrators arrested.

The state’s legal campaign against OCAP culminates in the trial against OCAP leaders John Clarke, Gaetan Heroux and Stefan Pilipa. Clarke, a full-time worker with the anti-poverty group, and its most visible spokesperson, has been charged with "counselling to participate in a riot" and "counselling to assault police"- on the basis of a speech he made at the rally insisting on the protesters’ rights to address their elected representatives. Heroux and Pilipa are charged with "participation in a riot" on the basis of their presence at the demonstrations. The trial is expected to last two months.

The CWI in Canada, Socialist Alternative, is in solidarity with OCAP in its struggle against poverty and against state repression. We demand the immediate dropping of all charges against the OCAP trial defendants.

The violence that often occurs at OCAP demonstrations is the product of an oppressive state and an aggressive police force looking for a fight and coming into contact with poor, frustrated and angry people tired of years of being ground down by the Tories war on the poor. The Tories could have defused the June 15th situation by simply inviting an OCAP delegation to meet with the Premier or by sending a Cabinet minister to address the crowd. But the Tory government was intent on showing its muscle and wanted a fight. It has been intent on criminalising not only the poor through measures such as the "Safe Streets Act", which outlaws "aggressive panhandling", but the attempted criminalisation of organisations such as OCAP that advocate on behalf of the poor.

Building the anti-poverty struggle

Socialist Alternative of course supports the development of broad anti-poverty campaigns, which we have consistently argued need to strive to be democratic and inclusive. As part of this, discussion and debate is needed to draw balance sheets assessing past actions.

A key lesson from recent years of activities, we believe, is the need to involve the organised workers’ movement in mass actions. Although undoubtedly acting in a courageous manner, mass direct action by anti-poverty activists alone cannot succeed without a mass mobilisation of workers. In fact, the direct of involvement of workers in mass events, will allow for much better organised mass actions.

OCAP is asking groups and individuals to send emails of solidarity and support to and letters protesting the charges to the Ontario cabinet minister responsible for the legal system: 

Hon. Norm Sterling, Attorney-General
720 Bay Street, Toronto, Ontario, M5G 2K1 Canada.

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March 2003