Canada: Police attack protest of poor

Toronto has had a turbulent summer, with crises ranging from SARS to the failure of the power grid. The season has been especially difficult for the city’s poor who have had to cope with these added difficulties on top of eight years of attacks by the provincial Tory government.

Over 500 people demonstrated in Toronto’s ritzy Yorkville shopping district against Tory policies, just as the government announced its decision to hold an expected election.

The demonstration began in a park surrounded by boutiques catering to the super-rich and restaurants more accustomed to Hollywood celebrities than the working poor. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) protest attracted youth, poor people, frontline community workers and supporters demanding an end to policies that have impoverished the many while filling the pockets of the well heeled. The contradictions created by capitalism and exacerbated by neo-liberal policies were evident as a crowd that included homeless people and welfare recipients lined up for a free meal at the demonstration. While, down the street, members of the glitterati were sitting in a restaurant, which serves bottles of wine worth twice as much as what welfare recipient receives in a month.

Several hundred riot police surrounded the peaceful assembly. Rally speakers from organisations, such as the Ontario Coalition for Social Justice, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the ‘No One Is Illegal’, refugee rights campaign, Toronto Native Youth Movement and the Al Awda Palestinian ‘Right to Return Coalition’ demanding justice for immigrants, the poor, the First Nations people, and for workers who have seen their rights and living standards drop under Tory rule.

The Toronto Police Force, who have enthusiastically practiced "targeted policing" against visible minorities and the poor, and used Ontario’s ‘Safe Streets Act’ to sweep away squeegee kids and panhandlers, have been especially worried about this demonstration. The Force issued a press release lamenting, “It is unfortunate that OCAP has chosen to demonstrate during this difficult time in the City of Toronto”, and go on to, “assure business owners, shoppers, tourists and visitors to our city that all the necessary resources will be available to deal with any impropriety caused by members of OCAP.”

Despite the excessive police presence the demonstration proceeded to march through the streets of the shopping district, without incident, behind a banner demanding, "Dignity, not fear, housing not homelessness". Protesters shouted slogans such as “Stop the War on the Poor – Make the Rich Pay!" The rally dispersed at the intersection of Bloor and Avenue Road, three hours after the demonstration began. However after most people had left the police charged without warning into a small group standing on the sidewalk, striking them with truncheons and police bicycles. This unprovoked attack on the remnants of a peaceful crowd that was dispersing was an outrageous reaction to a dignified but militant protest. No doubt this was meant to provide a last minute justification for the evening’s excessive police presence.

State vendetta against OCAP

OCAP has been the target of state persecution because of its militant activities. Three leading figures, John Clarke, Stefan Pilipa and Gaetan Heroux, were on trial for several months this year over police allegations that they conspired to turn a 15 June 2000 demonstration into a riot. In the face of evidence concerning provocative and violent police behaviour at the protest a jury failed to even agree on whether a "riot" or illegal assembly took place. This resulted in a mistrial. Despite this failure the state only dropped charges against two of the three and insists on putting John Clarke on trial again in October. This is an obvious attempt to crush OCAP by throwing the full resources of the state against the person identified as the group’s leader. Socialist Alternative (CWI in Canada) opposes the state’s attempt to criminalise dissent and calls for an end to the persecution of OCAP and its leadership.

Socialist Alternative distributed three hundred leaflets with the demand "Kick Out the Tories!" They were so well received that two demonstrators offered to help hand out flyers.

The following is the text of the Socialist Alternative leaflet:

Kick out the Tories!

Fight for socialist policies!

Fight for the rights of workers, youth and the poor!

For eight long years the workers, youth and poor of Ontario have suffered a relentless onslaught from the Harris/Eves Tories. Acting in the interests of a tiny class of capitalists who own the vast majority of wealth, the Tories have slashed welfare rates by 21%, frozen the minimum wage for eight years, gutted labour laws, terminated rent controls, ended the construction of affordable housing, hiked tuition, created a virtual two-tier health system and terminated youth employment programmes, preferring to lure young people with the false allure of becoming "entrepreneurs".

While applying the screws to immigrants, refugees, youth, the poor and other members of the working class, the Eves/Harris regime has implemented tax cuts for their wealthy friends.

It’s been a good eight years for the rich who have gotten richer at the cost of increased homelessness, poverty, unemployment and suffering.

Meanwhile, the opposition Liberals representing their buddies in the property speculation and development industry, promise little more than "Harris lite". A "rent control" plan full of loopholes. No commitment to increase welfare rates, end workfare, or rollback Tory anti-labour laws and no commitment to reverse privatisation. The NDP [the social democratic opposition] have moved slightly to the left with their commitments to public power and public health care but they promise to raise the minimum wage only to the US level! The NDP remains wedded to the belief that they must appeal to the "middle class" and have failed to provide anything approaching a real fighting platform that meets the needs of workers, youth and the poor.

As we approach a likely October election it is essential to raise demands for policies that meet the real needs of the vast majority of people in Ontario. Putting forward a socialist programme with concrete socialist demands can only do this:

  • Repeal the "Safe Streets Act". No scapegoating of the homeless or youth
  • End "targetted policing", racial profiling and the victimisation of immigrants, refugees, First Nations and people of colour.
  • Raise the minimum wage to $12, double welfare and ODSP rates, end workfare and create real jobs!
  • Put Ontario’s top 20 corporate monopolies under public, democratic workers’ control. Towards socialist economic democracy, with production for need not for greed.
  • Implement an immediate rent rollback! For real rent controls and the construction of 20,000 units of public housing in Toronto. House the homeless!
  • End the criminalisation of dissent! Drop the charges against John Clarke!
  • Justice for Dudley George. Fire Fantino and bring the cops under the control of the neighbourhoods they patrol!

Socialist Alternative – the Committee for a Workers’ International in Canada.

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August 2003