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Pitch battle is at doors of Ontario legislature


Judy RebickThe

Ontario Coalition against Poverty wanted to be heard.

Ever

since right-wing Ontario Premier Mike Harris was elected, the organization has

tried everything to get the government to pay attention to the desperate straits

facing poor and homeless people. John Clarke of OCAP asked several months ago

for a group of homeless people to address the legislature. He never got a reply.

At

the beginning of the demonstration that turned into one of the most

violent

confrontations between the police and protesters in Ontario history, Clarke

said: "The victims of poverty and homelessness will not be allowed in the

chamber where laws against them have been enacted." Then the demonstrators

moved up to the barricades. They pushed against the barricades in an attempt to

get into the legislature. The police pushed back and at first not much happened

except for a few people throwing balls of paper at the police and chanting

"our house, our house".

Then

the horses came in. Riding from behind the building mounted police assaulted the

crowd. That’s when the confrontation escalated. I’ve seen it before. When the

police want to provoke confrontation, they use the horses. People get stepped

on, hit and even trampled and then they get angry.

The

police used the anger to justify attack after attack.

These

were not like the well-trained civil disobedience activists who passively

resisted the police in Windsor. These were poor and homeless people, many of

whom have seen friends die on the streets. Some people were angry enough to

fight back.

Several

times demonstrators retreated and things calmed down. Then the

police

moved in again. Scores of people where injured and so were 20 cops. More than 30

people have been arrested and one is being held without bail despite having no

criminal record. Her friends believe the police targeted her because she

organized a coalition against police racism.

Police

are considering whether to bring criminal charges against John Clarke, a well

known anti-poverty activist in Canada. If they do charge him, it could be one of

the most important civil rights cases in Canadian history.

Such

violence is rare in Canada but police aggression is starting to become more

common place in demonstrations. A couple of weeks ago in Windsor Ontario police

used pepper spray against people for simply trying to raise a banner on the 12

foot high fence surrounding the meeting of the Organization of American States.

Direct

action and more confrontational tactics are also being used by demonstrators in

face of the more and more restricted space for democratic dialogue and debate.

Estimates

are that 22 homeless people have lost their lives in Toronto

over

the last seven months alone. Death on the streets was a rare event until the

triple Harris wammy of welfare cuts, anti-tenant legislation and elimination of

social housing.

A

Toronto city report on homelessness just a year ago warned of disasters to come

if nothing was done to provide housing assistance to the thousands of people who

can no longer afford a roof over their heads. The warnings have not been heeded.

I

heard Mike Harris on the TV the other day saying that he would never

deliberately

support a policy that caused a single life to be lost in the province of

Ontario.

The

attack on poor people was a deliberate strategy. Harris practices the politics

of polarization. Us, the hard working, tax paying people vs them, the lazy,

shiftless, dirty poor people. It is no accident that the first action of the

so-called Common Sense revolution was to cut welfare by 21.6 per cent, causing

terrible suffering to the province’s poor people.

Harris

has convinced the citizens of Ontario that the poor are responsible for their

own misfortune. The reality is that since his government came to power Ontario’s

biggest city has had more people on the streets proportionally than New York

City. A recent report says that Toronto’s homeless population is 15.9 per cent

higher than New York City’s. It was not always thus.

The

tragic events in Walkerton are finally persuading middle Ontario that there is a

real price to pay for Harris’s mean spirited ideologically driven right-wing

agenda. Now I hope that awareness will raise questions about his policies more

broadly.

Why

in a province that has so much money, that we can afford to send $200 tax cut to

each and every citizen, do we have so many people, including so many children,

who have no home and not enough to eat? John Clarke and his group of

anti-poverty activists have managed to keep visible the price that the weakest

part of our society is paying for Harris’s policies. Now that they have brought

their pain right to Harris’s front door, maybe, just maybe we will listen and

let Harris know that the deaths of homeless people are just as unacceptable and

just as preventable as the deaths of the people in Walkerton.

 

 

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