avatar
Reinventing Antipoverty


On the morning of October 21, 1998, Paul Dixon’s alarm went off just before 3:00 AM. He and three housemates dragged tired bodies out of bed and made their way on bicycle from their home on the west end of downtown Toronto to a community center several blocks east The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) had put out a call for activists to participate in a secret action. Paul had heard rumors that it would have something to do with "the posties," the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW). But he and the others knew nothing more.

They did know it was an OCAP action, and thus it would definitely be important, most likely it would be effective, and probably it would be very interesting. Arriving at the OCAP office, Dixon and his companions found a room full of about 30 activists, slurping coffee, conversing, trying to wake up. In Dixon’s words, most of them looked "as stunned as us." A school bus arrived outside, and it was finally time to learn just why they’d been called to action at such an inhospitable hour.

Once everyone was aboard the bus, long-time OCAPer John Clarke explained that two postal workers from Station E had recently been fired, and a third suspended without pay, for dubious reasons. All three had been involved in union activism and had become nuisances to Canada Post management. Less than a year prior, the entire Canadian postal system had been immobilized by a massive strike, and the unsatisfied workers had yet to relinquish their struggle in the months since. He informed them that OCAP had recently been contacted by the postal union with a request for action in response to the dismissals. The CUPW officers had already decided on an action, but they needed community support to help carry it out.

Soon the bus arrived at Station E. There, as per their briefing instructions, the activists formed a non-traditional picket. Teams were placed at each of the five doors of Postal Station E. Their directive: prevent management from entering the building, while all workers and the general public would be allowed passage.

Dixon’s team’s main purpose was to explain to incoming workers just what was going on. "They were perhaps as in the dark as we had been,” Dixon later reported. The activists handed out leaflets, both to workers and passers by. Surprisingly, there were positive reactions from pedestrians as well as raised-fist responses from the postal workers. Everyone seemed able to relate to the desire for a "boss-free workday." One pedestrian commented, "I wish you would come and do this at my workplace." While people who depend on the postal service to deliver their mail every day are often upset by striking postal workers, this OCAP/"postie" action yielded the opposite effect–that of solidarity..

Meanwhile, the front side of the building had been plastered with stickers making statements such as "Life is Better Without Bosses." Banners hung overhead, one reading: Harassment Free Day." In the end, the frustrated management did not return the three reprimanded workers to their jobs. CUPW and OCAP had not expected as much. However, the primary result was a full shift with a non-authoritarian workplace environment–a shift during which the mail was prepared and shipped a whole hour early, displaying the capability of workers acting in cooperation. The importance of active ties between community and labor organizations was demonstrated beyond any doubt.

A Fresh Approach to Activism

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty is a very different kind of community organization. OCAP is an astoundingly successful organization which mounts regular campaigns on a wide range of issues such as welfare and workfare, immigration, labor, housing, and so forth. The group has managed to build a very impressive base of support among a diverse range of poor and underemployed, as well as students and those more typically involved in this kind of organizing elsewhere.

In fact, poor people are quite obviously the backbone of OCAP. From older working class folks to "reproletarian" teenagers to recent immigrants to homeless people and shelter employees, most active OCAP members are involved as part of a struggle for their own lives and futures. The organization consists of a large general membership (estimates are in the hundreds) and an elected executive committee of about a dozen core organizers. The low budget of the group ($50,000 Canadian, annually) affords only two part time staffers, and the rest of the work is carried out by overworked volunteers.

We are talking about a lot of work. The phone in the tiny office whose walls have been papered in yellowing news clippings rings quite regularly. Calls are coming in from the media, from welfare recipients looking for action or advice, from other organizations and OCAP members, even from city officials.

In 1990, activists with the Union of Unemployed Workers chapters in Toronto and London, Ontario began looking to form an anti-poverty network of sorts. With the support of the New Democratic Party, not yet in power, a coalition of organizations campaigned vehemently around demands for an increase in welfare benefits. A two-week march converged on Toronto with a rally of 4,000, a crowd size almost unheard of at the time. The UUW and other organizations spent that season’s electoral campaign harassing Liberal Party candidates and backing the NDP. But once in power, the NDP turned its back on the fledgling coalition which had been counting on its support to form a powerful network among labor and community activists.

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty founding convention in November 1990 yielded but one strong, permanent chapter, the Toronto group which still bears the OCAP name. In the period since, OCAP has honed its tactics and through painstaking patience and persistence formed vital ties with the marginalized poor of Toronto, especially in the area around the neighborhood where OCAP now resides.

Direst Action Casework

Perhaps most important among these tactics, at least with regard to developing respect from both allies and adversaries, has been OCAP’s use of what it calls "direct action casework." Individual community members come to OCAP with a problem, usually regarding conflict with a government agency, employer, or landlord, and OCAP raises community support around that particular case, or a handful of combined cases taken on simultaneously. Activists stage pickets and rallies inside government offices, disrupting the workflow and drawing attention to some bureaucratic oversight or inconsistency that may be leaving someone’s life hanging in the balance. On some occasions OCAP has demonstrated at the homes of government agency office managers–whatever it takes to win a small victory for one person or family.

At any given time OCAP is generally handling about a dozen welfare cases. Their success rate with agitating for the release of welfare checks is so high, at this stage they typically need only write a letter to the welfare office to get a case processed. OCAP’s name and the threat of an in-house demonstration is enough to get bureaucratic balls rolling miraculously smoothly, making stuck accounts suddenly unstuck.

Success is reaching that point of consistent, smooth achievements in the area of immigration casework as well. OCAP newcomer Sarah Vance says that, although modeled along similar tactical procedures as welfare casework, immigration casework is a bit more difficult because OCAP is dealing with federal agencies instead of provincial or lower level, more legality and bureaucracy, and has less experience in the field of immigration than that of welfare. However, this new area of the organization’s focus is proving quite fruitful. Immigration and anti-racism activist Macdonald Scott attributes OCAP’s early success in immigration casework to the organization’s reputation acquired through welfare work. "When we started doing immigration work, there was already a healthy fear [of OCAP] in the bureaucracy. They knew who we were."

Many cases are high priority because deportation means possible imprisonment or even death in places like Iran, Afghanistan, and the former Yugoslavia. Despite these high levels of pressure, OCAP’s relationship with the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration is already at the point where the latter knows OCAP’s name and would rather respond proactively to a letter than have to deal with a demonstration at their offices. Again, most cases result in a successful "landing" of immigrants whose futures are in question.

Small successes have become the hallmark of OCAP activism. More and more people are turning up to participate in actions because the outcomes of those actions, or the campaigns of which they are components, are tangible. They are victories. While the organization’s focus seems to be on tiny successes that don’t even reform, much less radically change the system they are up against, OCAP maintains a very realistic understanding of the social context within which it operates. A combination of achievable short term goals and agitation for broader change are now on the group’s agenda. But it is the smaller, more immediate work that OCAP’s Sue Collis says is building a foundation for further, more systemic change. "There’s always a balance within OCAP between individual representation, i.e., casework, and the broader issues. Each forms the basis of the other." Collis explains the approach as using the momentum built up by small victories to "build a movement that’s powerful enough to see real change."

Direct Action Housing

Since housing is one of the fundamental issues of anti-poverty work, OCAP spends much of its time, summer and winter, working toward adequate shelter for Toronto’s homeless population, estimated in the tens of thousands. As with every other issue OCAP handles, the group works directly with those most affected. OCAPer Gaetan Heroux, who worked in Toronto shelters for 11 years, focuses on conducting outreach among homeless people, a demographic which is inherently difficult to stay in consistent touch with. Constant dialog with and involvement by homeless people has proved invaluable, and there has been some success with "mobilizing and politicizing" a classification of people who are typically allowed no voice in the matters that affect their lives most dramatically.

OCAP often accompanies individuals to the various shelters around the city (whose numbers are dwindling) to ensure their entry, and on occasion teams of activists have vigilantly waited at shelter entrances to ensure facilities live up to their mandate to house the homeless.

In order to express their support of a local initiative to declare homelessness a Canadian national disaster, especially terrible in Toronto, OCAP invited hundreds of homeless people to drop in on a committee meeting regarding the issue at Metro Hall. The approaching winter weather and a rowdy, heckling audience moved the City Council to admit homelessness was indeed an extreme problem, adding some token rhetoric about its intention to open more homeless shelters. But the shelter bed shortage in Toronto at the time was estimated between 400 to 700, so City Council’s promises of "action over words" was listened to, though not necessarily believed, by those most in need.

A week later, however, three people who lacked adequate housing had died in the streets and the city had made no concrete moves toward establishing further shelter. So OCAP decided to force the issue again, this time through direct action. On November 5, dozens of activists convened at the OCAP office for instructions on yet another secretive strike. This time all that was known was that OCAP was planning to occupy an empty building, probably to demand conversion to a homeless shelter. Again it was John Clarke who gave the briefing. Some activists would be entering the recently abandoned Doctors Hospital, while another group would go to Metro Hall and reveal news of the squat during open sessions.

Activists left in different directions, by automobile, bicycle and streetcar. A group of 16 activists (and one reporter) entered the building and were immediately confronted by the security guard and another man in plain clothes. After some confusion and moving about, the activists were led into a room which seemed sufficient for a weekend stay and began securing the space. As the activists moved in and out of the building to carry in supplies such as food, cleaning and building materials, toiletries, and even a carton of cigarettes, the flustered guard reported 30 to 50 activists to the police, a miscalculation decidedly to the advantage of OCAP when bargaining began.

After securing the room and barricading its doors the group was disturbed but not surprised to find that the heat and power were on throughout the building, already sufficient for sheltering perhaps hundreds of people.

Two cell phones were in constant use from that moment on, first informing the media that the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty was squatting Doctors Hospital, then negotiating with representatives from the City Council. Within an hour, Downtown Council member Olivia Chow offered to make a public announcement, that very day, claiming to open a shelter for 100 beds by December 1. The 16 OCAPers gathered to discuss the deal. The immediate consensus was one of revolt at its inadequacy. They wanted a concrete offer to open a space with many more beds in a much shorter term. The city had been talking about opening more shelters once the temperature dropped to -15 degrees C, a preposterously arbitrary (and cold) temperature. Since people were already dying in the streets, OCAP stood its ground and stuck to its demands of immediate action. They also wanted to hear the government admit that shelters are an inadequate, temporary fix, and the reliance on shelters a fundamental failure of the city. Had the police not been blockading the doors in and out of the building, OCAP would have offered Doctors Hospital, the organization’s new temporary office building, as a suitable shelter.

The original proposal, which seemed to be a promising gesture at first, turned out to be the end of the line for quick results. The city refused to budge, and thereby blatantly neglected housing the homeless. Negotiations with Metro Hall yielded to discussions with police through a broken, blockaded door. Less than 6 hours into what had become a standard media spectacle, after being warned they’d be arrested for trespassing, 13 activists refused to leave, and the SWAT-like Toronto Emergency Task Force stormed the room.

Once taken to the station, where the activists would be "processed’ over a period of more than 10 hours, they learned they were being charged with Mischief and Unlawful Assembly. Ridiculous conditions requiring non-association with one another were attached to those activists who chose to be released before arraignment the next morning, and boundaries were placed on their travel within a certain distance in the vicinity of Doctors Hospital.

OCAP is as strong legally as it is tactically. Friendly lawyers donate advice and, when necessary, defense to the organization, which in its eight year history has never seen a member convicted on a charge concerning an OCAP action. Notably, while no one at OCAP seems to be able to count the number of charges its actions have brought on, and the group is obviously quite adept at beating those charges, most members are very explicit about their reluctance to be arrested for the sake of being arrested. Arrest is typically seen by OCAP as a counterproductive result of the actions they take, however necessary it might be. Of course they take advantage of whatever media they can attract to raise further awareness around issues of poverty.

A week after the Doctors Hospital action, the city of Toronto opened a substantial new shelter, well before the projected date.

Maintaining A Broad Scope

One of OCAP’s greatest general strengths, of course, is the full plate of issues and concerns it is taking on at any given time. To describe every small struggle in which OCAP has engaged over the years would take an entire book, so an overview of what the group is dealing with will have to suffice.

While Canada is a bit behind the U.S. in its progress toward political regression and rollback, since the mid-1990s, Ontario Premiere Mike Harris’s administration has made great headway toward repealing the popular gains of earlier decades. Welfare is again on the chopping block, and as in the States, one particularly nasty element of welfare reform is workfare. Workfare slaves are currently being rented by the province to the not-for-profit business sector, and will soon be ready for hire by private businesses as well.

Taking advantage of a $2,000 per-hire subsidy and free labor, the Toronto YMCA has begun accepting welfare recipients for a training program, which essentially takes the form of assembly line kitchen labor, preparing food which is actually sold at surplus to outside agencies. A new group called Parkdale Against Poverty, representing a particularly impoverished Toronto neighborhood, approached OCAP to collaborate in resisting the spread of workfare. The YMCA was targeted for action, and two pickets ensued. One was actually an occupation of the Y’s Nautilus room. OCAP and the more progressive YMCA members were asking others to speak out against the club’s participation in workfare, or cancel their memberships in protest.

In this case, OCAP’s demands were for the Y to pull out of the workfare program and organize a public forum for dialog around workfare itself. If the Y’s board does not give in, OCAP will move to organize the workfare participants, continue to picket and call for a boycott of the YMCA, and also begin targeting the vendors who benefit from the food prepared using workfare labor. The strategy is to raise the costs to the YMCA and its benefactors until continued exploitation of welfare recipients is cost-prohibitive and humiliating.

Last summer, the Canadian federal government introduced a new welfare gratuity called the National Child Benefit, which granted families $50 extra income per child. But when it was revealed that the Ontario government was deducting the $50 for its own State coffers, OCAP began campaigning to get provincial hands off the much-needed, but already insufficient funds. This time the approach was to pressure an individual member of parliament, Bill Graham of Rosedale Centre, to act on an earlier criticism of the situation and push the province to release the funds being stolen monthly from more than 500,000 Ontario children on welfare. The campaign is ongoing.

When Toronto proposed a bylaw which would govern housing in the Parkdale neighborhood to facilitate gentrification, OCAP again sprang into action. In an area of Toronto where 93 percent of the residents are tenants, the city was trying to regulate zoning codes to limit construction of new residential buildings to contain no more than three units, encouraging homeowners in and renters out. OCAP helped form a coalition called Common Front to Defend Poor Neighborhoods. OCAP and other activists began postering and leafleting Parkdale with information about the attempt to transform the neighborhood into a yuppie stronghold.

The campaign culminated in a mass mobilization to stock an open meeting intended to pitch the "revitalization plan" to wealthier residents. Again supplying refreshments, the activists overwhelmed the meeting and took over its direction, electing Sue Collis of OCAP as chair. Through a mass display of distaste for the city’s stealthy maneuver, the people of Parkdale proved their neighborhood’s poorer residents would not relinquish their home without a fight.

Sometimes OCAP is called on to take actions against targets even more specific than a particular business or government body. For instance, last spring OCAP caught wind of charges by sex workers that a certain Toronto police officer was harassing and even beating prostitutes on the street. Constable Charles Stern landed on OCAP’s list of least wanted. Three thousand copies of a two-color poster informing the community of Stern’s violent tendencies were put up overnight by some 30 OCAPers working in teams. Furthermore, the text of the posters was able to draw connections between the heavy handed policies of Toronto cops and the department’s collusion with yuppie neighborhood associations. The posters, which could be seen virtually everywhere in the precinct, created awareness and discussion in the community–even more than indirect attempts at achieving censure or dismissal of a police officer were likely to yield.

The list of OCAP activities goes on and on. There is no telling exactly what the group will be doing in 1999, much less a few years down the road. Those activists who have spent countless hours organizing demonstrations only to see frustratingly low turnouts can learn a few lessons from institutions like OCAP. All of the members I interviewed agreed that essential to the consistency and frequency of significant mobilizations were OCAP’s strong foundation as part of the community it serves and the degree of success its actions achieve. When common people feel their interests are being pushed by an organization which represents them and their needs, they will turn out. And when the actions taken, however myopic they may seem at first glance, garner victory upon victory, people who may once have had no sense of hope will get involved over and over.

Movement Context

Asked how OCAP fits into the bigger picture of social change strategy, Macdonald Scott is refreshingly straightforward: "I’m going to be honest, I’m into revolution. I want to see complete turnover. We are at the point where different sectors of the oppressed need to come together to form the building blocks, the foundation of a revolutionary movement." Scott refers to his experience with native solidarity activism, suggesting that the advantages in first nations communities are the bonds of kinship and culture. These form a framework of mutual support and socially enhance the strength and fortitude of individual activists. Scott concludes that "What we need to do is form our organizations around community. I think through direct action casework, and through getting OCAP’s name out there, we are actually building community. And that community will be the key to change, not OCAP."

Scott goes on to acknowledge that while OCAP can provide leadership and focus within that community, "as only when poor white communities come together with communities of color, with a belief in direct action as a primary means of change, that we’re going to see new kinds of change. By working for attainable goals we are illustrating to ourselves and other people that collective direct action works. Not just like one guy from Greenpeace hanging off a building on a rope, but a group of poor people invading a welfare office demanding somebody’s check. Two different kinds of action. So when things get really bad – and I think that’s what globalization will eventually lead to–people will decide, ‘well, we can go get what we need through working collectively while using direct action’."

Of course, perspectives on OCAP’s role in social change movements vary among the membership. But for those whose sole interest, for the time being, is tangible activity, OCAP is a service institution that helps common people live their daily lives. Meanwhile, for activists with larger ambitions, OCAP provides fulfilling means for working toward more fundamental kinds of change, the kind that requires mass, grassroots movements, patiently built upon by years of committed work in a familiar community.

In any case, it’s clear that in Toronto the organizing ante has been raised. It’s no longer acceptable to organize to hear one’s own voice. If you want people to appear at your demonstrations and actions In Toronto, you’d better be offering participation in effective, militant activism. OCAP’s ingenuity is undeniable, as are its results.

Leave a comment