It was a sweltering afternoon in late July 2002 when the armoured vehicles of the Toronto Police Emergency Task Force pulled up in front of our building. Quickly we started barricading the door with an old desk, if they were coming to kick us out we weren't going to make it easy for them. We waited tensely as the cops approached the door with submachine guns drawn. Our crime? We dared to take over an abandoned building in the middle of a housing crisis. We all survived that early raid and were eventually allowed back into the building where we lived for the next three months -- dubbing it the "Pope Squat" as we occupied it during the pontiff's visit to Toronto.
Almost 10 years later, squatting is on the agenda again as Occupy activists who have been kicked out of public parks have started taking over empty buildings. At the end of November, the "Occupy Toronto squat team" occupied the basement of a city-owned building at 238 Queen Street West and asked for the building to be leased to them for 99 cents a year. They were evicted by police a mere eight hours after going public. The same problems that we faced a decade ago are still here and a new generation of activists are taking up the fight.
Under pressure from Mayor Rob Ford to cut costs, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation voted to accept a staff report recommending the sale of 706 single-family homes at the board meeting on Oct. 21. City council will be voting on the proposed sell-off in February. Meanwhile, waiting lists for social housing in the greater Toronto area have hit 87,715 people according to a 2010 data request by the Ontario Non Profit Housing Association. A report from the Wellesley Institute notes that spending on social housing at the federal level was cut from 43 per cent to 29 per cent between 1989 and 2009 and one in eight Toronto households involuntarily pay 30 per cent or more of their income on housing.
Threats of in-your-face public squats returning as a regular protest tactic echoed off a large boarded-up Victorian house at 240 Sherbourne Street during a rally for housing on Nov. 26 organized by Stop the Cuts and Occupy Toronto. As activists unfurled a banner reading "Housing now! Occupy! Resist!" from the front railing, Liisa Schofield from Stop the Cuts held up a megaphone and said, "Today we're talking about the idea of occupying housing. We want to build towards the potential of actually taking them over, holding them, and defending them."
When the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) took over the Pope Squat it wasn't the building itself that was the most important aspect but rather the work that went into winning people over in the neighbourhood. We produced 10,000 copies of a newspaper featuring articles on the housing crisis and how squatting should be legal and distributed it door-to-door. It was actually through talking with the staff of a Parkdale agency that we first found out about the old rooming house at 1510 King St. West that was abandoned by its owners after failing to pay taxes owed to the city. Ultimately, it was through building public support, not a make-shift barricade, that we were able to keep the squat as long as we did.
"The Pope Squat really rooted us as an entity in that neighbourhood. After the Pope Squat you saw a lot of the OCAP membership not only organizing in Parkdale but living in Parkdale." said Mike DeRouches a long-time organizer with OCAP, "People made friends in the neighbourhood and began to see themselves as residents there. People who lived there their whole lives were drawn into organization and the work that OCAP was doing. The Pope Squat in Parkdale really deepened the work that we did in that neighbourhood."
Activists in Quebec City also took over an abandoned city-owned building in 2002 demanding it be turned into social housing. Nicolas Lefebvre Legault, a coordinator with the Comité populaire Saint-Jean-Baptiste recalls, "One of things we learned the hard way was if you don't know how to negotiate yourself someone else will, and you will end up betrayed and used by other people or groups. If you're going to start a struggle then you need to go to the end, which means that if you're occupying a public building then the landlord will eventually be the city. We just used the media, we never asked for a meeting, we just said 'Here's our demands, read them, that's all.' And very soon the housing co-op negotiated behind our backs."
A few years after the squat was evicted, one of the buildings was torn down by the city but the planned housing project that was negotiated by the neighbouring co-operative never happened. So Legault helped organize a committee of people who formed a new housing co-operative and started a long-term campaign to build social housing on the land. It took six years but today Legault's family of four live in an apartment in the 80-unit complex on the site of the squat, as do two former squatters. Tenants in 40 of the units pay 25 per cent of their income in rent and the rest of the units rent below the average market rates.
"If you really want to win something at some point you need to get in contact and negotiate with the competent authorities." said Legault, "You can do that transparently and publicly, you don't need to do it behind closed doors, you can do it democratically and up-front and that's what we did. The campaign was less flashy than the squat but it actually won."
The need to win actual housing is acutely felt by Brandon Gray who is busy scouting empty buildings for Occupy Toronto protesters to squat. Sitting in a gritty diner on Roncesvalles Avenue with classic rock playing over the tinny speakers, one thing that worries Gray is the fact that there's no legal protection for squatters in Canada.
"That's one reason some folks who have found some potential squats are keeping it quiet and are really worried that if they go public they'll get them snatched away from them by the police." said Gray as he warily stirs his coffee when asked where the buildings are located.
"It's tough when you have potential squats that you don't want to make public because they'll be taken away and on the other hand you have people screaming at the general assembly that they're freezing every night and they need housing right now."
One idea floated by Gray was a dual strategy of secret and public squats. Some squats would be kept quiet for the roughly 30 people from Occupy Toronto who are homeless. Meanwhile, a public squat which has a much higher risk of being evicted would be used for general assemblies and to protest the sell-off of social housing.
Whether the housing occupations will increase as the temperature drops or start fresh in the spring isn't clear right now. Regardless, as Occupy transforms itself from a movement of people sleeping in parks into one that ensures that everyone has a roof over their head, it's vital that we take the lessons of past occupations and apply them to the ones to come.
Mick Sweetman is rabble.ca's news intern. He is based in Toronto.
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