It was bright and sunny yesterday when Torontos tent city was torn down, a day promising to be like any other until security officers, backed by Toronto police, along with flat-bed trucks and menacing bulldozers, arrived at the two-year-old settlement to evict its residents.
Tent City was a homeless community, self-built and self-managed, at the foot of Cherry Street, on land owned by the Home Depot. Groups like the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, and even Home Depot itself, had helped to support the settlement with a recent clean-up and the implementation of more permanent shelters.
Its sudden razing has come as a shock to many; Tent City seemed a permanent fixture on Torontos waterfront. But by late afternoon, the sun had set on the community, leaving its former residents homeless and fearful of the coming winter.
In a morning news release, Home Depot cited health and safety concerns as the driving force behind the evictions. The city has speculated that the occupied land is contaminated by toxic chemicals.
Home Depot Canada has always had two primary concerns; the people and their safety, said Annette Verschuren, president of the Canadian franchise. After learning about the worsening conditions of the site, we had to do the right thing and remove these people from a dangerous and deteriorating situation, she said.
So just before 11 oclock, Home Depots hired security guards, accompanied by Toronto police, began the abrupt eviction.
While most residents left quietly, some were removed in handcuffs. Anyone wishing to return would have to sign a ticket for trespassing to acknowledge past wrongdoing before being allowed to re-enter.
When asked to comment further on the Toronto police presence at the scene and the reasons for the raid, Sergeant Jim Muscat told Canadian Press it was a trespassing issue and offered no further comment.
Many at the scene speculated the raid was related to embarrassment born by the city as a result of a recent New York Times article which hinted at Torontos less-than-world-class homeless problem or to a recent accusation that residents were stealing electricity.
Security forces and police officers were quick to round up the residents they discovered still sleeping, ordering them to leave the property immediately. Bulldozers rolled in just after noon to begin the demolition. A chain link fence was also quickly erected to keep media and residents out. It was later fitted with barbed wire.
Verschuren reassured the residents, which number into the hundreds, that they would all be taken care of and that their belongings would be returned to them. They waited at the gate, a sense of shock and sadness on their faces.
A tent city resident, who wished to remain nameless, summed up the emotions this way: Its a shame. The land wasnt being used up until this point. Everybody thats here came out of shelters and pretty rough living conditions and are living on the streets. The weather is getting colder now ... Everybody here built their houses out of other peoples garbage all of this stuff is cast-off. Its stuff that nobody else wants, including the land. Its supposedly toxic... not safe to be on, but how much safer is it to be on the streets? How much safer is it to sleep in an overcrowded shelter?
As to what happens now, everything is uncertain. An emergency meeting has been called for noon today to discuss further strategy, while other activists are calling for a boycott of the Home Depot.
This is not the first time a squat has been won and lost in Canada. Most recent examples in Ontario alone include the Seven Year Squat in Ottawa and the Mission Press Squat in Toronto.
This has been a really bad week for squatters in Canada, said Graeme Bacque, a Toronto activist. The crew occupying the old Woodward building in Vancouver were brutally evicted after eight days. Last Friday, another squatted building in Quebec City (open since last May) was cleared out by the cops, he said.
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