They gathered to remember and honour Alfred Benson, who died last month, and other homeless people who’ve died on the streets of Toronto over the decades. 

But at this month’s homeless memorial vigil they also came to honour a man who spoke loudly and openly on behalf of homeless people. As a councillor. Then as a federal MP. And later on in life after politics. 

His name was Dan Heap. Also known as Don.

“He was a lion,” said Michael Shapcott, director of Affordable Housing and Social Innovation at the Wellesley Institute. 

“He roared. And one of the things that Dan always roared about was that everybody matters.”

A founding member of the Toronto Disaster Committee (TDRC), he often attended homeless memorial vigils over the years, even after his health was failing.

“I know that Dan would be very happy with the news that come out on Thursday of last week which was that Ottawa’s Leilani Farha, a lawyer and anti-poverty activist, has been appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing,” said Shapcott.

“She’s now recognized as the leading global expert on housing and human rights issues and homelessness.”

Farha, executive director of Canada Without Poverty, holds a law degree and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Toronto and will continue in her capacity with the national anti-poverty group while serving in her unpaid role as special rapporteur.

“With her appointment, we now have a powerful voice here in Canada on the issue of housing rights,” said Shapcott.

“Our federal government officially took the position that they had no position on the election of Leilani, but privately behind the scenes they were (allegedly) trying to derail her candidacy because they didn’t want a smart, intelligent, articulate Canadian to be the leading UN expert on housing.”

Shapcott met Heap in the early ’80s, shortly after Shapcott came back to Toronto from Calgary to start law school and get involved with housing and homelessness advocacy work.

“I kept hearing about this crazy guy,” said Shapcott with a chuckle. “He would challenge in all sorts of ways not to give up, not to concede issues he took very seriously. And Dan used to be our mouthpiece in Ottawa.”

When Heap was arrested trying to remove the sword from the cross in the plaque outside St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Shapcott said he was very impressed with a man who took seriously the notion that peacemaking is every bit as important as war mongering.

“Rather than sneak in late at night with a chisel and break it out, he let the Church know what he was planning to do.”

When his appeal to the Anglican Archdiocese failed to move them to remove the sword voluntarily, Heap climbed over the fence on the day of the action. At trial, rather than plead not guilty, he admitted he had broken the law.

“But his speech so impressed the judge that I think that the judge was in a quandary,” said Shapcott. “He didn’t want to convict the guy even though he pleaded guilty. But he also didn’t want to let him go.”

In the end, Heap was given an absolute discharge. Convicted with no penalty.

“But Dan wasn’t happy,” said Shapcott. “Because the sword was still in the cross. But he did win because he forced people to confront this fundamental contradiction. And that was why Dan was always so wonderful and made you feel uncomfortable too because he would zero in on all the inconsistencies in life.”

When Shapcott purchased one of the first mobile phones, Heap grilled him about where the phone was made, the working conditions and how much the workers were paid.

“Whose lives are being screwed so I can enjoy a piece of technology that is bloody useful but also bloody,” said Shapcott. “That was the kind of thing that Dan excelled at.”

When Heap left Shapcott and others “bloodied and beaten” after exposing their contradictions, he said Alice, Heap’s wife, was always there to tend to your wounds.

And that’s what made them such a special couple.

At the end of Heap’s life, when Alzheimer’s had claimed his observant mind, Shapcott would pick him up by cab and take him to Sunday service at the Church of the Holy Trinity.

“During the cab ride he would occasionally ask who I was and where we were going,” said Shapcott. 

“And I would tell him we were going to church. Occasionally he would understand what that was and often times he didn’t. And I would sing a little Anglican hymn and he would smile. And that obviously connected with something.”

By the time Heap slipped deep into his dementia, Shapcott said he had the financial resources to be able to afford good care, a luxury that many seniors don’t enjoy.

“It really surfaced in a very personal way the injustice there is for people when they grow older and they become more difficult,” said Shapcott. 

“He was literally in a locked ward. The rhetoric in our society about how much we honour our elders and so on is not played out in reality.”

Looking ahead, Shapcott is still trying to figure out the best way to carry forward Heap’s legacy. To begin with, he’d like to write a paper on Heap’s life for a historical society in Toronto.

“It won’t be the definitive biography of Dan Heap but an attempt to try and find out how we continue to build his legacy,” said Shapcott.

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.