Squatters make final arguments in Ottawa

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What is more important? People or property?

Over two years ago in downtown Ottawa, a group of students, activists and community workers took over an abandoned building on 246 Gilmour Street as part of a G-8 protest. For seven days, dozens of people scraped wallpaper, painted walls, cooked meals and planted gardens. On July 3, 2002, the police raided the squat, shooting tear gas canisters, smashing windows, and destroying the work of countless volunteer hours.

In a mass arrest, 22 people faced charges including breaking and entering, and several counts of mischief. Five of them pled not guilty, and chose to stand trial. They present their closing arguments today.

The five defendants — Rachelle Sauvé, Nick Ackerly, Amy Miller, Dan Sawyer and Mandy Hiscocks are making their case without a lawyer. Like other prominent Canadian activists such as Jaggi Singh, they are choosing to represent themselves — using the trial as another political tool to spread the word about the housing crisis in Ottawa.

Over the last few weeks, they have served free meals to hundreds of people, put up posters with information about their case, organized benefit concerts, and thrown their support behind other local anti-poverty activists — including people who will now face charges for erecting a tent city in front of the Human Rights Monument on Elgin Street.

For the 7-Year Squatters, the trial is significant, because it represents another attempt by the state to suppress anti-poverty activism and criminalize dissent.

“We addressed the housing crisis through direct action, because we felt that there was no other alternative,” explained Miller. “In 2002, the vacancy rate in Ottawa was at less than two per cent. The waiting list for social housing was seven years long, and emergency shelters were overflowing. We couldn't let a building stand empty, when there were people who needed a place to live.”

The irony of the fact that there was a seven-year waiting list for affordable housing in 2002, that the building was abandoned for seven years, and that the squat lasted for seven days, has not escaped Miller and her co-defendants.

“This case is significant because it's about housing activists who addressed a real crisis through direct action,” said Miller. “We were privileged to be in a position to risk arrest, in order to provide another alternative to the overcrowded, and often dangerous, shelter system. The real crime is a social crime. It is shameful to know that there are so many abandoned buildings in Ottawa, while hundreds of people are spending up to 90 per cent of their income on rent.”

The decision to defend themselves without a lawyer was in line with the co-defendants' anarchist values, but also gave them insight into the impact of recent cuts to Legal Aid, and the difficulties that low-income people face when they navigate the court system. The trial has also highlighted the fact that squatting is a political tactic that provokes a strong reaction among people — whether positive or negative.

“It forces people to decide what is more important — people or property,” said Miller.

The co-defendants present their closing arguments today. To show your support, drop by the Ottawa Court House at 161 Elgin, courtroom 36, or email [email protected].

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