John Clarke's decades of militant anti-poverty organizing in Ontario

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John Clarke was an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) from its founding in 1990 until his retirement in late January 2019. Though he intends to remain a very active member of the group, this still marks a significant transition for one of Ontario's most visible militant grassroots organizations. Scott Neigh interviews Clarke about his long history of radical grassroots involvement, particularly with OCAP, and about the challenges that movements in Ontario face today.

Clarke got his start in grassroots politics in the UK in the early 1970s, initially as a student and then as a worker and trade unionist. When he immigrated to Canada in 1980, he got a job at the Westinghouse plant in London, Ontario, where he became active in the union. He was laid off during the recession of the early 1980s but got involved in organizing unemployed workers, initially as part of a committee within his local, but eventually in a separate city-wide organization called the London Union of Unemployed Workers.

In 1989, that organization participated with many other anti-poverty, community, and labour organizations from across Ontario in organizing a three-pronged anti-poverty march that started from Windsor, Sudbury, and Ottawa and converged on Toronto. The march won significant concessions from the Liberal government of the day and laid the basis for what would become OCAP the next year.

Plans to make OCAP a true province-wide coalition quickly had to be shelved due to lack of resources, in favour of making it a more locally focused group based in Toronto. Heated debate between those wanting to engage primarily in lobbying and public education versus those committed to disruptive collective action was settled at the founding conference in favour of the latter. From this beginning, OCAP became a direct action-based anti-poverty organization with deep roots in Toronto's downtown east neighbourhood.

During OCAP's early years, the NDP under Bob Rae was in power provincially. The Rae government never implemented the kind of massive anti-poverty agenda that some of its supporters had hoped and it quickly moved to the right. OCAP was among the early voices challenging them. Then the election of the Mike Harris Conservatives in 1995 made things spectacularly worse for people living in poverty – their harsh cuts to welfare rates and social services resulted in a massive spike in homelessness.

With the election of the Liberals in 2003, there was a switch from the more overt anti-poor approach of the Tories to what Clarke describes as "a much more sly and incremental intensification of the austerity agenda." After fifteen years of Liberal rule, homelessness remained rampant, the Toronto shelter system was in crisis, and social assistance rates were far, far lower (in constant dollars) than they had been in 1995. And in 2018, the hard-right Ontario Conservatives under Doug Ford won a majority government.

Through all of these years, OCAP has been active on multiple fronts. A core part of their work is direct action casework – that is, collective, disruptive action in support of demands in individual cases. That approach has won many victories over the years for people facing injustice from the welfare system, landlords, the immigration system, and more. In terms of broader campaigns, there have been many. Though they have been primarily defensive in character, victories won in collaboration with other groups in the face of growing austerity have made improvements to the shelter system in Toronto that have no doubt saved many lives, and have won back tens of millions of dollars if not more for poor people via the social assistance system.

Despite the change in his role, Clarke is going to continue to be fully present with OCAP as they organize and mobilize in the face of Doug Ford's vicious agenda. Moreover, he also wants to do what he can to contribute to broader conversations about strategy and to movement-building initiatives. He is committed to being part of the process that has already started in many communities around Ontario of working to channel the anger that is simmering beneath the surface of society into a generalized movement against the Ford government.

Image: Used with the permission of John Clarke.

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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