Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those they oppress.

– Frederick Douglas, U.S., escaped slave and abolitionist, 1844









– Frequent chants at housing and antipoverty marches and protests

Back in 1997 or 1998, I got involved in affordable housing and antipoverty struggles soon after I met housing and antipoverty activist Mike Coward, a longtime member of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and good friend.

Here’s the context. In 1995, Mike Harris became premier and his right-wing, neo-conservatives were elected as government in Ontario with less than 45 per cent of the popular vote. Harris was a one-man wrecking crew. Over the next five years, he brutally and systematically destroyed all social welfare programs as part of his government’s “Common Sense Revolution”; it targeted and criminalized many thousands of poor and homeless people, young panhandlers and their advocacy organizations. Harris slashed all plans for affordable housing; eliminated building plans for 17,000 co-op housing units; cruelly cut 21.6 per cent of poor people’s monthly welfare cheques; repealed the Advocacy Act abolishing the Advocacy Commission (a rights initiative proposed by the previous NDP government) that would have provided advocacy for many thousands of institutionalized and isolated citizens and jobs for some psychiatric survivors; passed the “Safe Streets Act” that criminalized homeless and poor youth panhandling or “squeegeeing” on the street; repealed a “Landlord and Tenant Act” giving more power to landlords, making it easier to evict tenants; and cut taxes for the corporations and the rich.

Since the mid-1990s, OCAP has been a major antipoverty organization speaking out and taking direct action for homeless and other poor people. Many of these brothers and sisters were and are psychiatric survivors, people labelled and stigmatized as “mentally ill,” people who have been and still are locked up, forcibly drugged, electroshocked, traumatized and dehumanized in Ontario’s psychoprisons (all psychiatric facilities).

Many thousands of psychiatric survivors, people on welfare or ODSP, alienated youth who’ve left home, new immigrants and refugees have ended up on the street with few if any support services, no places to live except in overcrowded, disease-ridden and violent shelters, and rundown, cockroach-infested boarding houses in “Cabbagetown and Parkdale. The so-called “social safety net” was and still is in shreds. The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee has documented at least 565 homeless deaths in Toronto since 1985; in August 2007 over 25 died, the total number of homeless deaths is probably over 600 since several deaths have not been reported. “Deinstitutionalization” is a cruel sham and lie. In Ontario and most other provinces, hundreds of thousands of vulnerable citizens have been betrayed, lied to, and neglected by their governments, the “welfare” system, and the “mental health” system. As I became rapidly aware of these grim facts and preventable tragedies, I joined OCAP in 1997 and I’m damn glad I did.

Nov. 5th, 1998 — OCAP Occupies Doctors’ Hospital

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty has opened and occupied the empty Doctors’ Hospital (Brunswick, just above College) to remind Mayor Mel Lastman and city council of their promises to put action above words.

Support the opening of Doctor’s Hospital as a shelter. Call Mel Lastman and tell him yourself at 395-6464.

– OCAP flyer-poster

On Nov. 5, 1998 as the housing-homelessness crisis in Toronto escalated, OCAP demanded the opening of homeless shelters, and took direct action by occupying a vacant room in Doctors Hospital on Brunswick Ave. The hospital had closed a year or two earlier, it was totally empty. So about 13 of us rushed through the front door and peacefully occupied a vacant room on the main floor for the next five or six hours. We intended to hold the space for some homeless brothers and sisters in the area. About three hours after this occupation, a Toronto SWAT team barged in, arrested and charged all of us with “trespass” and “unlawful assembly.” A few hours later we were released, the “trespass” charge was eventually dropped, and we won a victory. A few years later, Doctors’ Hospital was renovated as a residential apartment building for elderly and chronically ill people — it was a partial victory, at least it wasn’t turned into another hi-rise condo.

June 15/2000 — The People’s Uprising and Police Riot at Queen’s Park  


1. Rescind the 1995 21.6 per cent Welfare Cut

2. Reinstate Rent Control; change The Tenant Protection Act,

3. Build Social Housing

4. Rescind the Safe Streets Act

(Source: The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s June 15 March on the Ontario Legislature: Citizen Reports, p.3.)

On June 15, 2000 a mass protest organized by OCAP involved over 1,500 people including many homeless and poor people, psychiatric survivors, people with disabilities, union members from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers ( CUPW), Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), church group members, antipoverty and other social justice activists. Marching from Allan Gardens to Queen’s Park, we protested against the government’s continuing oppression of homeless and poor people, and the deaths of 22 homeless people on the street during the previous seven months. This was a historic, grassroots People’s Uprising, mainly sparked by the Ontario government’s flat refusal to allow a small delegation of people’s representatives to address the legislature re: our demands, particularly affordable housing and rent control. Armed behind metal barricades, police and horses confronted us peaceful protesters at the metal barricades in front of the Legislative Building. After a few frustrated and desperate people threw a rock or brick, police reaction quickly turned ugly and violent — a police riot erupted. Police on horses charged and randomly clubbed the nonviolent crowd, injured one hundred protesters including several women and arrested over 40. Over a year later, virtually all had their charges dropped, but the riot left a legacy of police brutality and citizen resistance in Toronto.

During the last five years, OCAP has successfully initiated and promoted the Special Diet Allowance and its Raise-the-Rates Campaign for thousands of people on welfare — Ontario Works & Ontario Disability Support Program — in Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area. Thanks to OCAP’s organizing special diet clinics, many poor and ill people now receive up to $250 each month to supplement their welfare cheque. Currently, the McGuinty-Liberal government plans to cut the diet allowance by severely limiting the medical conditions under which people can qualify for the allowance — more evidence of the government’s discriminatory war on the poor.

Occupy Toronto

Fast forward to October 2011. Thousands, if not millions, of poor, unemployed, marginalized and stigmatized citizens in Canada, the United States and other countries are resisting the dehumanizing and oppressive social-economic policies of the top one per cent. People are on the move chanting, WE ARE THE 99 PER CENT, marching en masse along city streets and occupying centres of capitalism and corporate greed, like banks, stock exchanges and corporate head offices in over 1,000 cities in over 50 countries. Politicized youth are leading the Occupy Movement — many have been traumatized by “disaster capitalism” (Naomi Klein’s apt term).

On Oct. 16, approximately one month after the start of Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Toronto was launched in St. James Park. It included a broad coalition of individual activists, human rights and housing advocates, over 100 homeless people, and supported by several social justice organizations — OCAP, Canadian Union of Public Employees, Canadian Auto Workers, SEIU, the Steelworkers Union, the Ontario Federation of Labour. During a six-week period, from mid-October to November 23, Occupy Toronto became a small but vibrant, profoundly peaceful, awesomely democratic and exciting community — visible with over 200 tents and numerous anti-capitalist and solidarity posters and signs spread on the ground and prominently posted on tents and tree trunks that demanded human rights, social and economic justice, revolutionary change. Within only two to three weeks, hundreds of people organized themselves into working committees. Thanks partly to many generous donations of supplies and people, the protesters erected an accessible and creative infrastructure of special tents and meeting places such as a community kitchen, a first-aid centre, a library, and logistics centre which handed out free clothing, blankets and sleeping bags to anybody who asked, and a health committee that offered support to people freaking out or about to. A community gathering or general assembly (GA) was held once or twice a day — grassroots participatory democracy in action where people made collective decisions openly by consensus, where any person who wanted to speak was allowed, in fact encouraged to speak.

Six weeks after the occupation began, Mayor Rob Ford tried but failed to kill Occupy Toronto by issuing an eviction order; he wanted the protesters out of the park immediately but gave no credible reason. The protesters fought back, appealed and won a court injunction or temporary stay; however, Ontario Supreme Court Judge David Brown ruled the eviction notice was legal. Toronto police officers then asked the protesters to leave; wisely, they did not pepper-spray, taser or “kettle” anybody — maybe they learned a lesson, like their G20-police state tactics would be “counterproductive.” However, 11 protesters were arrested, most were charged with “trespass to property” and released the same day. However, in Edmonton, Vancouver, Oakland, California and New York, police action was brutal.

Occupy Toronto and the global Occupy Movement are still very much alive, more occupations are planned, Although many protesters are scattered around cities, many forced to survive in overcrowded disease-ridden shelters, bedbug-and-cockroach infested boarding homes, other community housing, or on the street, the struggles for affordable housing, a job, social and economic justice, democracy, a society that respects our human rights continue. I’m convinced OCAP helped inspire Occupy Toronto. I’m damn proud of OCAP and Occupy Toronto organizers and supporters and everybody else who stood up, spoke out, marched and occupied last October and November. May the Occupy Movement spread like a wild prairie fire across Canada — its time has come.

Don Weitz is an antipsychiatry and social justice activist in Toronto member of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault.

Dear rabble.ca reader… Can you support rabble.ca by matching your mainstream media costs? Will you donate a month’s charges for newspaper subscription, cable, satellite, mobile or Internet costs to our independent media site?