Movies and television programs regularly invoke imagery of big cities as sites of pleasure and prestige – places for people to wear glamorous clothes, flag a cab in rhinestone-clustered stilettos, and taste the culinary delights of the latest trendy “fusion” restaurant. While the image of cosmopolitan opulence certainly does not convey the full story of Canadian cities, this type of “urban evolution” does provide a glimpse, at least in part, of what an ideal capitalist city aspires to be – a mecca of entrepreneurial opportunity, individual prosperity and rampant consumerism.
Underneath the glitz and glam, cities are not sexy. For many people in Canada, cities are a place of work, survival, poverty, homelessness, police brutality, discrimination and resistance. As the gap between rich and poor continues to grow at an unprecedented rate, the city is increasingly segregated into factions of affluent and destitute. Entrenched by the dismantling of the welfare state, individuals who are poverty-stricken face the harsh reality that governments are no longer willing to offer protection from the social failures of the free market. As a result, those with almost nothing left to lose are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.
Squatting in the city, taking over an abandoned building to create temporary or permanent shelter, represents one such response to urban poverty. While homeless people have long used discrete forms of squatting to secure shelter, more overtly politicized squats have gained popularity among activists who want to publicly reclaim space, challenge poverty and engage in a practical solution to homelessness. Whether the landless peasant movement in Brazil, punk squats in London and New York, or long-established squat communities in the Netherlands, squatting continues to be a widespread tactic for combating homelessness and redefining urban space.
Rather than treating the city as a gathering place to stage resistance against government policies like trade agreements, militarization and welfare cuts, squatting engages with such issues through the down-and-dirty of urban life. Advocating for change by participating in daily-life struggles on the street, squatting moves beyond polished rhetoric and enacts solutions from a grassroots, do-it-yourself philosophy. In the process, squatting reveals how parts of the city are landscapes of survival and resistance.
Squatting in Two “Capital” Cities
Canadian cities have recently experienced a proliferation of public squats – from Montréal’s Overdale squat (2001), to the Woodward’s Squat in Vancouver (2002), the Infirmary Squat in Halifax (2002), the Pope Squat in Toronto (2002), the Seven Year Squat in Ottawa (2002) and the Water Street Squat in Peterborough (2003). These squats – which have been organized under the banner of both anti-poverty and anti-capitalist activism – mark a shift in political organizing and strategizing in Canada, emphasizing direct action as the most accessible and effective tactic for addressing needs affiliated with homelessness.
Despite popular conceptions that homelessness is limited to large urban centres with acknowledged “problem” neighbourhoods of so-called “urban decay,” poverty is not confined within such strictly defined territorial boundaries. The struggles over abandoned urban properties in both Peterborough and Ottawa are particularly telling, as they reveal how people living in smaller cities are directly confronting the lack of affordable housing, actively attempting to build alternatives and being criminalized in the process.
Peterborough’s Water Street Squat
In 1999, the small city of Peterborough – known to many as the heart of Kawartha Lakes cottage country – was awarded the dubious title of “homeless capital of Ontario.” With more than 1,700 families on a six-to-eight-year waiting list for affordable housing, an average of 250 homeless youth, and shelters regularly overflowing, the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association identified Peterborough as having the most serious affordable-housing crisis in the province. In a city with a population of just over 70,000, this designation was a shock to many who assumed that homelessness was the plight of mega-cities like Toronto and Vancouver.
On June 15, 2003, the Peterborough Coalition Against Poverty (PCAP) publicly took possession of an empty building at 1130 Water Street, a beautiful riverside property owned by the city. Due to damages caused by a flood the previous summer, the building – formerly used for affordable housing – had been emptied of its past tenant and left in disrepair. PCAP offered to make full repairs in exchange for allowing six homeless individuals to remain in the house rent-free for a negotiated period of years. Much to PCAP’s surprise, city housing officials entered into negotiations with the squatters, produced a draft agreement and appeared to be bargaining in good faith. In the midst of negotiations, however, City Council voted to remove the squatters. After living in the house for almost three weeks, the squatters were evicted at six in the morning by 20 police officers in full riot gear and released without charge.
When the city learned of PCAP’s plan to re-squat the property, Council voted to demolish the building on advice from a local non-profit housing organization, which had previously (mis)managed the house. Ironically, Peterborough City Council spent $8,900 to demolish the building, even though the repair costs – by the city’s own estimate – amounted to $6,900. Squatting was seen as such a threat to both the city and the non-profit agency that officials chose to destroy viable housing rather than “reward” squatters who had taken the building illegally.
Anti-Poverty Activism in Ottawa
Ottawa, often referred to as a “big city with a small town feel,” is a capital of somewhat different stature than Peterborough. As a harbinger of federal politics and in its role as a hub for Canadian tourism, Ottawa is a city proud of its appearance. The Rideau Canal is well groomed, the downtown city streets are sparkling clean and political actions are encouraged to stay within the realm of Parliament – or at least relegated to a peaceful demonstration on the Hill. In a city known for its national scope, local politics are sometimes pushed under the paving stones. Many people are unable to enjoy the beauty of this capital city. With routine sweeps from the police, pressure from the National Capital Commission and a mayor who wholeheartedly supports the “Safe Streets Act” – provincial legislation that criminalizes panhandling – poor and homeless people are continually pushed to the urban peripheries.
From June 26 to July 4, 2002, in a trendy, downtown neighbourhood located just blocks from Parliament Hill, a group of local anti-poverty activists, homeless youth and anti-G8 protestors occupied an abandoned building at 246 Gilmour Street. Dubbed the Seven Year Squat because of the then-seven-year waiting list for social housing and due to the fact that the house had been abandoned for seven years, the squat drew much public attention to the housing crisis in Ottawa. Like many Canadian squats occurring that year, the Seven Year squatters held the house for a short while, built substantial community support, raised legitimate concerns about the crisis of affordable housing in Ottawa and were brutally evicted and arrested by the police.
After 36 hours in jail, the squatters were originally slapped with unconstitutional bail conditions, which included a curfew, a clause forbidding the defendants from associating with each other, a ban on all participation in political activity and a restriction from coming within 500 metres of 246 Gilmour Street. Each of the original 22 defendants were charged with break-and-enter, three counts of mischief over $5,000, and obstruction of police. For the past two years, the group of Seven Year Squatters have been jumping through the hoops of the criminal court system, with five of the remaining defendants representing themselves in a judge-and-jury trial from September 27 to October 22, 2004.
This trial marks the first major case against squatters in recent years. The defendants are the only squatters in Canada currently facing serious criminal charges and jail time potentially exceeding six months. It also highlights the lengths to which the state, in conjunction with local police departments, will go to protect private property and criminalize dissent. The crackdown on squatters not only removes housing activism from public view, minimizing the urgency of homelessness, it radically shifts responsibility for poverty-related problems. Individual homeless people and their allies – rather than social structures, economic failures or government policies – become the targets of blame. Homelessness is repackaged as a problem of moral disorder and public safety rather than one of social injustice. Because the courts are making an example of the Seven Year Squatters, this precedent-setting case may have significant legal ramifications for the future of squatting in Canada.
Social Movements and Squatting – It Just Makes Sense
The popularity of public squatting signals a reorientation of Canadian social movements as they respond to changing political climates. In Ontario, for example, the 1997 Days of Action – the largest demonstrations in Canadian history – had little effect on the policies of Premier Mike Harris, who loudly proclaimed that his government would not be swayed by protest antics. Emerging as a tactical reaction to such non-responsive governments, squatting gained strength in the wake of other social movements’ shortcomings.
As the anti-globalization movement – which has dominated the Canadian activist scene for the past five years – became more self-reflexive about its limitations (the un-sustainability of “summit-hopping,” its privileged class and race composition, and its disconnection from local struggles), activists began shifting their attention to localized problems and smaller-scale strategies. Retaining a broad perspective, but emphasizing grassroots direct action, recent Canadian squats have been planned in conjunction with global events and regional issues, but carried out on local terms.
Like anti-globalization critiques that emphasize how current social problems are endemic to capitalism, squatting provokes a rethinking of the status quo. Because it directly challenges norms of individual property rights and exposes the gross injustice of wealth disparities, squatting strikes at the heart of the capitalist system. Squatting also challenges the notion that the current distribution of land and property is just, and the assumption that those who currently own property obtained it fairly and equitably.
Squatting also de-centres the privileging of middle-class knowledge and experience, which has dominated Canadian activist culture. Because squatting originated from the streets, the expertise of homeless people is central to successful squat actions. Moreover, squatting is a bottom-up, self-directed approach to housing that many street people and activists find empowering. For homeless people who have been shuffled through countless bureaucracies, left to wait for years on affordable housing lists and treated poorly by charity-based organizations who take a top-down approach to service provision, squatting is a refuge from the social regulation and control found in many shelters and agencies. Like strikes among union members, squatting is direct action for poor people. This explains, in part, the continued popularity of squatting among those hit hardest by poverty, illustrated by recent Tent City actions in Ottawa, Kingston and Toronto.
In response to contestations over urban space, cities and their inhabitants, law-enforcement agencies, business owners and local governments do have options. The history and legacy of a settler society could be challenged. New and much older conceptions of property and ownership could be explored. Because urban space and property allotment continually evolve and change, there are numerous opportunities to challenge capitalist conceptions of urban space. Squatting is one of these possibilities.
While few public squats in Canada have created long-term affordable housing to date, there are a numerous cases in New York, Seattle, London and Amsterdam that have resulted in stable housing projects – suggesting that longer-term goals are not unachievable. Perhaps more importantly, squatting emphasizes sustainable community building as a central objective. Because squat actions involve the complex tasks of running a household, sharing community work and developing collective decision-making process among individuals facing numerous social barriers, squatting fosters cooperative skills, solidarity among the disenfranchised and ongoing resistance to capitalist values.
Rather than simply critiquing the world as it currently exists, squatters are actively remaking cityscapes themselves – seeking to live out and practice alternative forms of urban social organization. Without the aid of stylish strappy sandals, designer draperies and billionaire brunches, anti-poverty struggles provoke an “urban evolution” all their own … an urban revolution.
Lisa Freeman is an anti-poverty activist currently studying at Carleton. She lives in Ottawa.
Sarah Lamble is an anti-poverty activist and prisoner’s right advocate. She lives in Peterborough.
This article appeared in the November/December 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .