Halifax Regional Police arrested and peppered sprayed protesters, including a child, as they helped city staff remove citizens with nowhere else to go from public land.
After months of threats, Halifax Regional Municipality moved in on homeless residents sleeping in parks on Wednesday, removing tents and Halifax Mutual Aid’s temporary shelters from Peace and Friendship Park, the Halifax Common, Horseshoe Island Park and the site of the former Halifax Memorial Library on Spring Garden Road.
The police were ostensibly there to “assist with removal efforts if required,” per a municipal news release from early Wednesday morning.
At Horseshoe Island Park, where the Halifax Examiner spoke to evicted residents on Wednesday morning, that appeared to be the case. There were seven police officers lined up with city staff watching five people who’d been living in tents on the site pack up their possessions and go.
They were all ticketed, and two people said they were never offered any sort of temporary shelter, as the city has repeatedly claimed all people living in tents and shelters are. When they asked police where they should go, they were told to leave the peninsula.
At Peace and Friendship Park, the officers combed the grounds for debris after city staff packed up evicted residents’ belongings and loaded them into trucks.
One man there told reporters he’d been dragged from his tent by police at 6am and told to get out. With income assistance and a rent subsidy, he has nowhere to go. He said he threw out the fine he was given because he’s not going to pay it anyway.
No police arrived at Victoria Park, but a handful of people living in tents dismantled their tents and packed up their belongings as they spoke with the Examiner. They said they had nowhere to go and had been offered no assistance in finding housing.
One man told the Examiner for he had been living with his father at the father’s apartment, but the landlord insisted he leave because they were violating the rules for the number of residents per unit. He said he planned to move his tent to a heavily wooded area in the south end.
Another man said he had a job and a room in a house in Cole Harbour for $250/week, meals included, but an injury left him without a job and, soon, without a room. He was attempting to file for government relief, but said his calls were going unanswered. As he understood it, he can’t get income assistance without a fixed address, so he’s applying for money provided to people without a fixed address — “$380 a month; it’s something, I guess.”
A young couple said they tried to live in a park in Truro, but were pushed out, so had moved to Halifax. The woman was folding freshly washed laundry in their tent as the man said he didn’t know what they’d do next.
The eviction notice was served during a period when Eric Jonsson was on vacation. Jonsson is the street navigator who works with people sleeping rough to connect them to social services, and is widely liked among those on the streets. They felt the evictions were purposefully timed to coincide with Jonsson’s vacation. Last night, Jonsson tweeted that he had come back to town Wednesday and “spent the rest of the day trying to find hotel rooms and supports for people who found their tents thrown out and nowhere to go.”
Those sleeping in the park spoke of the precariousness of their former living situations. They had lived with relatives, or in sketchy apartments or rooming houses with strangers. One man had fled his apartment after someone shot a gun into it. They spoke of rooming houses with no security and infested with vermin. It was safer to live on the streets.
At the former Halifax Memorial Library, the police were there to enforce a municipal bylaw and the provincial Protection of Property Act.
The scene was often chaotic, with clashes between police and protesters flaring up throughout the day.
When the Examiner arrived in the morning, there were only a few protesters, including one who stayed on top of one of the two Halifax Mutual Aid shelters on the property for hours.
As more protesters arrived, so did more cops, and they immediately sought to assert their control, establishing a perimeter around the shelters to allow for equipment to come in to remove them.
At that point, police started trying to restrict journalists’ movements, despite objections, and threatened to arrest multiple reporters throughout the day for obstruction.*
Police started arresting protesters for obstruction, and holding them in an area next to the old library to wait for a wagon to take them to cells.
Protesters formed lines to try to keep contractors from bringing a skidsteer in from the Grafton Street side of the property to remove the shelters closer to the Brunswick Street side.
Police pushed them back to let the workers through. They strapped the shelter to the skidsteer and slowly drove it out to a flatbed trailer. Police pushed protesters back bit by bit, clearing a path for the contractors.
They eventually got two wagons on scene and loaded up the arrested protesters for booking. With the first shelter half-strapped to the flatbed trailer, the contractors pulled away. One officer said to another, “OK, what next?”
Protesters and officers headed back around the corner to the remaining shelter, where one protester was still sitting on the roof, leading chants while those on the ground taunted the police, naming their six-figure salaries and telling them to get real jobs.
NDP leader Gary Burrill showed up, along with newly-elected MLAs Lisa Lachance and Suzy Hansen. Burrill got hold of a megaphone.
“We want homes, not cops,” Burrill chanted.
Police brought a ladder to the scene and an officer climbed up to negotiate with the protester. Hours later, the protester climbed down to be arrested.
That’s when police really lost control of the situation.
Officers started bringing the protester to the Grafton Street side of the property, where they’d placed other protesters in vehicles for booking. But then they turned around and brought the protester up to a waiting vehicle on Brunswick Street.
The crowd, now easily more than 200, followed, and tried to block the police vehicle from leaving. That’s when the pepper spraying started.
Police arrested one protester they’d pepper sprayed and brought him to a vehicle waiting on the sidewalk around the corner on Doyle Street. Protesters blocked that vehicle in, but officers eventually pushed back and managed to back it out onto Brunswick Street, and then drive forward toward the police station.
That vehicle was basically plowing through protesters, one of them threw a water bottle at it, and in the commotion, an officer fell over and was quickly picked back up.
Then other officers started pepper spraying indiscriminately — hitting a young girl with her parents, along with several other protesters.
Even after the scene had calmed down, one officer continued to pepper spray people who were just sitting on the wall along Brunswick Street. Several minutes later, there were officers still walking around with pepper spray drawn.
Protesters eventually made their way back to the remaining shelter, now with no one on the roof to stop its removal. The city changed its tactics for the second one, sending in a team of workers with power tools to dismantle the shelter.
While getting that team through the police line, there was another clash between protesters and cops, and more pepper spray. Police put on their full riot gear.
By this time the crowd grew to well over a thousand people, facing off against at least 200 police officers. Police stood shoulder to shoulder, wielding batons and shields. The streets around the library were blocked to vehicular traffic, but no attempt was made to stop pedestrians. Seven ambulances, with additional EHS support vehicles, lined Spring Garden Road, and paramedics stood waiting.
One of the workers, wearing none of the usual protective equipment, started ripping into the shelter with a chainsaw, and protesters started throwing bottles from either side of the shelter.
It was a tense situation for another hour or so, but there was no further violence. The crowd started to dissipate as the workers dismantled the shelter, and eventually moved to dual locations — a Halifax Pride-hosted space at the Garrison Grounds and Halifax Regional Police headquarters, where protesters remained in custody.
As the protest wound down, the police released a statement claiming “actions were taken today in the interest of public safety and safety of the occupants of these dwellings.”
“At the Spring Garden Road site, a group of people made repeated attempts to prevent the removal of the temporary shelters. As a result, a number of people were arrested for obstructing police officers in the execution of their duties as well as for assault police,” the statement said. “We expect these individuals to be released on a Promise to Appear in court at later dates.”
It included a quote from Chief Dan Kinsella repeating the municipality’s usual lines about the shelters.
The statement makes no mention of the use of pepper spray, and lists no definitive number of protesters arrested. A source has told the Examiner 12 people were arrested.
There are still shelters standing on sites on the peninsula and in downtown Dartmouth. It’s unclear when the city will move in to remove them and whether police will be involved in this capacity again.
With files from Tim Bousquet.
*Correction: Aug. 19, 2021:
A previous version of this story misstated the charge police were threatening journalists with.