King Day at the Fort York Armoury: Trying to Open a Space for the Homeless When the Thermometer Dips to 40 Below

"One renovator prepared to pull out his tape measure but instead whipped out his blueberry bagel, no doubt confusing the Military Police, who had been told we were nonviolent renovators, not nonviolent caterers! "

It seemed to make sense that a protest against government inaction on homelessness would take place on the coldest day of the year, with temperatures hovering at -40 degrees Celsius. It was Martin Luther King Day, January 17, and as has been the tradition for the past five years, Toronto Action for Social Change (TASC) held a nonviolent direct action to mark the occasion and to show how far we have yet to go in the search for true economic and social justice.

The action was an attempt to occupy the Fort York Armoury and begin renovation plans to turn it into affordable housing. Fort York had been a temporary shelter for the homeless but closed its doors ten days before Christmas. Many of the homeless who avoid the hostel system would come in to the armoury, as it is large, spacious, and clean.

But the commanders of the Canadian military were concerned that their cadets were not getting in enough target practice and that the presence of the homeless might be harmful to their recruitment efforts. So a request was made to Ottawa, and the top brass allowed the armoury to close its doors to the homeless on a cold, snowy evening.

On Xmas Eve, TASC wrote to the Canadian military requesting that the armoury and adjoining lands be turned over for affordable housing construction. A subsequent letter was written, and a response received only on January 14. In a brief letter, the military explained that the armoury was needed because the Canadian military was there to help save lives. This was ironic, given that the closing of the armoury doors might very well result in the deaths of homeless people on the streets of Toronto. A spokesperson for TASC spoke with a military officer who assured TASC that the protest was for a good cause, but that the target was "ill-chosen."

TASC, which had given the military a January 17 deadline to turn over the armoury, informed the military that the nonviolent occupation would proceed.

On the morning of the 17th, a group of about 30 people walked 2 km from a downtown drop-in centre to the armoury. One woman pointed out that perhaps the group should start occupying the unfinished rooms of new condo buildings which continue to present an urban blight on Toronto's landscape.

Upon arrival at the Armoury, Kirsten Romaine-Jones, a citizens' inspector with the group, read out her legal obligation to enter the armoury and put it to good use. Police refused to allow her in. A homeless man spoke next, explaining what it was like never to reach a place during the day where your body could completely warm up.

The group proceeded to walk around the building in search of another entrance. They chalked the back of the building with bits of information from the Citizens Inspection Certificate and mapped out where potential apartments could replace the military structure.

On a trip back to the front of the building, four individuals were able to enter an unlocked door and walked into the Armoury. They were met by a number of military police who came sprinting across the vast expanse of armoury floor to stop them from renovating.

One renovator, who had stuffed his pockets with food in preparation for his potential stay in the slammer, prepared to pull out his tape measure to discuss architectural plans, but instead whipped out his blueberry bagel, no doubt confusing the Military Police who had been told we were nonviolent renovators, not nonviolent caterers!

The four individuals -- Randy Kay, Andrew Loucks, Matthew Behrens, and a homeless man named Jack -- were grabbed but sat down, and as Metro Police stood by (they had no jurisdiction on federal property), each individual was dragged out the doors and dropped on the cold concrete outside, where chalking of the building's exterior proceeded apace.

Group members continued around to the front, watched by approximately 20 police officers, military police and members of the Counter-Intelligence and Anti-Terrrorism Squad of the Toronto Police.

Again, the renovators read out the citizen's inspection forms, but police refused to do their duty and allow entry.

By 10:40 am, the renovators began a sit-in on the front steps of the armoury, and were surrounded by a group which now totalled almost 40. They sang songs of the civil rights movement, read out from the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., and heard from veterans of peace and social justice movements of the past 60 years such as former MP Don Heap, who marched with King from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 and who is currently facing criminal charges for attempting to take the sword out of the cross at a local church; Frank Showler, who was arrested and served time for his refusal to fight during World War II; and Phyllis Creighton, a Raging Granny who spoke movingly about her many years of activism against war and economic injustice.

Shortly before noon, the group gathered to conclude that they had done enough for one day. It was clear that police did not want to arrest anyone, no doubt given the optics of the issue (police had threatened mischief arrests for the chalking, but they did not materialize).

Perhaps the failure to arrest is a recognition that a certain moral climate has been created in the last year in Canada around the issue of homelessness which makes it difficult in certain situations to carry out arrests of anti-homelessness demonstrators.

Many of those in attendance were part of the Homes not Bombs action in Ottawa November 12, when 54 people were arrested and 50 charged criminally for attempting to convert the War Dept. to the Housing Dept.

This was not an isolated action for Martin Luther King Day; it was also a call-in day across Canada to end sanctions against Iraq; four people were arrested for attempting to squat an abandoned building in New York City, and a dozen were busted for trying to blockade a Trident Nuclear submarine site in Connecticut, among many other actions.

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