Halifax police pepper sprayed and arrested protesters in the city center on Wednesday as officials began clearing dozens of tents and temporary shelters from camps in local parks and green spaces.
At least five people were arrested in the morning at the old library on Spring Garden Road, where protesters had connected weapons to block the way for heavy machinery brought in to remove two wooden sheds.
One shelter was pulled away, but another remained, with a protester sitting on the roof surrounded by a ring of police officers. He refused to leave.
Crowds shouting for police grew to nearly 200 in the afternoon and a number of other arrests were made.
After a few hours of negotiation, the man finally climbed down from the shelter to loud cheers from the crowd. He was immediately handcuffed and arrested.
Shortly afterwards, Halifax police used a sensory irritation on the crowd. People were seen trying to wash their eyes. Various journalists said a child was being sprayed. Paramedics arrived quickly to provide medical attention.
Just before 16 the police put on armor and riot gear and began to advance towards the crowd, creating a path for a worker with a chainsaw that began to destroy the shelter.
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage told CBC News on Wednesday afternoon that city staff, police and fire had been working on a plan for the postponements for the past few weeks. He said the timing had nothing to do with Tuesday’s provincial election.
Jacques Dubé, the municipality’s CEO, called for the postponements to take place on Wednesday morning, Savage said.
“This is about health and safety, and it’s got to the point now where there are a lot of problems … activities that have taken place around some of these camps,” Savage said.
He said the other tent camps were removed peacefully, and it was only when people gathered in Spring Garden to “express their views” that things took a turn.
“Police are trying to do the situation without escalating it,” Savage said. “They try to deal with this and treat people with the dignity they deserve.”
Savage reiterated its message that street navigators and the province have offered everyone living in the various shelters an opportunity to move into temporary housing or a hotel in the near future.
Some police officers in Halifax appeared to have removed their nameplates from their uniforms.
More than a dozen people also sat at the bottom of Spring Garden Road near Barrington Street to block traffic and other parts of the roadway. This traffic included a truck returning with the front loader carrying the first shelter and the police car carrying the man who had been sitting on the loading dock for hours.
As the situation unfolded, Halifax Pride canceled three events scheduled to take place Wednesday night at the Garrison Grounds at the Halifax Citadel.
“Anyone who needs bathrooms, food, first aid or active listeners – our site is open to you until 11pm (or later if needed) tonight,” said the group via Twitter.
Halifax police said in a press release that a “number of people” had been arrested at 5.30pm for obstructing and assaulting officers. The detainees were expected to be released on promises to appear in court at a later date.
Police added that their operation is underway and they will continue to provide updates.
No mention was made as to why annoying or riot gear was used, or whether children or other people were injured in the police response.
Police were also seen instructing journalists to move away from the area as journalists filmed the evictions.
The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) tweeted that they were “concerned about the limits set by the police for journalists covering the dismantling of these shelters” and stressed that journalists have a right to be there.
Savage said any violation of journalists’ rights “would be addressed.”
The removals come a month later similar controversial evictions of tent camps in Toronto parks by the police.
Early in the afternoon, dry patches of grass scattered Halifax Parks and Common, where tents once sat.
At the west end of town, at Horseshoe Island Park on the Northwest Arm, Matthew Smith said he was awakened at 6 p.m. 6 by a group of about 20 police and city bylaw officers. He has been living in a tent for the past two weeks with his girlfriend and their cat.
He said they told him he and everyone else in nearby tents had to leave the area within an hour.
“They said that if I did not pack my things, they would physically confiscate my things, confiscate my animal and arrest me and take me to jail,” Smith said.
Smith said he and others received a $ 237 ticket for violating the bylaws.
“Which obviously no one can pay because we live in a park,” he said.
Smith said they were told the city would store belongings for free. He said he would not hand over anything and give them “the chance to just take everything.”
“We really have nowhere to go,” Smith said.
He said his plan is to move to another park further from the public, but predicts the same scene will likely repeat itself in a few weeks.
Smith, who said he works 60 hours a week but cannot afford rent in Halifax, said he was not offered temporary housing on Wednesday. “When it comes to housing, there is just nothing available,” he said.
Halifax police confirmed they began enforcing the move at 6:15 p.m.
“After a comprehensive and progressive effort, actions were taken today for the sake of public safety and the safety of the occupants of these homes,” police said in a statement.
Premier nominee Tim Houston, whose PC party won a majority government on Tuesday by defeating the ruling Liberals, said during a news conference Wednesday that the housing crisis is “very real” in the province and did not develop overnight.
“We did not have tent cities eight years ago in this province. We have them now, so we need real housing solutions,” he said. “We’re going to work with people to make sure people can access housing.”
The PC choice platform included affordable housing. Part of the plan includes the sale or leasing of public land to developers to build on, with the proviso that part must be affordable housing.
Provincial NDP leader Gary Burrill showed up at the protest in support of those forced out and was joined by a number of Halifax area candidates, including recently Lisa Lachance and Suzy Hansen.
The Tories have also said they will not extend rent control beyond the COVID-19 state of emergency. Houston reiterated this position Wednesday morning, saying increasing the housing stock is a better approach.
In Peace and Friendship Park on Hollis Street, Thomas Johnstone and Kaileigh Bruce said they were awakened around 6 p.m. 6 of others who pointed out that a large group of police had arrived.
They have been staying in the park for the past two months and also said that lack of housing in the area is the reason they have lived in a tent.
Bruce said others expect everyone to have a job and a “nice life” with two kids and a car when in reality not everyone can find work or is ready for that step.
The city delivered about 40 messages to people living in tents throughout the municipality on Monday, according to a statement from city spokeswoman Laura Wright.
The notice stated that people living on municipal land violated a statute and they must immediately vacate and remove all property from municipal property.
On Wednesday morning, a release from Halifax Regional Municipality said municipal compliance officials are “following up” with tent residents to help safely remove tents from municipal parks.
“The situation in a number of parks due to the recent proliferation of tents has created an increased risk to the health and safety of both the tent’s residents and the public and needs to be addressed,” the statement said.
The municipality said it has received several reports from residents about tents, including complaints about nuisances and concerns for public safety.
Last month, similar notices appeared at shelters around town, saying city officials after July 13 would remove shelters and everything in them.
But when the deadline came, Savage said the deadline was a preferred “timeline” and no forced evictions would take place. He said he wanted to avoid any kind of confrontation and did not want to “criminalize homelessness”.
Ardath Whynacht, volunteer spokesman for Halifax Mutual Aid, said the group was “very surprised” by the postponements on Wednesday in light of Savage’s comments last month.
She pointed to the postponements that came in the morning after a provincial election, and suggested that the city plan to act at that time to avoid media and public attention.
Moving people out of public areas does not solve homelessness, Whynacht said, and only moves them to more dangerous areas.
“This is a life-and-death crisis, especially during the summer heat,” Whynacht said.
The municipality has said it is making sure that those who use wooden sheds and tents work with street navigators, the provincial department of community services and support workers in finding a housing option that works for them.
Wright said about 1. former residents since July 1 have accepted a housing option.
One of these options could be a local hotel, but 10 community groups have condemned the city’s ‘harsh’ approach and noted that hotels are not suitable for everyone.
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