Behind the scenes of city hall's Occupy NS eviction | News | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Behind the scenes of city hall's Occupy NS eviction

Sue Uteck calls Remembrance Day police action "preemptive overtime" for cops.

I spent four hours Monday reviewing thousands of pages of documents related to the city's eviction of the Occupy group from Victoria Park and Grand Parade last Remembrance Day. The documents were obtained through a Freedom of Information request filed by the Labour Council, which in turn allowed me some time with them. The smaller stack of documents is from city hall; the larger is from the Halifax Regional Police Department. My job was made considerably easier in that the vast majority of the police department documents were completely redacted; there were hundreds upon hundreds of pages filled with nothing but black boxes obscuring what had once been text.

The documents show that the city's response to the Occupy protest evolved. Soon after the protest was established on October 15, correspondence from the police department to city hall was light-hearted, with the police generally remarking that the protesters were well-behaved and not causing any problems. That attitude, in turn, was conveyed to the politicians. "Spoke to the Chief [and] he and I agreed that as long as everyone is respectful that we will just oversee the activity," CAO Richard Butts wrote in an email to mayor Peter Kelly. "Related to the police event on Sunday"—the unveiling of the new police monument in Grand Parade—"the Chief seemed pretty flexible and thought that they would likely work around the situation in the Grand Parade."

“The Chief of Police and I speak throughout the day as police continue to monitor the situation," deputy CAO Mike Labrecque wrote to mayor Peter Kelly, Kelly's secretary, CAO Butts and councillor Tim Outhit, on October 18. "Up to this point group has been peaceful, respectful and cooperative... As you know the Halifax Pop Explosion event kicks off this weekend with an event in Grand Parade.. We have spoken with the protestoers and at this point they have indicated that they will not interfere with the proetesters.”

Officers' notes from the first week or so of the protest were also generally unconcerned about the potential for major problems, although one city staffer complained that somebody from the Pop Explosion said positive things about the Occupiers.

It was only towards the end of October, when the Remembrance Day ceremony was nearing, that attitudes began to change. This was likely prompted by scores of emails to councillors and the mayor from citizens, complaining about the protest.

On October 25, Kelly issued a press release calling for Occupiers to "return Grand Parade to the public."

Only after this call did the police start reporting on problems at the Occupy encampment, but they also sometimes noted that there were two groups—the occupiers and a growing contingent of homeless youth hanging on.

On October 30, Occupy Nova Scotia announced its intention to vacate Grand Parade for Remembrance Day, to move the encampment to Victoria Park, and then return to Grand Parade on November 12. This seems to have generated quite a bit of discussion inside City Hall.

An undated memo lists three options under consideration by city hall brass:

1. Enforce immediately following Remembrance Day ceremony.
No tents overnight permitted; Summary office ticket (SOT) issued, arrest if necessary
2. Not enforce, seek injunction.
3. Do nothing.
And on November 2, after meeting with CAO Butts, police chief Frank Beazley wrote to police superintendent Sean Auld, deputy police chief Christopher McNeil and Martin Ward, a lawyer who was overseeing the Occupy response from the city solicitor's office.

"For future possible court action, I will need to know the cost of policing this event including salaries and overtime," wrote Beazley, although he did not explain how the cost of policing determined the illegality of a protest. He also asked that his employees document any damage to Grand Parade.

"At present our main objective is to have the protesters leave for Remembrance Day," continued Beazley. "...Obtaining an injunction is still under discussion if required."

Beazley also asked that McNeil contact the Calgary and Vancouver police and ask them under what authority they planned to evict their Occupiers.

Clearly, as of Beazley's letter—November 2—city officials weren't satisfied they had the legal authority to evict the protesters without a court order.

Also on that day, the Large Cities Executive Forum had a conference call about Occupy, involving dozens of cities, including representatives from Halifax. The documents don't say who locally participated.

The next day, November 3, councillor Linda Mosher forwarded a letter from the provincial director of development for Tourism NS (the letter writer's name is redacted) to the CAO and mayor. The letter, which seems to have been written at the request of Mosher, excoriated the protesters; "Isn't it time these 'protesters' got back to work or at least start looking for a job and we collectively need to stop supporting this effort," wrote the letter writer.

Certainly by this time the number and severity of police calls to the Occupy encampment had increased. One person had been arrested on a weapons charges, there had been incidents involving mentally ill people, and a food poisoning incident. One staffer claimed that a dog had been cremated on site and its remains buried on at Grand Parade, and included a picture of the make-shift grave. Others said that campers were defecating in public. When the camp moved to Victoria Park on November 9, those calls increased yet again, possibly because the campers were in a more residential and more highly trafficked shopping area.

Still, by Sunday, November 6, staff had still made no decision. Councillor Lorelei Nicoll had sent a citizen complaint about Occupy to staff, and on that date deputy CAO Mike Labrecque commented to Butts that the complaint is "likely representative of the feedback most councillors are receiving. Don’t think we’ll escape a conversation at [that Tuesday's, November 8, in-camera session of the city council meeting]. I will organize a better position Monday.”

Evidently, the decision to evict Occupy—without a court order—was made by Labrecque and OKed by Butts on Monday, November 7. By noon on November 8, several hours before the council meeting, police superintendent Sean Auld was discussing with other bureaucrats "the letter Mike is going to serve on the occupants at Victoria Park."

The documents also reveal a flurry of communications regarding Occupy on November 8, before the council meeting, between Frank Beazley, Mike Labrecque and Sean Auld, all labelled "confidential." Those documents were redacted.

The letter evicting Occupiers was signed by Labrecque, not by Butts, and not by Kelly.

Council held its secret discussion on November 8. On November 10, the day before the eviction, city communication manager Shaune MacKinlay sent a number of emails to Labrecque with proposed language for a "briefing note" to be issued to councillors and police communications staff during the eviction, for purposes of keeping everyone on the same page in terms of statements to the public. The language of the briefing note was approved by the end of the day on November 10.

Councillors would go on to disagree with each other as to what they actually OKed at their secret discussion on November 8. But after the evictions were served, on November 11, councillor Debbie Hum wrote a letter to Peter Kelly and Mike Labrecque objecting to the eviction, as follows:

I have spoken as well as some of my residents spoken about concerns regarding Occupy NS group camping, health/food safety and operational issues at Grand Parade and Victoria Park.

But we were not apprised it would take place today, and am concerned HRM/HRP action taken today—being Remembrance Day—to evict them from Victoria Park.

It takes away from the symbolism and respect for Remembrance Day, and for those that serve and have died.

In fact it is somewhat ironic that today, a day we remember all those who fought for our freedom and democracy past and present, is now marred by the removal of Occupy NS from Victoria Park, notice to evict served to them within minutes of Remembrance Day ceremonies concluding and then immediately implemented, not waiting even for 24 hours.

I'm also concerned action to evict Occupy NS on a day like today—with such inclement weather only served to create such a violent reaction from the group.

I understand the situation became confrontational and violent right away.

I don't think it was a humane thing to do, to physically remove them today, no matter how anyone felt about them as a group or their camping or purpose.

Who gave this order to have them removed today? It was not with Council's knowledge they'd be evicted today.

I also understand mace and sticks have been used by police, and according to FB postings, young children and elderly have been hit.

Whatever public sympathy and support was had to remove Occupy NS from Victoria Park, and not allow them back to Grand Parade, has quickly dissipated with action undertaken today.

Hum had cc'ed all councillors with her letter, which prompted the following back and forth among councillors:
From Bill Karsten:
Debbie, I seldom wade into these issues, but we agreed this is a staff lead operational issue and Council’s motion supported staff. My thought is that should please let them do their job.

From Debbie Hum
Thanks Bill for your feedback, but operational issue or not, I still like to know why evict today and not tomorrow?

From David Hendsbee:
I even told some folks at my local legion that this would be happen [sic] today after the event at Grand Parade was over.

From David Hendsbee
Deb- Furthermore it was a pre-emptive strike to ensure they would not move back to Grand Parade today.

From Debbie Hum:
That’s not my recall--that it would be served right after Remembrance Day services. But if it was, I still have sympathy and concerns it was decided to be before noon that they had to leave. I’ll leave it at that.

5:20pm From Sue Uteck (responding to Hendsbee's 5:00pm message):
Must be pre emptive overtime as well.

From Gloria McCluskey:
David, You are absolutely correct. Those who didn’t hear that were not Listening.

5:26pm From Dawn Sloane:

Gloria McCluskey (responding to Uteck's "pre-emptive overtime comment):
Wrong message Sue.

November 13, 1:42pm Mary Wile
...Let’s stop the yak, support our police who were obeying orders, and stick to our agreement. We can’t have our cake and eat it too!

Two days later, CAO Richard Butts claimed the eviction was a PR success, basing that assessment on the comments section of a Globe & Mail article. "600 comments I only looke at the first three pages every comment positive," he wrote in garbled English to Peter Kelly and Kelly's secretary. At the time, Butts was at home, in Toronto, where he keeps his primary residence.

The next week, both Jennifer Watts and Debiie Hum requested that the Occupy eviction be put on the next council meeting agenda. Jackie Barkhouse asked that the discussion be held in public session.

Sue Uteck asked to hear the tape of the closed session meeting where evicting Occupy discussion had taken place; clerk Cathy Mellet told Uteck that closed session are not recorded. “Please add my voice to those that want this as an agenda item for Tuesday in full open session," responded Uteck.

Tim Outhit and Dawn Sloane also said they wanted public discussion.

Other councillors dissented. 
“Why would we even perpetuate this issue any further?" asked Bill Karsten. "It’s done, it’s over with. Let’s move on! No, we will keep it alive and somehow we will make the matter worse.”

"I agree with Bill, there is nothing to discuss," wrote Steve Streatch. "This is a police matter as we already agreed.” Reg Rankin pointed out that there’s a mistaken belief that council can direct the police, so that should be clarified."

“Let’s move on," wrote Gloria McCluskey.

At its November 5 meeting, council voted 16-8 against discussing the eviction. Those voting to hear the matter were Barkhouse, Hum, Lund, Outhit, Sloane, Smith, Uteck and Watts; voting against were Kelly, Karsten, Streatch, Blumenthal, Dalrymple, Fisher, Harvey, Hendsbee, Johns, McCluskey, Mosher, Nicoll, Rankin, Streatch, Walker and Wile.

Immediately following the vote, Jennifer Watts attempted to read a statement apologizing for her role in the way the Occupy eviction unfolded.

Kelly cut her mic.

In the end, only a handful of the Occupiers who were arrested ever made it to court, and all of those were found not guilty. The crown then dropped the prosecution of the remaining arrested protesters.

Prosecuting crown attorneys don't have to explain their actions, and didn't in this case, but it appears the city's eviction didn't stand up in court.

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