A city contractor takes a chainsaw to the crisis shelter at the old Halifax library, as protesters look on.

How the city created a crisis Wednesday with a shelter siege

An in-depth look at what happened yesterday as police forcibly removed shelters and residents from Halifax parks.

In mid-July, when eviction notices were posted on several Halifax Mutual Aid-built shelters across Halifax, HRM councillor Shawn Cleary assured Haligonians that the removal of unhoused residents’ tents, wooden shelters and belongings would happen without violence. “If someone is dragged out of one of these shelters by a police officer I’ll be down there with Mutual Aid protesting against the police,” Cleary said. The councillor said he didn’t want to see a Trinity Bellwoods situation, which resulted in violent arrests at an encampment in downtown Toronto.

click to enlarge Several councillors were on vacation the day of the shelter siege. - SUBMITTED
Submitted
Several councillors were on vacation the day of the shelter siege.

But the councillor and his colleagues were notably absent when 24 people were arrested with force yesterday by Halifax Regional Police at a demonstration that involved riot gear, hundreds of protesters, about 50 police, and the heavy use of pepper spray—hurting at least one child. In a statement the Halifax Regional Police said its actions were taken “in the interest of public safety and safety of the occupants of these dwellings.”

Cleary said in an interview Thursday, “to my knowledge no person was dragged out by a shelter or tent that I’ve seen. So that’s good.” When asked about the use of force, and specifically the use of pepper spray around children, Cleary said he "has no ability to really know what's an appropriate use of force."

Mayor Mike Savage has said the shelters are inadequate living spaces, and he believes there is sufficient shelter space available, though many say this is not the case. A number of unhoused residents told The Coast they were without housing options following the police raid. On a segment in today’s CBC Information Morning, the mayor repeated the police line that health and safety drove yesterday’s forcible removal. “We want people to be safe,” Savage said. The mayor has not responded to The Coast’s requests for an interview.

Tuesday night

Just before midnight Tuesday, most citizens were either sound asleep or distracted by the Nova Scotia election. Tim Houston had just secured the premier-designate role, and vote counting was suspended until morning to prevent volunteer fatigue. The clock ticked over to Wednesday, August 18. Then, starting at 12:05am August 18, Halifax Mutual Aid put out an alarming series of tweets.

click to enlarge An eviction notice from the city pinned to the door of a temporary shelter. - THE COAST
The Coast
An eviction notice from the city pinned to the door of a temporary shelter.

“We’ve been tipped off that @hfxgov will start these violent mass evictions starting early this morning, Wednesday August 18th, cloaked in the media’s focus on the @nsgov election results. We can’t let that happen. Are you free to help? DM us if you can & start sounding off online”

But with few sleepy locals awake at the time to scroll through the app, it would take some time for Halifax to draw its collective attention to the issue.

Wednesday morning

Just after dawn, police and city staff showed up at three locations where people were tenting: Horseshoe Park near the Armdale Rotary, the recently renamed Peace and Friendship Park on Barrington Street and the Halifax Common beside the Emera Oval. If the plan was for the city to act first thing in the morning before concerned Haligonians could gather to protest, it worked.

Tents were removed at all three sites without much public scrutiny. At 8:06am, Twitter user @archaeometal posted a video from the Commons showing several city staff clearing out the site. At least a dozen Halifax Regional Police officers are standing around two tents, a couple onlookers visible in the background.

Some temporary shelter residents in other locations, scared for their own homes being forcibly removed, preemptively took them down.

click to enlarge A tent thrown away at Victoria Park in Halifax after police evicted residents in the early morning. - THE COAST
The Coast
A tent thrown away at Victoria Park in Halifax after police evicted residents in the early morning.

“I stayed over here by the picnic table, I was here for like seven months,” said Running Black Buffalo, an Eskasoni man who was living in a tent in Victoria Park with a friend. “We took it down so we don’t get greased out by the cops or we get a ticket.”

Running Black Buffalo says until he was able to get a tent, he would sleep on hot air vents behind buildings to keep warm. Now that the tent has been removed, he must rely on his friends in the community to find his next shelter.

“Hopefully it would be with the buddy I shared a tent with, he just got approved for a hotel, the Lord Nelson,” he told The Coast. “He said approximately a week.”

Sarah Dantzer knew many of the people who were evicted during the morning raids. She was also in Victoria Park, doing what she could to help evicted people connect with resources, while surrounded by a landscape peppered with her friends' broken belongings and trashed tents.

“I’ve been going around town telling people that if they need to use my cell phone that they can use it,” Dantzer told The Coast. “I’ve gotten four people into hotels. Anyone who’s been kicked out of a hotel can go back to Out Of The Cold, there’s a number that you can call or you can just call your case worker and tell them ‘my tent got raided.’”

Running Black Buffalo wishes police and the government would “see the bigger picture” and just talk to temporary shelter residents rather than kicking them out forcibly, especially during a pandemic. “They say that people aren’t using the park when we’re in the park, but we have people walking, running their dog,” he says, gesturing to the other Haligonians he shares the park with. You’re making more of a situation that should only be a talking incident, a verbal incident.”

click to enlarge A sign on the door of a shelter tells police it is occupied and not to remove it. - THE COAST
The Coast
A sign on the door of a shelter tells police it is occupied and not to remove it.

At Nick Meagher Park, at the corner of Chebucto and Dublin Streets, the sole wooden shelter had a sign on the door telling police it was occupied and not to remove it, since the last time the city removed shelters it was reportedly because police thought they were “unoccupied.”

While it was unclear whether the tenant of the temporary residence was home, about a dozen supporters of unhoused Haligonians sat on the grass in the park. One person said they’d been there for about 30 minutes and seen nothing of note so far—but when an unmarked car slowed down as it pulled around the corner, all the supporters eyed it suspiciously.

Wednesday noon

By noon on Wednesday, over 100 people had gathered at the old Halifax Memorial Library on Spring Garden Road, where the last remaining shelter stood. They passed water around, joined arms to chant and checked in on each other.

A mixture of police officers from across the municipality, in contrast, were a moving wall that advanced toward protesters. Using a combination of their bicycles and riot shields, they pushed protesters backwards to gain more and more ground. At least 50 police officers were in the middle of the crowd, some were seen missing their badges. “It got ripped off earlier,” one officer told The Coast while another claimed the badge removal was unrelated to the event and a regular part of their division’s uniform.

By 2pm, the crowd grew to nearly 200 people as word spread online and pedestrians stopped to take part in the protest. Members of the crowd taunted police, asking for their names, badge numbers and salaries in an attempt to shame them onto the other side of the line while others simply screamed slurs or chanted. Journalists on scene who stepped off of their platform (if they could reach it) were threatened with arrest as well. “It's disturbing to see how open the police are about oppressing the press,” one Halifax Mutual Aid volunteer told The Coast. “Obviously it’s everywhere but it’s shocking to see here.”

One protester climbed onto the roof of the final shelter to defend his friend's home. During that time, police began to steadily push the crowd back, while it continued to throw supplies and provide vocal support to the protester standing on the roof.

Another member of the crowd had a short-lived stint on top of the contracting truck before police violently tackled her to the ground; removing her mask, misgendering her repeatedly and arresting another member of the crowd that interfered.

Negotiations began shortly after the arrest of the crowd members and lasted for almost an hour before the rooftop protester was taken down a ladder and led away in handcuffs. After officers changed into riot gear using the shelter as cover, protesters moved to block their path; hitting police cars, throwing water bottles, and taking up as much space as possible. Screams signaled the return of police as they actively sprayed mace at protesters, including a 10-year-old child. While it was impossible to turn your head without seeing a police car in some capacity, only two ambulances were brought to the scene following the altercation. All paramedics were wearing hazmat suits.

Crowds united to take care of injured protesters while others went to nearby pharmacies to locate milk, water and other first aid supplies. As people began to recover, they returned to the site of the shelter to prevent its removal, managing to block the path of the same forklift that took down the previous structure. At 4pm, police changed their plans and brought in several city contractors—who would attempt to take it down with a chainsaw.

When the shelter—built by Halifax Mutual Aid—proved more durable than expected (stopped by a single nail), police resorted to a jigsaw before sledgehammering and kicking it into pieces. These pieces were taken through the old library doors, plastered with the distinct orange of the “this should be housing” stickers.

Wednesday evening

click to enlarge Police push back against protesters on the old library lawn Wednesday. - THE COAST
The Coast
Police push back against protesters on the old library lawn Wednesday.

After the police took down the final shelter in Victoria Park Wednesday evening, they gathered outside of the old library to plan for next steps and remove their gear, before disbanding. 

Supporters of the crisis shelters quickly moved on as well, many either marching to the Gottingen Street police station to check on their friends who were taken into custody, or to the Garrison Grounds for an impromptu Halifax Pride safe space where folks could debrief. There are already resources being shared for other community members who want to help.

Two dozen arrests were made throughout the course of the day. In a statement dated 5:13pm, Halifax Regional Police said the removal of the shelters was “in the interest of public safety and safety of the occupants of these dwellings.”

The day after

It’s unclear why the removal of these shelters took place on Wednesday, August 18. With the provincial election ending as the eviction action began, there’s speculation the city hoped people would be too distracted by politics to notice its sudden police-based approach to homelessness. Residents in Victoria Park told media they believed it was to coincide with the vacation time of Eric Jonsson, the downtown Navigator Street Outreach worker, who according to his voicemail is away until August 23.

But Jonnsson, who spoke with The Coast via phone, says, “I am not that big of a deal,” and doesn’t think that’s the case. As of Thursday, he’s back from vacation early to help people who were recently displaced.

While Halifax Mutual Aid is largely anonymous, current HMA spokesperson Sakura Saunders spoke with The Coast on Thursday morning at Meagher Park, one of only two locations where a wooden shelter is left standing (the other is on Geary Street in downtown Dartmouth).

“We’ve been here since yesterday, early morning,” Saunders explained. “The tents were put up last night and also this morning, there is one person who stayed here last night who was evicted yesterday, because unlike what the city is saying, people have not been offered alternative accommodations.”

click to enlarge On Thursday morning, Meagher Park was one of the few remaining locations with a crisis shelter. - THE COAST
The Coast
On Thursday morning, Meagher Park was one of the few remaining locations with a crisis shelter.

HMA and its supporters are worried one of the two remaining locations will be the next target, and the crowd at Meagher Park on Thursday morning seemed larger and even more vigilant than the day before. “We’re here at this point just watching out for the threat,” Saunders said. “If they come to any of these sites, there will be a call for support.”

Saunders says the support from the community over the past few days has been incredible. “I was here yesterday and neighbours were coming by all day asking if we needed anything, dropping off granola bars and trash bags and someone even ordered us pizza.”

The police reaction, Saunders says, escalated the situation with protesters. “There were a few police officers who seemed intent on hurting them. One person was kicked repeatedly in the head,” she says. “People were brutalized.”

Everyone who was arrested yesterday has been released on a promise to appear in court at a later date. But they were also told they are no longer allowed on city property. “They have been threatened with re-arrest if they show up at any protest,” Saunders says.

Supporters of the temporary shelters seem to have reached the end of their rope for negotiations with city council and HRP—the latter of which is holding a press conference at 3:30pm Thursday. At this point, it’s a crisis situation, and the most important thing is protecting citizens who are under attack.

“It is reprehensible that the city is still evicting people, when that isn't what the residents here necessarily want,” Saunders says. “The city should not be taking down these shelters, if anything they should be helping their most vulnerable residents with housing options. But at the very least, they should not be literally dismantling the bit of help that has been provided by residents pulling together their own resources to help.”

The timing of the election is also no small matter. New premier Tim Houston has yet to comment on Wednesday’s violence, however NDP leader Gary Burrill and two other Halifax MLAs were at the protests. Since Halifax Regional Council has repeatedly deferred to the province on the matter, the PC government is now facing its first big challenge in terms of both optics and policy.

“How would the premier feel if we kicked him out of his house? How would the mayor feel if we kicked him out of his house?” asks Simba, a man who was supporting evicted residents at Victoria Park on Wednesday. “They’d be calling the military, police, they’d be like, ‘we have terrorists in town.’ Now, we’re being terrorized by our own government.”

This story has been updated to include comment from councillor Shawn Cleary, and to retract the names of people arrested and/or detained by the police.

About The Authors

Lyndsay Armstrong

Lyndsay is a city reporter covering all things Halifax, health and COVID-19. She is a data journalist who has covered provincial politics for allNovaScotia.com and represented Nova Scotia in a national investigation into lead in drinking water with the Toronto Star and Global.

Isabel Buckmaster

Isabel has been a freelance reporter with The Coast since 2020, covering a variety of topics including the environment, development, and other social issues. Before the Coast, Isabel worked at the Dalhousie Gazette as opinions editor and is going into their fourth year in journalism at the University of King’s...

Victoria Walton

Victoria has been a full-time reporter with The Coast since April 2020, covering such topics as COVID-19, small business and politics. Originally from the Annapolis Valley, she graduated from the University of King’s College School of Journalism in 2017.

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