Early this summer, Halifax had given and missed its own deadline for removing shelters from the old Halifax Memorial Library grounds. The next steps were unclear, but tensions on all sides were rising and it was clear the city was gearing up to do something.
In early July, councillor Shawn Cleary told The Coast that if shelters came down at the old Memorial Library on Spring Garden Road, he didn’t want it to be done in a violent way.
“We’ve seen Trinity Bellwoods in Toronto, we do not want that to happen here in Halifax,” Cleary said in a Coast story published July 12. “If anything like that happens, council will be outraged at our staff, council will be outraged at the police. We do not want the police dragging people out of these shacks and throwing them out onto the street.”
It was an empathetic response, a human reaction to a dire situation. Cleary’s words at the time showed that beneath their hard, bylaw-touting shells, councillors do actually have values. Maybe even good ones.
This humanity, and how to overcome it, may be what what city chief administrative office Jacques Dubé had in mind when he sent an email to council a few weeks later. “Please keep this information confidential,” Dubé wrote at the top of his August 3 memo, introducing the plan to evict people from public property that would become the notorious shelter siege, Halifax’s very own Trinity Bellwoods-style violent police action that took place Wednesday, August 18.
The Coast obtained more than 200 pages of documents released by Halifax Regional Municipality in a freedom of information request related to the shelter siege. The documents contain emails between councillors and staff that show not only did council know about the shelter siege in advance, but CAO Dubé and other staff actively shaped the message council would give to members of the public.
Dubé’s first email begins by planting the seed that there's no alternative to what's about to happen, and no one is willing to work with the city on this.
“As previously updated, attempts to contact and work with the Halifax Mutual Aid Society on solutions to this issue, options for occupants of the temporary shelters, or removal of all shelters were not successful,” says the email that was sent a full two weeks before the police action took place.
Dubé tells councillors that nobody will be evicted without being offered alternative shelter. “Those other housing solutions have been offered to most residents in tents and all those in shelters,” he wrote. “To mitigate public health and safety risks, as well as liability concerns for the municipality, we need act [sic] soon to remove those structures, prioritizing the encampments at the Peace and Friendship Park and the Memorial Library site.”
After the siege, the promise of being able to accommodate everyone in need would turn out to be untrue.
There are no specific dates, with Dube instead referring to the "week of August 2" and the "week of August 9" as potential dates. But overall, the plan was clear: tents and crisis shelters built by Halifax Mutual Aid would be removed as soon as individuals were "offered a supportive housing bed in September, whether they accept the bed or not."
In response, Paul Johnston, the manager of external relations for the city, brought up a few concerns. “From a Comms / public perception standpoint, there may be a bit of an issue with the Friday timing, especially if we aren't issuing notices until later in the day,” he wrote to Dubé, also noting that “in terms of the timing of any enforcement activity, aside from the election Tuesday, there is a Pride March that is supposed to end at Peace and Friendship Park on Monday evening.”
This was the first indication something might go wrong, optics-wise. Even though the evictions ended up taking place on a Wednesday, not a Friday, a Pride event at the Garrison Grounds was cancelled the night of August 18 in solidarity, and converted to a safe space for protesters.
The specifics of the email don’t include planned police violence or pepper-spraying a child, but does say HRP will respond with "appropriate enforcement if we receive reports that potential criminal behaviour is occurring at any of these sites."
The email also told councillors that any new tents showing up at various parks after the initial evictions would be removed. “Our intention is to immediately remove any tents that are re-installed once removed but further decisions on enforcement may be required at locations where tents continue to return or individuals refuse to leave,” wrote Dubé.
If councillors responded to the memo, it was to thank Dubé for the warning. “Thanks Jacques—really appreciate the ‘heads up’ as well as all the work you are doing to try to resolve this very difficult situation,” replied District 10’s Kathryn Morse.
There was an included four-page Q&A with written answers, which councillors were told to use to satisfy any prying from their constituents or media. It includes questions like "Is there a deadline to remove tents?" (answer: residents have been asked to remove their tents immediately) and "Where are people supposed to go?" (answer: the province, through Housing Support Workers, and the city, through Business Improvement Districts' Street Outreach Navigators, have offered individuals living in tents, and all those living in temporary shelters, housing options).
On August 12, Dubé again wrote councillors to say that his direction to staff to enforce shelter removal had not changed, “assuming Dan [Kinsella, the chief of police] et al are ready to deploy.”
On Monday, August 16, just two days before the violent evictions and arrests, Dubé sent another email, saying eviction notices were being served to shelter and tent occupants. “You will likely receive feedback through various channels as a result,” he said, anticipating that concerned members of the public would reach out to their councillors. Word spread quickly on social media once eviction notices were handed out.
UPDATE@hfxgov has been sending police & bylaw officers to serve eviction notices to people living in crisis shelters & tents. Some were told directly that forcible evictions could begin today. Others just found notices duct taped to what little shelter they have. pic.twitter.com/6DQkD0OaTL— MutualAidHFX (@MutualAidHfx) August 17, 2021
The documents also reveal another communications plan was sent on Monday, August 16, this one to be used on the day of the evictions. It includes responses to questions like “What will happen to people’s belongings?” (answer: occupants may retrieve personal belongings by contacting 311 or by working with the Street Outreach Navigators) and "Is this a violation of the tent occupants' Section 7 Charter rights?" (answer: given the support and options being made available to occupants of homeless encampments by the province, the actions taken by the municipality are legally defensible and will not serve to deprive these individuals of their Section 7 Charter rights).
There is no indication in the documents that councillors were instructed to be out of office or on vacation on August 18, the day the violent evictions at the Memorial Library site took place—but verbal agreements cannot be obtained by FOI requests. There are also multiple redacted paragraphs in the documents. Eric Johnson, one of the Navigator Street Outreach workers, had been on vacation that week, but after the siege he returned to work early to assist people who'd been suddenly displaced.
The documents show emails sent between councillors and staff up until August 20, about 48 hours after the evictions. The final pages show frantic emails between councillors who had received numerous emails from their constituents. “My response has started via email to all who wrote me. Feel free to share or use as you see fit,” wrote Dubé after telling councillors that he alone already received 500 emails.
Other councillors composed their own messages. "Let me start by saying nobody wants to see violence on the streets of Halifax," councillor Cleary wrote to staff, giving an example of what he sent to his residents who reached out. "It is very unfortunate that some protesters chose to punch, push, pull, kick, and headbutt police officers. It is unacceptable that some protesters threw things at police and smashed in windows and damaged city and police vehicles."
Some councillors even emailed each other to ensure that their messaging was consistent. “Thank you for sending this along...can I use some paragraphs from this in my own response? I especially like the point about Mutual Aid,” councillor Lisa Blackburn asked councillor Sam Austin.
"Mutual Aid has some good intentions, but having an anonymous third party create permanent encampments that have little supporting services, with no input or planning from anyone else, has been problematic," said Austin's letter, later posted to his website, which he gave Blackburn the go-ahead to use. "HRM has tried to engage with Mutual Aid, but they're an anonymous group that will only communicate on twitter."
Interviewed this week, Austin recalls the events of that day and says he was writing from the ferry to Newfoundland. Austin says it was the beginning of a vacation with his family that had been planned months earlier, not an effort between councillors to be unavailable that day.
"In a normal year that is—besides Christmas—the slowest time of the year," Austin tells The Coast in a phone call. "So not a co-ordination, just summer in Nova Scotia."
The downtown Dartmouth councillor says he doesn't regret anything from his response during the time, except for telling people that everyone had been offered alternate housing, a fact he later discovered to be untrue.
"There's nothing in my statement that I look at today that's like 'well jeez that wasn't great.'"
Some of the aforementioned emails from constituents are also included in the documents, with the senders' names redacted. “I feel helpless to do anything to rectify the problem except to contact you and beg, demand that you make this your #1 priority,” says one email sent to councillor Mancini. “I cannot think of another issue more important than getting people off the street and into proper homes.”
The emails released in the freedom of information request don't contain replies to constituents, unless councillors forwarded them to other city staff or colleagues.
There’s also an email from CUPE Local 108 President Scott Chetwynd, which represents the Halifax Civic Workers who were directed to remove structures that day. “I am requesting that they immediately be escorted to their depot where they are safe and I would like to meet with you about what has transpired in the near future,” it reads. “This is a situation that our members should have never been put in and is frustrating to say the least but my immediate concern is their safety. We will have much to discuss in the coming days.”
On August 18 around noon, after evictions at Horseshoe Park had happened without incident and just as the public was mobilizing to make a stand at the old library, councillors were sent yet another email from Dubé, indicating that there would be an update that day at 2:30, even as the evictions were still taking place. That update took place on Microsoft Teams.
The day ended with 24 arrests and left Haligonians with more questions than answers. With no public statement from city hall that night, council remained silent.
Two days later, council’s communications specialist Heidi Kirby requested that anyone who had already spoken to the media let city staff know—once again trying to coordinate a measured, uniform response from everyone at city hall.
“Feel free to share what you have been sending as a generic reply,” wrote Kirby on August 20. “However, the focus here is on public statements.”
Only a few councillors seemed to find a problem with the city’s plan. “Am I missing it but I don't see any reference to shelters or hotels?” asked Tony Mancini on August 20, after seeing the eviction notice that had been distributed to people living in parks. A fair question, considering this is the part of the plan the city lobbed to the provincial government, which has historically been responsible for housing in Nova Scotia, until HRM decided to request to tackle it.
Dubé replied, “The hotel stays have to be coordinated through the Navigators and Provincial staff who were involved in the operation. The occupants cannot contact the hotel on their own. All occupants were advised of their options by those resources and park staff.”
District 11’s Patty Cuttell also questioned the events, but only after the fact, when she emailed Dube to confirm what housing options were provided to those displaced.
“Can you please confirm and let me know who offered these housing options, how many people accepted, for how long these options are available, and who is handling their cases now,” she said in an email on August 19. Cuttell added, “Also, I was dismayed to see the use of pepper spray and the police lines on our city. This is not the Halifax I know.”
Looking back almost three months later, councillor Lisa Blackburn says she'd ask more questions. "I don't think the information provided was as complete as it could have been, or should've been," she tells The Coast in a phone call.
But she doesn't blame the CAO's office or city staff, and says it's the province that dropped the ball, leaving the city to pick up the pieces. "My impression was that the CAO was promised certain things by the province that didn't come to task," Blackburn says. "And at that time we were still trying to determine what the hell had happened. Why did this all go sideways when we were told that everything was in place as far as the province was concerned?"
Some councillors also had to work to help find housing for the people whose shelters they agreed to take down. “I have a group of service providers who are looking to organize a meeting today to address the 40 people who have been displaced (this is their number),” wrote councillor Lindell Smith on August 19. “They want us, the Province, and themselves to have a discussion to get on the ‘same page’ and find solutions.”
The public noticed the coordinated messaging from councillors, both in the media and on social media accounts, in the days following the evictions. It’s clear now that the reason behind it was coordinated direction from the top dogs at city hall.
The memos changed how councillors spoke, switching up their usually polite responses to residents into curt, gruff ones.
“Moving people into safe alternatives like hotels, shelters or other short-term housing options and in short order into permanent housing is the alternative I want,” said councillor Waye Mason in three identical August 23 tweets, almost directly parroting a response from the communications plan.
But Dubé’s final email included in the documents, sent to Johnston around 8pm on August 20, shows that after executing its own plan, the city was still scrambling. Some sort of miscommunication meant the hotel didn't have enough rooms or services to help the people whom the city forced to move there.
“Sorry to be sending this now but need to get to the truth,” he wrote. “...no hotel rooms beyond the five were available and those that were, only for only 1-2 nights. No wrap around services either. This is a big problem if true. Please advise.”
The municipality refused a request for an interview with CAO Dubé. Multiple requests for interviews were also not returned by councillors Mason or Cleary.
Although the email documents end at August 20, council continues to talk about the actions of that week. At council’s first meeting after the shelter siege, councillors gave staff $500,000 to tackle the housing crisis. (Another $3.2 million has been tacked on since then, after the modular housing units at the heart of staff’s solution didn't meet expectations.) Council also promised to do better.
“I want to say how sorry I am that those unintended consequences, of what we thought was a good plan, unfolded,” councillor Becky Kent said at the August 31 meeting. “I never want to see something like that happen again in this city.”
Update: Councillor Shawn Cleary called The Coast back after this article was published. He says he has no regrets about the way HRM and council behaved leading up to August 18. "I think given the circumstances it was handled as well as can possibly be handled," Cleary said.
Correction: This article was updated to add email correspondence from councillor Patty Cuttell that was previously overlooked.