Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) is an anti-poverty group in Ontario, Canada, who promote the interests of the poor and homeless. The group enjoys a particular notoriety, especially in Toronto, due to its use of publicity-generating techniques such as direct action including demonstrations that often descend into confrontation and occasionally violence and vandalism perpetrated by its members.
Composition and early history
The coalition was founded in 1989 by activists in the Toronto Union of Unemployed Workers, coming out of a mass "March Against Poverty". The coalition was created to promote concern and action about poverty, homelessness, and gentrification in downtown Toronto. The group is headquartered in Toronto, and that remains the centre of most of their activities, but they have engaged in actions in most major Ontario centres. The movement is composed primarily of the poor and anarchists.
Queen's Park riot and aftermath
On June 15, 2000, OCAP staged a large demonstration on the lawn at Queen's Park in Toronto, during which violent altercations took place between the demonstrators and security officials, police officers, and police horses. The protestors were asking to address the Ontario Legislature in order to demand a repeal of the new Tenant Protection Act which limited tenant rights, to demand increased social housing, to demand an end to the Safe Streets Act which was targeting the homeless and poor, and to reverse the 21.5% cut to welfare payments instituted by the Conservative government. The protestors, which included large numbers of homeless people directly affected by Premier Mike Harris' policies tore up cobblestones to use as projectiles.
In the aftermath, upwards of 40 people were arrested and charged, including three high profile OCAP members — John Clarke, Gaetan Heroux and Stefan Pilipa. The eventual trial of these three was declared by the presiding judge to be a mistrial due to a hung jury. The Crown dropped the charges against Heroux and Pilipa but elected to proceed again against Clarke. All charges against Clarke were eventually dropped when a judge threw them out owing to the Crown's failure to disclose evidence expeditiously.
Charges against most other defendants had mixed results; most were either acquitted or had their charges dropped. In all, however, the crown attorney in conjunction with the Toronto police spent over two years on these cases.
OCAP is funded through private donations and support from labour unions. At one time up to a third of their operating funds coming the Canadian Auto Workers, but the CAW cut most of its funding after the Flaherty action[clarification needed] (Shantz, 2009) and OCAP has since had to engage in raising funds from individuals in order to pay its organizers. Shortly after the CAW discontinued funding OCAP, Canadian Union of Public Employees local 3903, representing York University Teaching Assistants and contract faculty passed a motion to pay the monthly rent for the organization's office space. Strong connections between CUPE 3903 and OCAP were developed when 3903 members took part in a 78 day strike in the winter of 2000/2001. The strike was in defense of tuition indexation to wages and job security that had been challenged by the provincial Tory government. During this period 3903 members became increasingly active in solidarity initiatives with other workers in labour disputes, and with anti-poverty, global justice and anti-war activists re-invigorating politics of direct action. The attempt has been to draw connections between these movements in an anti-racist form of social movement unionism (Black, Simon J. 2005).
Strategy and tactics
A main tactic of the group is Direct Action Casework, which is rooted in labour organizing tactics and the anti-poverty strategy described by Richard Cloward and Fran Piven in the 1972 book, Poor People's Movements. It builds the strength of the community by bringing groups of people together who have similar concerns that aren't being addressed by welfare offices, immigration offices, or housing officials or landlords. As a group, these people and their supporters go en masse to the appropriate office and demand a resolution to their claims, often refusing to leave until their demands are resolved. The principles of Direct Action Casework are as follows: 1. To combine legal work with disruptive action 2. Not to duplicate the work of legal clinics or other agencies 3. To forward political goals but never compromise the interests of those you are working with in the process (Direct Action Casework Manual, OCAP)
The organization has blockaded major streets, squatted abandoned buildings to apply pressure to have them be turned into housing, staged counter-demonstrations at celebrations, conducted confrontational marches through wealthy neighbourhoods, and crashed political events and meetings.
The group is especially confrontational towards neighbourhood associations that tend to work to close homeless shelters and evict the poor from neighbourhoods.
Publicity and results
OCAP's tactics have been very controversial, and the leading members have been arrested and convicted a number of times.
Their confrontational tactics have earned OCAP much publicity and notice from the public, politicians and the police.
OCAP argues they have produced measurable results in changing government policy, stopping deportations, increasing the supply and quality of affordable housing, and helping poor people gain needed social support payments. Critics argue that OCAP has set back this cause by alienating more moderate Ontarians and trade unionists with its confrontational tactics.
Backlash and decline
OCAP's activities have occasionally alienated organizations on the left and in mainstream trade unions; the Canadian Auto Workers and Canadian Union of Public Employees, for example, have, in the past, cut their funding to OCAP. Recent actions by OCAP were perceived by UNITE HERE, the major hotel employees union in Toronto, the Toronto Labour Council and leftist organizations, as being anti-union, which caused some traditional supporters to denounce OCAP and disassociate themselves from the group's activities.