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Halifax police pepper spray crowd during protests over torn-down shelters

Click to play video: 'Protestors confronted Halifax police trying to evict people' Protestors confronted Halifax police trying to evict people
Watch: It was a chaotic scene in Halifax as protesters confronted police who were trying to evict people living in tents around the city. Police arrested several people and used pepper spray on several more as the protests wore on. Alexa MacLean has more. – Aug 18, 2021

Halifax Regional Police officers unleashed pepper spray on a crowd of people protesting their forcible removal of an encampment being used by people without homes on Wednesday.

Police began dismantling tents and temporary shelters and telling occupants to immediately vacate the park near the old Spring Garden Road Memorial Library that morning.

They were met with anger from a large group of people in the area, with several people later arrested after a protective wall was formed in front of the crisis shelters. The people could be heard telling police that the occupants had no other housing options.

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Police officers eventually forcibly moved the wall of people, and could be heard telling them that contractors had been ordered to remove the shelters.

The number of arrests appeared to be higher than 10.

The scene became increasingly chaotic in the afternoon and police officers could be seen spraying pepper spray at people.

In a video posted to social media by Halifax Examiner reporter Zane Woodford, a man could be heard shouting, “You maced my kid, you maced a f–ing 10-year-old.”

Forced removal

Officers waited outside each of the temporary crisis shelters and tents until the occupants left Wednesday morning. Most occupants were still sleeping.

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One remaining shelter remained at the old library site during the noon hour Wednesday. Police circled the structure, which saw someone sitting on top, and with growing crowd gathering nearby.

The person later climbed down and was arrested immediately. City officials began sawing down the structure, behind a line of Halifax Regional Police officers decked out in riot gear.

More than 10 officers stood by as several youths tore down their tents at Peace and Friendship Park in Halifax also on Wednesday. One of the older occupants, whom Global News was told is also a military veteran, said he was “yanked” out of his tent when officers first arrived.

Another 22-year-old occupant, who goes by the name Thomas, was issued a $237.50 ticket at 7:30 a.m. by police officers for “camping in parks without permission.”

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He said he was issued this ticket despite willingly gathering his belongings and vacating his tent.

Read more: Unhoused man living in woods says crisis shelters needed throughout HRM

Global News reporter Alexa MacLean took footage of the protest and police from the steps of the old Spring Garden Road Memorial Library, but was told by police that if she and other reporters moved off those steps they would be arrested for obstruction.

Halifax Regional Municipality trucks and staff have also arrived to load up occupants’ belongings. Many occupants say they have nowhere to put their belongings, so had to leave them behind.

Police respond

In a release, Halifax Regional Police spokesperson Cst. John MacLeod said the operation followed an “extensive effort” over the last few months focused on “education, awareness and engagement.” He said the encampments were in violation of existing laws and regulations.

He said officers went to Peace and Friendship Park, Halifax Common, Horseshoe Island Park and the site of the former Spring Garden Road Library around 6:15 a.m.

“Following an extensive and progressive effort, actions were taken today in the interest of public safety and safety of the occupants of these dwellings,” the release said.

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“At the Spring Garden Road site, a group of people made repeated attempts to prevent the removal of the temporary shelters. As a result, a number of people were arrested for obstructing police officers in the execution of their duties as well as for assault(ing) police.”

He said the people arrested will be released on a promise to appear in court at later dates.

The release also included a statement from HRP Chief Dan Kinsella, who said there have been an increase in calls for service and complaints about the encampment sites.

“We have an obligation to protect public safety, as well as the safety of those living in these encampments,” he said. “Our approach always starts with engagement, and we continue to work with the municipality, service providers and community partners on ways to best support people experiencing homelessness.”

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The statement did not address the amount of force used by police nor the officers’ use of pepper spray. It also did not indicate how tearing down the shelters protected the safety of the occupants.

HRM said the situation at a number of parks due to these tents has “created an increased risk to the health and safety of both the tent occupants and the public, and must be addressed.”

The municipality said it has received many reports from residents, including public nuisance complaints and concerns for public safety.

“In light of this, steps were taken earlier this week to provide tent occupants with written notice to vacate and remove all belongings from the municipal property immediately,” HRM said.

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“The municipality is hopeful that occupants of homeless encampments will voluntarily vacate and remove their belongings from the parks,” it added.

As of Wednesday morning, HRM said it is following up with tent occupants “to aid the safe removal of tents from municipal parks.”

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said police were doing their best to de-escalate the situation at the old central library site.

“It’s obviously not gone the way that would have been ideal,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “We are trying to treat people with dignity and move people who are homeless into better locations.”

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Savage said similar removal operations at three other city locations proceeded without incident earlier in the day. He said the city had taken a gradual approach to the library protest, and had given notice of its intent nearly two months ago when it said it wanted the property cleared.

“We told people that we would not move anybody until we knew that they had an appropriate place to go in terms of supportive housing,” Savage said. “We have waited and tried to do this in a sensitive and humane way and today was the day.”

The mayor said it will take efforts by all levels of government to tackle the homeless issue and the lack of affordable housing. “As a city we will look at any option and accept our responsibility for it,” Savage said.

— with files from Alex Cooke and The Canadian Press.

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