After a massive protest resulting in two dozen arrests, and injuries to both police and civilians, housing advocates and allies in Halifax are setting up camp by temporary shelters to protect them from removal.
Volunteers are staying at encampments in Halifax and Dartmouth, where a handful of small wooden structures built by Halifax Mutual Aid remain. A spokesperson for the group, Sakura Saunders, said Friday their presence will continue around the clock
“We are hoping the fact that police have not raided is a sign that perhaps they’ve changed their tact on this subject, but we are not going to leave until we get an assurance that they’re going to leave the shelters alone,” she said.
On Wednesday, Halifax Regional Police moved in to dismantle shelters by the Spring Garden Road Memorial Library. They were met with resistance by a massive crowd of allies trying to protect the shelters and the unhoused individuals who have relied on them for a safe place to stay.
On Thursday, Police Chief Dan Kinsella described some members of that crowd as “hostile,” “aggressive,” “assaultive,” and armed with sensory irritant and projectiles which they used on his officers. He said some protesters organized and well-equipped to carry out the disruption, and officers had to ensure the safety of everyone around, which they did “using their training, their skill and professionalism.”
In the end, police arrested 24 people and used pepper spray on the crowd, injuring dozens — including a 10-year-old.
The police narrative of events does not line up with what many of the demonstrators have said.
Saunders noted officers escalated the confrontation themselves and no one showed up to the Spring Garden encampment prepared for violence or pepper spray. Their numbers, she explained, was a dissuasion tactic.
“We were operating under the assumption that that sort of show of hundreds of people coming out to support these shelters would dissuade the police with following through with their orders and have them back off in the name of public safety,” she said.
“We were not only disappointed, but enraged in how the police decided to react to that level of community support.”
She also criticized Kinsella’s tone in the press conference, which did appear to show “humility” or “remorse,” particularly as he addressed questions about the child who was pepper-sprayed.
Kinsella was not available for an interview on Friday.
The temporary shelters in public parks and on public property run against municipal bylaws, and both the Halifax Regional Police and Halifax Regional Municipality have said every effort has been made to offer their occupants other accommodations. Some residents of the shelters — particularly those residing in tents — have said they were not offered a place to stay.
El Jones, a journalist, professor, poet and activist, said the resources poured into Wednesday’s evictions are indicative of the municipal government’s priorities, and notable as conversations about defunding police continue across the country.
“All the resources were able to be thrown into criminalizing homelessness in this city, and all that money could be providing housing,” she said. “I think it’s a real example of what we value and what we’ll spend money into.”
Jones said it’s important to press for accountability not just from police, but from the elected officials who approve their budgets. Advocates, she added, are calling for a review of police conduct by the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners.
A request for comment on this story has been sent to the board.
Neither Shawn Cleary, nor Waye Mason — two city councillors whose districts have been the site of shelter evictions — immediately responded to interview requests on Friday.
Mason, however, released a written statement saying Wednesday’s events made him “sick to my stomach.” He wrote that accounts of police officers removing their name tags, and at least one officer wearing a thin blue line badge, outline “unacceptable behaviour,” and appealed to the public for calm.
Nova Scotia’s police watchdog, the Serious Incident Response Team (SiRT), told Global News it has received 22 emails about police conduct on Wednesday, none of which would trigger an investigation under its mandate to examine interactions between police and the public that may have resulted in death, serious injury or sexual assault.
“All of these (emails) were with respect to some police officers not wearing name tags and/or wearing thin blue line pins,” wrote SiRT director Felix Cacchione in an emailed statement.
“A few of these 22 e-mails also contained questions about why pepper spray was used, why the police were there, the lack of de-escalation, the police chief not being truthful in a press release and a reporter being told they could be arrested for obstruction of a peace officer.”
Cacchione said those concerns would be “best addressed” by complaints to the Professional Standards Unit of the Halifax Regional Police or the Nova Scotia Police Complaints Commission.
On Friday afternoon, the Halifax Region Police Association (HRPA) released a statement regarding the shelter removals, welcoming an independent inquiry into “examine the origins” of the police operation two days two ago.
“We support our members who so often have no control over the duties they are assigned to perform,” said HRPA president Sgt. Dean Stienburg, in the release. “To be effective and legitimate, the policing profession must be free of political and municipal administrative influence and interference.”
Stienburg was not available for an interview Friday, but noted that several officers were injured in the course of the operation.
All of the demonstrators arrested on Wednesday have been released with conditions, and a fund has been set up to help pay for their fines and legal counsel.