About 90 people gathered Tuesday outside a Halifax courthouse to demand that charges be dropped against 24 protesters who were arrested during an August demonstration over the removal of homeless shelters.
Defence lawyer Asaf Rashid, who represents 17 protesters, said Tuesday at the peaceful gathering that the Crown should drop the charges on the basis that it is not in the public interest to proceed.
“The people who showed up were brave because what they saw was an abuse of the right to housing,” the lawyer said. “Individuals staying in those encampments had no place to go.”
The Aug. 18 demonstration outside the former Halifax public library grew tense after police arrested a man who had been sitting on the roof of one of the small wooden shelters erected by an advocacy group for the homeless.
After the protest spilled from a lawn into nearby streets, officers sprayed people with chemical irritants, and police later donned riot gear to keep demonstrators away from the shelter when contractors arrived to cut it into pieces.
The 24 protesters have been charged by police with a variety of offences, including obstruction, assaulting police and resisting arrest. Rashid said he represented his 17 clients in court Tuesday for their arraignment, and that the next court date for his clients is Nov. 4 at Halifax provincial court.
Rashid said the reaction to the protest by police was excessive, given the context of years of neglect in creating affordable housing in Nova Scotia, resulting in people being forced to set up tents and live in the wooden shelters.
“We’ve seen a housing crisis and homelessness crisis. Many working families can no longer afford rent, and a lack of rent control has resulted in people losing their places to live,” he said.
The lawyer said there weren’t adequate efforts to provide services such as bathrooms and garbage collection to encampments around the city, adding that promises to provide alternatives to those living in tents and shelters also fell short of the need.
Given these circumstances, he said, police reaction to the crowd’s frustration went too far. “All we saw was people who were defending the right to housing on that day,” Rashid said.
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage has defended the police response, saying officers were attempting to de-escalate a tense situation. The mayor has said the city had given notice two months before the Aug. 18 demonstration to the advocacy group involved that it wanted the shelter removed, as it was in violation of municipal bylaws.
On Sept. 29, the mayor announced the municipality planned to create 137 new affordable housing units, starting with modular trailers that could be used as homes for some of those who continue to live in tents and temporary shelters around the city.
In the announcement, the municipality said it would use $20 million from Ottawa’s rapid housing initiative to create the trailer-like units, designed to include up to 10 beds and with kitchen areas and laundry facilities – housing a total of about 70 people. The city said it was also working to temporarily convert a municipally-owned rink in Dartmouth, N.S., into an emergency shelter.
NDP Leader Gary Burrill, who attended the Aug. 18 demonstration and Tuesday’s rally, said the arrests were the consequence of years of neglect by provincial and federal governments in the provision of affordable housing.
“We would not be here today if it were not for the abject, utter, comprehensive failure at every level of government,” he told the gathering.
Burrill also said charges should be dropped, adding that the protesters should be given a “citation of merit” for their efforts to draw attention to the housing crisis, rather than brought before judges to face charges.
Global has reached out to Halifax Regional Police to speak with Chief Dan Kinsella, but was told that he wouldn’t be available for an interview “as he has prior commitments.”
Police were also asked about whether any disciplinary action was taken for officer conduct on Aug. 18 after citizens filed complaints regarding the lack of ID on police uniforms.
In response to that, HRP media relations officer Const. John MacLeod said, “it would be inappropriate for us to comment on an incident that is before the courts.”
“We can confirm that we have heard both formally and informally from citizens in relation to the matters that you mention. It is not our practice to get into the specifics of complaints in relation to our employees or internal personnel matters,” he added.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2021.