Organizing in Crisis: Ten Years After the OCAP March on Queen’s Park

On July 21 of this year, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) rallied outside the Ministry of Community and Social Services in Toronto. We were challenging the Ontario government’s brutal elimination of the Special Diet for those who are forced to survive on sub-poverty welfare and disability payments. Eleven of us entered the nearby offices of the Liberal Party, opened a window, hung a banner, and addressed the crowd. The police rapidly intervened and, with none of the warnings or ultimatums normally provided at such occupations, arrested and handcuffed the members of the OCAPdelegation. Charges of trespass, mischief, and forcible entry (the last two carrying potential two year jail terms) were laid and those charged were held overnight, forced to provide sureties, and hit with restrictive bail conditions. The Crown would have won considerably worse conditions if not for the skillful intervention of movement lawyer Mike Leitold.

Sitting on a cold steel bench in one of the cells at the 52 Division, I pondered the significance of such an escalation of police tactics. It seemed clear that many of the things we had said during the recent G20 Summit in Toronto were not that far off the mark. Ontario is moving to impose its own component of capitalism’s international agenda of austerity. The poor have been targeted for social cutbacks and public sector workers are facing a wage freeze. Now, in the wake of the massive police crackdown that marked the G20 gathering, the emerging opposition to Ontario’s austerity drive is facing intensified intimidation.

As the night wore on, I suddenly realized the significance of the date. Exactly 10 years before, on July 21, 2000, three of us from OCAP– Gaetan Heroux, Stefan Pilipa, and myself – had spent the night in the same row of cells facing riot charges stemming from our June 15 march on the Ontario Legislature. I began to consider some of the fundamental similarities and considerable differences between the context of our work then and today. The Toronto Police are not the most generous hosts and their facilities are lacking in a number of ways. As I tried to form my thoughts that night, I found the lack of pen and paper to be a much bigger problem than the absence of blankets, pillows, and soap.

June 15, 2000

The march on the Ontario Legislature on June 15, 2000 (dubbed “the Queen’s Park Riot” by the media) was one of the landmark events of the anti-Tory mobilization of that period. Some 1,500 people, most of them directly affected by the government’s attacks on the poor, came to the Legislature to advance demands around housing and income, and to call upon the Mike Harris regime to allow a delegation of homeless people and allies to address the Legislative Assembly. The Tories refused to consider this demand. Instead they handed the matter over to the police, who used mounted units and riot formations to clear the grounds of the Legislature. The hour-long battle that ensued captured national and even international attention. Dozens of us were arrested and scores were injured on both sides. OCAPwas demonized in the media. Arrests continued in the weeks that followed and those of us deemed by the Crown Attorney to have organized the event faced antiquated and reactionary criminal charges taken from the seldom used public order sections of the Criminal Code. Huge support for OCAPdeveloped in the course of these attacks and, despite having to organize legal defence on a large scale, our mobilizing work continued and grew during this period.

The decision to organize this march on the Legislature flowed from the political situation at that time and the state of resistance to the Tory government. The trade union leaders had given up on the notion of stopping the Mike Harris agenda and its self-professed “Common Sense Revolution.” They had previously launched a series of Days of Action (city-wide strikes and mass mobilizations in a range of Ontario communities), but had refused to take these forward and build a province-wide strike to defeat the Tories. By the time we marched on Queen’s Park, Harris was proceeding with his attacks free from any generalized movement of resistance. Our march put its immediate focus on welfare cuts and homelessness, but its underlying intention was to contribute to rekindling a broad working class challenge to the Tory attacks.

In the weeks and months after the march on Queen’s Park, we sought to utilize the momentum it had generated. By the following year, we were preparing for a campaign of economic disruption and working to put in place a formation that we called the Ontario Common Front. Anti-poverty groups in other cities became part of this, but it also included a range of social movements and groupings within the labour movement that were ready to take an active role in opposing Tory cutbacks.

On October 16, 2001, the Common Front’s campaign began with a 2,500-strong march through Toronto’s financial district. A massive police mobilization failed to keep it from its objective of disrupting the corporations and banks behind Mike Harris’s attacks on poor and working people. The Deputy Chief of Police told the media our march would not be allowed into the financial district just as TV images appeared of a mass of people blocking the intersection at King and Bay, the nerve centre of Canadian finance capital. After this powerful mobilization, marches and other actions took place in a range of communities across Ontario. The campaign was important in terms of framing and developing resistance, and local anti-poverty organizing was taken forward. But the Common Front had still failed to achieve its main goal. Its key slogan, “the long retreat is over,” had some value as an agitational tool, but as a political prediction it was seriously off the mark. With the adverse impacts on social mobilizing of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington adding to our difficulties, we did not succeed in creating a pole of attraction that could revive the challenge to the Tories and the political direction they had established. They lost the next election, but their despicable achievements remained intact. With movement opposition largely demobilized, their liberal replacements were free to consolidate the Common Sense Revolution.

The Years After Harris

Since coming to power in 2003, the McGuinty government has left the social cutbacks delivered by the Tories intact but, up until recently, has been content to let their impacts intensify over time without imposing major additional regressive measures. From their first election win to the 2008 international crisis within capitalism, the Liberals were content to quietly consolidate their position. But it needs to be stressed that this approach did ensure a worsening and serious situation for the poor and for a great mass of working people. For people on social assistance who had faced a 21.6percent cut to their benefits under Harris, McGuinty provided increases well below the rate of inflation. Today, in fact, people on welfare and disability in Ontario have incomes that are 55percent below the spending levels they would have had in the early 1990s. Food bank use and economic eviction of tenants are at levels well above those of the Tory years. Moreover, even before the impacts of the “Great Recession” were felt, a precipitous decline in better-paying industrial employment was already forcing more people to turn to this deteriorating system of social assistance.

Sadly, this ugly period, in which the impacts of the neoliberal agenda have continued to bite deeper in Ontario, has beenmarked by an astounding passivity on the part of unions and social movements. Union leaders have maintained forms of low-key co-operation with the Liberal government and have avoided any major challenge to it. The social agencies have gone even further in this regard. During the Tory years, organizations based on service provision, advocacy, and social analysis were ignored by the government or denounced as “special interest groups.” This changed dramatically when the Liberals came to power. The doors were flung open and opportunities for “consultation” with the government knew no bounds. Private meetings and public hearings on “poverty reduction” were ongoing. Meanwhile, the poor continued to get poorer; but this could easily be overlooked when government ministers were listening with apparent sincerity to eloquent proposals for social reform.

This process of legitimizing a government that was increasing poverty while talking about reducing it was elevated to the level of a theory known as “constructive engagement.” The McGuinty Liberals, it was claimed, were ready to seriously reduce poverty, but they needed realistic proposals from responsible advocates to prompt them into doing the right thing. From this standpoint, abrasive tactics seeking to place pressure on the government were not just mistaken, they were disastrously counter-productive.

The great irony of constructive engagement is that it seeks to win positive change by consciously holding back the very forms of public pressure and social unrest that could actually produce results. Naturally, the Liberals were delighted to maintain the farce of a dialogue that never bore fruit for as long as they could. They ensured that the process was as high profile as possible. The media, most notably The Toronto Star, covered the issue extensively, with human interest stories, analysis pieces, poignant editorials, and a spate of op-ed contributions from key players.

While it is impossible to deny how useful this process was for the Liberals’ strategy of neoliberism by stealth, the period was by no means devoid of resistance by the poor. OCAPcontinued to work on a number of fronts. In addition to our ongoing use of collective action to settle the individual grievances of people facing denial of welfare, eviction from their housing, and suchlike, we took action on some of the broader issues low income communities face. We mobilized to defend the homeless who were being displaced by gentrification. We challenged the appalling lack of maintenance and repair in Toronto’s public housing communities. We continued to demand that social assistance rates be raised. And we took up our most important fight of all around access to the Special Diet, a supplementary dietary allowance for people on social assistance that provides up to $250 per month per person if a medical provider fills in the appropriate application form. Since 2005, OCAP’s main efforts have centred on the fight to access this benefit. We have played the role of catalyst and major participant in an ongoing effort that has transformed the Special Diet program from a relatively obscure provision paying $6 million a year across Ontario to one that, as of last year, provided $200 million and benefited one social assistance recipient in five. In carrying out this work, we have limited the McGuinty government’s covert agenda to erode income adequacy for the poor and, we very much hope, we have laid the basis for bigger struggles aimed at raising social assistance rates in Ontario.

The Special Diet

In sketching out some of the key elements of resistance to poverty in the years since the Harris Tories, the Special Diet fight is especially noteworthy not only because of the millions of dollars it has taken back for poor people and families. It has also been important precisely because it has been, very literally, a fight all along. Once we promoted knowledge of the benefit and won the co-operation of medical providers who worked with us to hold “hunger clinics” to ensure access to the Special Diet, government and welfare bureaucracies did all they could to counter us. From provincial initiatives to limit access to the benefit, down to the ongoing covert operation by local social assistance offices to improperly deny applications, we were faced with a pressing and continued need to mobilize in communities to defend the right to this income. Innumerable marches, demonstrations, office occupations, and case actions were taken up to beat back all attempts to limit the availability of the Special Diet. People across the province took action and many specific communities were part of this. The leading force was found in Toronto’s Somali community. From 2005 to the present day, Somali women have led the mobilization to defend the Special Diet. The level of organization within their community is now quite unique and powerful and has spilled over into other areas of work. The growth of this base has been such that OCAPhas now taken on an organizer, Amina Ali, from within the Somali Community and has a network of activists and supporters who provide an important model for immigrant communities resistiing poverty.

During these few years, when the Special Diet partly compensated for the assault on social assistance income, we were always aware that we were challenging and impeding a key strategy and vital element of the neoliberal agenda. We knew to expect an all-out attack. By the end of 2009, it was becoming clear that a decisive initiative against the food benefit was being prepared. The most dedicated and effective of the medical providers, Dr. Roland Wong, was brought before the College of Physicians and Surgeons. His efforts to provide people with the Special Diet were, the College charged, “incompetent medical diagnoses.” Then, the Ministry of Community and Social Services sent memos to social assistance offices throughout the province authorizing them to reject forms that medical providers filled in if they disagreed with the diagnoses they made. Social services staff without medical knowledge or qualifications were, in this way, empowered to assess and overturn the findings of doctors and other providers. If such a monstrous violation of the most basic notions of administrative fairness could be sanctioned at such a high level, it was very obvious that the elimination of the benefit was a priority for the Liberals.

Then, in April of this year, as part of his annual budget speech, the Finance Minister announced that the Special Diet was being eliminated outright. Currently, while most new applicants are being rejected, those who have already secured the benefit are still being paid. The government plans to replace the Special Diet with an inferior and inadequate system. This new program will be so inadequate and limited that it will close off any means of alleviating poverty and hunger for the major portion of those on social assistance.

The elimination of the Special Diet is one of the first manifestations of Ontario’s local version of the international agenda of austerity that is being charted by such bodies as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the G20. It is important to realize that, while governments across the world are concerned with limiting their debt loads at the expense of programs and services that benefit workers and poor people, their plans for austerity are primarily about tilting the balance of forces in favour of the interests of the capitalist class. With one worker in six in Ontario working at or close to the minimum wage, a severely sub-poverty welfare system is essential if an adequate supply of cheap labour is to be maintained. The Special Diet created a situation where a large minority of people on assistance, heavily concentrated in the Toronto area, found the means to pay the rent and access a reasonably healthy diet. Anything that might place such a limit on the desperation of low-wage workers will not be tolerated in the kind of society being mapped out at G20 meetings.

The immediate responses to the attack on the Special Diet that we have set in motion are very encouraging. Hundreds of people, mainly Somali women, responding to a call by OCAP, took over the main offices of Toronto’s Social Services Division last December to demand the City stop denying applications for the food benefit. A plush Liberal fundraiser was disrupted shortly afterward by those facing the loss of their food supplement. People from low-income communities have turned out several times in Toronto this year to challenge the cut, and a day of action that targeted politician’s offices mobilized poor people in a range of centres outside of the city. However, the fight that is now underway around the dietary allowance and its future has to be assessed in light of the broader attacks that are emerging and the wider prospects for resistance.

Decades of Austerity

I have mapped out some of the ways in which the neoliberal agenda has been advanced in Ontario in the 10years since the march on Queen’s Park. What must be driven home is the degree to which the implementation of that agenda is now being accelerated and intensified. Prior to the emergence of an acute international crisis in 2008, we were dealing with an ongoing and relatively unhurried agenda of dismantling the gains of the post-war boom. Conditions of near economic meltdown, however, prompted massive publicly financed corporate bailouts and unprecedented measures of economic stimulation. These will be paid for through cuts to public services and working class living standards, attempted on a scale far greater than those of recent decades. Many saw the crisis of the last couple of years as marking the end of neoliberalism. They argued that increased controls on market forces had become irresistible and a more socially responsible form of capitalism was unavoidable. Actually, the logic of capitalism is to intensify exploitation in response to crises. Unless working class resistance proves too formidable, that is exactly the course that will be charted by the system’s governments and international bodies, and we will see the decades of austerity that the IMFhas called for.

Obviously, in Canada, the present Federal government is only too ready to play the role of agent of austerity and will not be fundamentally hampered by its minority status in Parliament for the simple reason that none of the opposition parties seriously oppose these regressive measures. Toronto City Council, with its majority of avowed “progressives,” considers the austerity agenda of capitalism and the constraints imposed by the higher levels of government to be an inescapable reality. The dubious left on Council will dutifully impose austerity to whatever extent that “reality” dictates. At the provincial level, it is clear that social cutbacks and other regressive measures are being readied at a feverish pace. McGuinty had been able to drift along with the momentum of the Harris cutbacks, allowing their impact to compound, while presenting an image of progressive enlightenment. That balancing act has now become an unaffordable luxury, and it will have to be abandoned in favour of a more overtly ruthless method of operation. Indeed, McGuinty has begun these attacks with the cut to the Special Diet and a string of other regressive acts.

This change of direction is signaled in attacks on social assistance and moves to further erode the rights of unorganized workers. However, the greatest site of potential conflict is shaping up around efforts to impose a wage freeze on hundreds of thousands of public sector workers. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has begun the process of pressuring union leaders on this front, and the lack of clear and decisive opposition is alarming. It is no great secret that at least a significant section of the public sector union leadership is ready to accept a wage freeze in return for secondary concessions. Their political calculation is that it is better to give up a lot to the Liberals than risk a confrontation that might create the conditions for a Tory election win, which would mean even worse attacks. This reasoning flows from a de factoaccommodation with the Liberal Party that has been progressing for several years. If such a direction prevails and major public sector unions accept the austerity agenda without a fight, the implications are appalling, and not just for those workers who are immediately impacted by a wage freeze. Other union struggles and community-based resistance will unfold at a great disadvantage if concessions are obtained without challenge from the public sector.

The greatest and most important difference between the situation we confronted in 2000 and that of today is the massive international scale of what we are up against. The Harris Tories represented a drive in this province to accelerate the pace of the neoliberal agenda. Their deep cuts and regressive policies complemented the decimation of federal social transfers and the destruction of the Canada Assistance Plan by the Chretien/Martin Liberals in Ottawa.1They represented a major step backward for working and poor people. However, a much more serious attack is being unleashed today. Its form may vary according to political jurisdiction and governing regime, but the common denominator in all this is an international austerity agenda that will be relentlessly pursued over an entire historical period. The specific targets for deficit reduction that were recently hammered out at the Toronto G20 Summit (with the Harper government aggressively on the right wing of the gathering) represent an international directive to step up the attack on past working class gains. The cutbacks that are now unfolding, as a solution to the crisis of their system, represent an extreme intensification of the neoliberalism of the last three decades. The McGuinty government is now preparing to change the Employment Standards Act so as to ensure that workers seeking unpaid wages will have to show that they sought redress from the abusive employer before they can file a complaint with the Ministry of Labour. This measure, which led to a 46 percent reduction in complaints when it was introduced in British Columbia, is being billed by the government as part of a drive to make Ontario “open for business.” It is a mark of the kind of society that has been created in the last decade that a government can openly proclaim an investment strategy based on the notion that employers can avoid paying their workers the wages they legally owe them. It also gives us some sense of how much worse things will become if we do not set decisive resistance in motion.

Clearly, an organized opposition must press unions and social movements to take this path of resistance. As McGuinty begins to do what the international architects of capital expect of him, union leaders are sending out signals that, faced with a wage freeze for public sector workers, their final offer may be abject surrender. As McGuinty enters the history books as only the third Premier in Ontario to actually cut income to people on assistance, in this instance by obliterating the Special Diet, social agencies ask only to be consulted on what could replace it. Without a decisive break from such methods, we are facing an extremely grim situation. If an inadequate and vacillating response to Mike Harris cost us dearly, a course of complete passivity today will lead to utter defeat and demoralization.

Forms of Resistance

In Toronto and, more recently, in Ottawa, a grouping called the Workers’ Assembly has emerged as an attempt to bring together progressive organizations and activists. Hundreds of labour and community activists have participated in Assembly meetings and the group has begun to develop a structure - a set of positions and plans to actively campaign on a number of fronts, including a push for free public transit in Toronto. Others have been involved in this initiative on a much more serious and ongoing basis than I, and I don’t feel qualified to offer a detailed critique. However, I can offer a general comment on the important debates that lie ahead. The immediate strength of the Workers’ Assembly is the range and diversity of its participants from unions and social movements. In the context of a crisis of effective working class leadership, the question will be whether the Workers’ Assembly members limit the Workers’ Assembly’s role to that of mild critic or form a rank and file anti-capitalist caucus to challenge passivity and retreat in their own movements, and organize to create real resistance to capitalist austerity. Such a course would, of necessity, mean building forthright opposition in unions and social movements. This would mean conflict with leadership, and developing, rather than diverting, rank and file frustration and anger. It is too early to assess whether the Workers Assembly will pursue such a direction but, clearly, it has already brought together many of the unionists and community activists who could play a major role in such a struggle. Even if its future remains unclear, the Assembly is an important space for those who want to fight for our movements to change direction. To be blunt, even if this attempt at building an oppositional grouping proves unsuccessful, one way or another, those who want to fight austerity and who see an alternative to what this system offers will have to work.

The tasks and challenges that poor communities must undertake in this resistance are enormous. OCAPhas put down deep roots in several of these communities over the last 10years. We have undertaken a range of struggles and won some important victories. However, faced with the present and looming attacks, our level of mobilization and the base we have created are hopelessly inadequate. There are a few other local anti-poverty groups with a community mobilization perspective, but our combined resource and activist base is still small and the massive challenges of the emerging political situation demand that the scale of resistance be significantly increased.

In assessing OCAP’s work and developments over the last decade, it is worth considering the appropriateness of our tactics and methods. This is all the more so, since I have acknowledged that we exist and intervene on a much smaller scale than that which will be required in the period ahead. I won’t claim to be an unbiased observer, but I do believe that we have made some important contributions with our struggles and provided a model of resistance that others can learn from. However, these achievements have occurred in a period in which capitalists and governments have attacked workers and the poor while working class organizations have not found the means to turn back these attacks. In my view, it would be an unreasonable expectation, given the general climate, our lack of resources, and the fact that we organize among the poorest sections of the working class, to insist that OCAPshould have been able to defeat the agenda of social cutbacks or attain the level of a mass movement. Our tactics and campaigns have been selected on the basis of transforming the latent discontent that exists in poor communities into disruptive action so as to challenge attacks or obtain concessions from the state. Inevitably, some of those choices have produced more clear-cut and substantial results than others. Some were focused primarily on tangible gains for the poor and some sought to raise the level of militancy when the major organizations of the working class were falling far short. There are many things we might have done better or differently. Sometimes, in my opinion, we have placed less emphasis on the day-to-day outreach and development work that is part of building within communities facing attack. The challenge of giving a bold lead while continuing to work with a wide range of allies has produced some tactical blunders along the way. Still, I would argue it is mainly for reasons external to OCAPthat the work of bringing organized resistance into the lives of poor people in Ontario still lies ahead.

In the emerging situation, the basis for overcoming these problems lies partly in the sheer severity of the situation we face. Massive attacks are coming and shock waves will pass through communities that will open up prospects for greatly increased resistance. The cut to the Special Diet is devastating for those it affects, but we would be naïve in the extreme to think that this is the last attack on the poor that McGuinty is prepared to unleash. As austerity measures gather steam, under the Liberals or their replacement, we only have to look at attacks on social assistance that have already taken place in the US to get a sense of what is coming. Some states have eliminated assistance outright for single people. Time limits on the receipt of benefits have been imposed. Outright cuts to already sub-poverty general rates of assistance are also a very real possibility.

In response to such measures, considerable anger and desperation will emerge, but organized resistance will require a politically grounded intervention. Will unions be ready to organize their own unemployed members and provide resources for community based initiatives? Anger can be the basis for resistance or it can sink to the level of despair. In the 1930s, the unemployed and poor were organized in their own neighbourhoods into “block committees.” This model required organizers and political perspectives that were provided by members of the Communist Party and, to a lesser degree, left wing CCFers.2No such forces are immediately available today, but they could be developed and organized with support from the labour movement. Recently, CUPEOntario voted at its convention to support the Special Diet struggle and discussions are underway about working with OCAPto build Raise the Rates committees in various Ontario towns. This could serve as a way forward in building solidarity between poor communities and labour, and fighting more effectively for living inome for those on social assistance.

Ten years ago, we faced a drive to accelerate the pace of neoliberalism in Ontario. As the second decade of this century begins, a much greater onslaught is unfolding. We have gone through the last decade seeking to build decisive resistance in poor communities impeded by the political problems in the working class movement. The crisis of capitalism now becomes a crisis of resistance for a workers movement ill prepared to respond effectively. The retreats of the last decade have cost us a lot, but we are now entering a period when continued retreats will mean crushing defeat. Only a reawakened movement, based on the needs and demands of poor and working people and that refuses to accept the austerity that capitalism requires, can offer a way forward. The IMFproposes 20years of austerity. That is beyond ominous. Ten years from now, we need to be able to look back at today’s moment as the starting point for the development and emergence of new currents of resistance to defeat the G20’s agenda and the capitalist system on whose behalf it operates. H


1The Canada Assistance Plan (1966) required the federal government to cover half the cost of provincial social programs. It was widely seen as means to establish national standards of social provision by allowing the federal government to withhold transfer payments to provinces whose policies were not consistent with federal benchmarks.

> 2The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was a Canadian political party founded by a series of agrarian, socialist, and cooperative groups in the 1930s. In the 1960s it merged with other social democratic formations to become the New Democratic Party (NDP).