Halifax police charge 24 people following Wednesday's housing protests
Halifax Regional Police arrested 24 people in connection with a protest on Wednesday against the city's decision to remove a series of homeless encampments.
Those arrested face charges including resisting arrest, mischief, obstruction and assaulting police, Chief Dan Kinsella told reporters Thursday, adding they were released Wednesday evening with a promise to appear in court.
"They were in a very complex and difficult situation and responded to the best of their abilities with what they had under the circumstances," Kinsella said of the officers who were deployed to a lawn outside the old Halifax central library site in the city's downtown.
Kinsella said the decision to remove the shelters on that site was made after police had received several complaints of theft, indecent acts and domestic disputes from residents who lived near the encampments. Shelters erected in two other parts of the city were also removed by police Wednesday.
Groups of peaceful protesters had gathered around two shelters at the downtown site Wednesday morning. One man sat atop a wooden shelter constructed by an advocacy group for the homeless, and a police negotiator tried to talk him down while the crowd was held back by a cordon of officers.
The situation escalated after the man was taken away by police and officers began spraying people with irritants while some protesters threw water bottles at officers and their vehicles, Kinsella said. Some of the protesters were "assaultive," he added.
Supt. Andrew Matthews, lead of the operation, told reporters that officers are expected to justify their use of irritants to control crowds, adding that the force plans to investigate the use of the irritants.
"This was a rapidly evolving and fluid situation," Kinsella said. "Officers were in the process of containing a situation and establishing an operational parameter. This was to allow for the safe removal of temporary dwellings that were in fact illegal."
The police chief said people who were using the shelters were offered housing options but did not confirm if any of the individuals took that offer.
Also on Thursday, the Nova Scotia Policing Policy Working Group (NS PPWG) sent out a news release saying it "strongly condemns" the actions of the Halifax Regional Police on Wednesday when city staff evicted people living in crisis shelters and tents in local parks.
The NS PPWG called on the Board of Police Commissioners to take immediate action and review some of the policing incidents documented by local media, particularly at the old library grounds on Spring Garden Road.
The incidents, which they listed in their news release, include:
- demanding that journalists move away from the areas where they were covering the police response, and threatening them with arrest if they did not;
- physically interfering with at least one journalist trying to film the events;
- using disproportionate and excessive force with protesters;
- some police officers removing name tags;
- deploying pepper spray indiscriminately in a busy downtown area without clearing the streets first, injuring children as well as adults; and
- unnecessarily escalating tensions (putting on riot gear, as one example).
"Some members of the NS PPWG themselves experienced (or witnessed) physical violence by the police, including police officers pushing on people’s breasts," the news release said. "What happened (Wednesday) is a reflection of longstanding and systemic issues with policing in
HRM, including the Municipality’s reliance on police to address complex social needs; excessive force by police; and the militarization of the police."
The NS PPWG said the violence occurred because the city moved in to evict homeless people "with no viable plan in place to provide them with safe housing elsewhere."
The NS PPWG said housing is a human right and said Wednesday's failure "represents a policy failure at multiple levels."
The NS PPWG encouraged governments to take the advice of organizations working in the field and pointed to a recent report of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, called Keys to a housing secure future for all Nova Scotians.
Later Thursday evening, the union representing the city workers that were ordered to demolish the shelters, said they were "shocked and upset" by the direction given to them by management.
"Our members want the public to know that they would have opposed the removal of the shelters, as they have done previously," says CUPE 108 president Scott Chetwynd.
Outside workers were also directed by management to remove, box, label and store personal belongings.
"This was initiated by management under a shroud of secrecy. Workers and the union were not given advance notice," adds Chetwynd. "Prior to August 18, HRM management had assured our members that a directive to remove shelters would not happen again. So, workers were shocked when they were given these directives again on Wednesday."
Chetwynd said workers were put in harm's way by the city.
"They faced unsafe conditions throughout the day, without adequate training," Chetwynd said. "Many have told us that they’re traumatized by the events and they’re struggling to understand why their employer would insert them in the middle of such a controversial, ill-planned and unsafe situation."
Chetwynd says the union has advised its members of their right to refuse unsafe work and has contacted Halifax CAO Jacques Dube, but the city had not yet responded.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 19, 2021.
With files from CTV Atlantic.