trinity bellwoods

Toronto criticized for heavy police presence at Trinity Bellwoods Park encampment

There's no question that the clearing of the tent encampments at Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods park got completely out of hand on Tuesday, with a tense and at times even violent standoff between residents and police finally ending in the early evening after nearly 12 hours.

In the wake of the day's events, the park has been emptied, criminal charges have been pressed against multiple protesters, and the city is facing extensive censure for what was felt to be unnecessarily heavy-handed police presence.

It was early in the morning that city staff began entering the park, gloved and donned in fluorescent t-shirts, to enforce trespass notices that were earlier this month issued to the group of 25-or-so homeless citizens who have been living in the popular green space.

Like a number of other downtown parks, Bellwoods was selected as a priority location for such action given the makeshift community that had cropped up there amid the pandemic and the blow COVID has dealt the city's shelter system.

"As outlined in the recent City Manager’s report to City Council, encampments contravene several chapters of the Municipal Code and are not a solution to homelessness," the City said in a statement of the planned action in the public space.

"The health outcomes for people who stay outside are complex and serious. Individuals living in encampments are also at risk of contracting COVID-19. The risk of fires is also high."

But it wasn't the city team that people on the site seemed to have a problem with yesterday, though there has been much opposition to what they were sent to do — it was the countless riot police, armed with tear gas, rubber bullets and worse, that began flooding the park as protesters tried to stop the clearing.

Both those on the scene and those witnessing it on social media were shocked by the substantial presence of cops and private security, who set up a human perimeter and then actual fencing around the encampment area to keep demonstrators out.

It appeared that the city was expecting a scene for the confrontation of what was really a very small group of people who were given a few hours to collect their things and leave the park for designated shelter spaces where they will receive a bed, food, job help and mental health supports through the new Pathway Inside program.

And it was definitely a scene that they got, though not from actual encampment residents themselves, but from zealous activists who were apparently acting on their behalf.

The dramatic sight was definitely quite dystopian and did not feel like something that could actually happen in Toronto, with residents attempting to tear down the fencing as they hurled insults and actual items at what indeed seemed like far too many authorities for the situation.

Toronto Police Service has since also been condemned for keeping journalists out from the encampment area as they tried to cover the ordeal and, as the Canadian Association of Journalists note in a statement on the matter, for detaining one photojournalist.

"The Toronto Police have no right to detain journalists who are covering events of public interest. Today's events were a complete overreaction. Toronto Police used a hammer to swat a fly," CAJ's president said yesterday.

Though the tactics employed definitely could have been better — the sheer number of police in their full garb was shocking and deliberately intimidating — the city does make a fair point that permitting individuals to reside in our parks isn't a long-term fix for our homelessness crisis.

The fact that all those living in the encampment accepted the help and housing options the city was offering and ended up asking protesters to leave the scene also gives some indication of the dynamics of yesterday's fight. 

Mayor John Tory said in a presser today that the police presence was a response to the "hundreds of people who showed up and involved themselves who were not the people experiencing homelessness that we were trying to help."

He called these protesters "people who were trying to make a statement," and noted their continued steadfast opposition of all of the city's efforts in the encampment situation.

Perhaps it would be best for those who want to support our neighbours in tents to let them speak for themselves. 

Lead photo by

Martin Reis

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