OCAP Marks its First Twenty Years

Twenty years ago this month, the founding conference of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) took place. In the two decades that have followed, OCAP has organized and mobilized communities under attack in the context of an advancing agenda of neoliberalism. The present situation is dominated by a world-wide crisis of capitalism and, as a result, an intensified drive to impose austerity on working-class populations and the poor in particular. We are in the early stages of this assault but it seems likely that it will dominate the period that lies ahead. On this basis, it makes sense to assess the work of OCAP from the standpoint of building effective resistance to the neoliberal agenda. Note that this article can only be a general assessment, not a summary, of OCAP’s activity over the years.

OCAP’s 1990 founding conference was marked by a sharp debate over the very basis on which the poor should organize. The meeting turned on two competing notions of how to challenge poverty. One of these was to create a ‘concerned citizens’ body to engage in respectable lobbying on social issues. The other was to organize and build a base in poor communities that could take up disruptive forms of collective action as the basic strategy of resisting poverty. This second view which, of course, won out at the conference, based itself on both historical example and present reality. OCAP has always realized that political strength for the part of the working-class that faces social abandonment is to be found in forms of resistance that creates a crisis for bureaucracies and government. Lacking, for the most part, the strike weapon, the poor must use such methods if they are to bring any bargaining power to the table beyond their own suffering. As a supporter of OCAP put it recently, “unionized workers can assert their strength by not being where their employer wants them to be, but the poor can only have power by being where they’re not supposed to be.”

Direct Action Casework

OCAP has applied the concept of disruptive collective action in changing political contexts and many different individual situations. Given the nature of what we do, our ideas have always faced a clear test: How do people living in poverty react and respond to our actions? Very early in our history, we realized that our actions must demonstrate that concrete victories are possible. To simply campaign and protest on the broader issues would be of limited value if it could not be also shown that immediate and individual grievances can be tackled effectively. For this reason, the basic cell of OCAP’s activity has always been its ‘direct action casework.’ All of the thousands of actions we have organized – delegations to welfare and disability offices, actions at immigration centres, pickets of abusive employers, direct challenges to landlords and housing authorities – have been about building a capacity for poor communities to defend their members and aim to instill in people a sense that resistance brings both meaningful results and leads to bigger possibilities.

Poor people do, of course, experience a great amount of injustice in the form of arbitrary denials of basic entitlements. It was not long after we began challenging day-to-day injustices that the need to fight back on shared grievances emerged. We found ourselves dealing with groups of people in the same situation and encountered patterns of abuse that had to be responded to as general issues. Our case actions grew into actions to demand changes in policy and practices. Challenges to local welfare offices led to actions against the head office and this, in turn, led to conflict with the political institutions.

The welfare system is an inheritance of the English Poor Laws. It has evolved as an institution of reluctant provision of basic needs to those it wishes to drive into the lowest paying jobs on offer. To be at its most effective its benefits must be at sub-poverty levels. Those receiving benefits must feel that their meager income is precarious and they must be subjected to ongoing humiliation. Over the years, in tens of thousands of fights over hundreds of issues, OCAP has waged a relentless struggle to push back the system on all of those fronts. That is why each Toronto welfare office has been provided with a set of protocols on how to react when we show up.

Confronting All Levels of Government, All Political Stripes

As we’ve worked to rally communities to organize and resist, we have had to adapt to the changing political regimes in government. The prevailing agenda of reducing social entitlement and increasing the rate of exploitation of working people has remained in place under every political party and at every level of government. The implementation of that agenda has ranged in style from relatively timid and shamefaced to enthusiastic and belligerent. Part of the time, OCAP has had to deal with regimes with progressive credentials that were openly or tacitly supported by many of the unions and social movements we might take as our allies. Yet, under these governments, very serious attacks on poor communities have been inflicted. The loss of income for people on social assistance in Ontario did not begin with the Conservatives’ Mike Harris. NDP Premier Bob Rae let real income fall and made a number of the rule changes around ‘eligibility review’ and ‘enhanced verification’ that the Tories would build upon after 1995. The David Miller administration, drove the homeless out of the central part of Toronto to a greater extent than had occurred under the previous right wing Mayor. It was Miller who took the steps to demolish Regent Park, the oldest public housing project in the country, so that it could be replaced with a condo community, with a diminishing ‘rent geared to income component’ that will progressively exclude the original residents. Under the Liberal McGuinty Government, real income for people on welfare and disability has fallen well below the point it was at when Harris left office.

Under each of those governments, however, we have found ways to fight back. The Rae Government came close to imposing an outright cut in social assistance rates but did not feel it could proceed in the face of community resistance. When Rae’s Social Services Minister announced a campaign to promote a crackdown on ‘welfare abuse,’ we invaded his media launch event and drove him out. While Miller was Mayor of Toronto, public housing was left to deteriorate so that it could be sold off to developers. Nonetheless, OCAP was able to mobilize tenants in several communities and win millions of dollars in repairs. During the years of Dalton McGuinty, we took up the fight for the Special Diet for people on assistance, joined by medical and community allies. An obscure $6-million a year dietary benefit was turned into a $200-million program and thousands of poor people joined in actions to win access to it.

It was, however, during the Mike Harris years that OCAP experienced its sharpest struggles to date. (Although, from what we are hearing from the new Mayor-elect Rob Ford and the International Monetary Fund, it’s likely that much bigger fights than the Common Sense Revolution lie ahead). When Harris came to power and moved to slash welfare rates, OCAP immediately began organizing. In the first months of the Tory Regime, we were able to bring onto the streets thousands who had never taken part in political action in their lives. We held the first major anti-Tory rally at Queen’s Park immediately after the formal announcement of the 21.6% cut to social assistance. Shortly afterward, almost a thousand people joined us to march from impoverished Regent Park into ultra rich Rosedale and right up to the home of the Lieutenant-Governor who would be signing the cut into effect.

Harris considered the slashing of welfare rates a key element of his agenda and, once it proved impossible to prevent this cutback, we focused on challenging the implementation and impacts of the Tory agenda in poor communities. Harris launched workfare programs and we took action against agencies that agreed to be part of the Tory cheap labour scheme. The manager of Social Services in Toronto wrote that workfare was being held up in this City because OCAP was ‘creating a climate of intimidation.’ She did not intend it to be a complement but it actually was.

As the cuts to income support drove more and more people into homelessness, we mobilized to force the opening of shelters. During the Harris years, a series of squats were organized. The Pope Squat in Parkdale (so named because we took over the building during a Papal visit) was held for three months and our takeovers at 88-90 Carlton led to these two apartment buildings being turned into social housing. We also resisted the pushing out of the homeless from the downtown with a three day ‘Safe Park’ encampment in Allan Gardens. It was broken up by the cops but led to an upsurge of organizing and resistance. This mobilization has challenged the ongoing process of removing services and driving out the homeless in central Toronto as part of the general push for upscale urban redevelopment.

We rallied to support the Ontario Days of Action and the city-wide strikes that were part of these. We placed great hope on the emergence of a common front against the Harris Government and we called for labour/community mobilization to be taken to the level of province-wide action designed to defeat the Tories and their agenda. However, most leaders in the Labour Movement were not ready for the implications of such a confrontation and the Days of Action were called off in spite of the massive potential they demonstrated. The scale of resistance was massively reduced but there was no let up in the Tory attacks. We saw no alternative but to try and continue to rally poor communities and join with likeminded allies in struggle. It was in this period, in June of 2000, that we marched homeless people and their supporters on Ontario Legislature. The hour long battle with the police that marked the ‘Queen’s Park Riot’ led to dozens of injuries and arrests. However, it also generated a huge increase in support for OCAP and enabled us to organize on a bigger scale. The following year, we joined with a range of different organizations in the ‘Ontario Common Front’ and held a 2,500 strong march into Toronto’s financial district that massively disrupted the showpiece of Canadian capitalism and the corporations from which Harris took his direction.

We fought the Common Sense Revolution by mobilizing poor communities under attack but, in the final analysis, Harris did not face a sustained, broad working-class movement that was ready to fight his Government to a decisive conclusion. A major advance in the neoliberal agenda was put into effect and a Liberal successor regime has been able to consolidate the Harris measures. McGuinty has yet to face any serious generalized mobilization.

‘Progressive’ Liberals

The McGuinty Government has done its work stealthily and with minimum fuss. Poverty in Ontario under the Liberals has increased well beyond the level it was taken to by the Tories. In 1994, before the Harris cut, a single person on General Welfare Assistance was receiving an amount that, in present day dollars, would have been $904 a month. After the Tory reduction, it fell to $690, again in 2010 dollars. To-day, the same person would receive a mere $585. Yet, as peoples’ income has been driven down to such a tragic extent, the Liberals have continued to pose as a progressive regime and have even been able to bring a wide array of organizations to the table to hold extended hearings and consultations on ‘poverty reduction.’ The political cover this has provided them with has been to their enormous benefit. With one worker in six in this province working at or close to the minimum wage, the continued cut in real income for those on social assistance has played a key role in driving Ontario workers into this low wage ghetto.

The fight for the Special Diet during these years has been the only factor that has placed limits on the massive erosion of income support in Ontario. It provides up to $250 per person per month for those on social assistance (if applications are filled in by medical providers). Until we took up this issue, this food benefit was little known and social assistance bureaucracies were able to turn away those who applied. In 2005, however, we began to fight for access to the program and set up ‘hunger clinics’ where medical allies would sign forms for people. In that year, in Toronto 8,000 people went through these clinics, and other cities in Ontario held them as well. We even were able to put some 1,500 people through a special clinic on the lawns of Queen’s Park where forty medical providers filled in enough forms to provide over $3-million in benefits.

The fight for the Special Diet was of huge significance not only because it brought desperately needed income to so many people. The program was also very important precisely because people had to fight for it. As we had expected, once forms were being filled in increased numbers, the social assistance bureaucracies worked to do all they could to restrict access. Innumerable actions at welfare and disability offices and at the head office of Toronto Social Services were held. We organized occupations at the offices of the Mayor and the Minister of Community and Social Services. Poor communities had to organize to win the benefit and they did so with the west end Somali Community in the leading role.

This year, the Province took measures to massively restrict access to the Special Diet and announced that it will be eliminated in the near future. Our challenge to this cutback is now beginning to take shape and we are organizing to defend the food program and intensify the fight to raise social assistance rates to restore the income that has been taken from people by the Harris and McGuinty governments.

As the impacts of the neoliberal onslaught have mounted over the years, OCAP has rallied communities to resist specific attacks and fight for particular objectives. Had we been organizing in a period when the broader working-class movement was making gains, our history would have been very different. As it is, we have not been in a position to contribute to overall advances but have fought at a time when labour and social movements were on the defensive and suffering defeats. Pride in something like the Special Diet campaign is not unjustified in this context, but it is instructive to note that this effort might have taken back – at its high point – about 10% of the yearly welfare income loss of the last fifteen years. Until we have a mass working-class movement that is actually driving back the regressive agenda of capitalism, the most determined and well directed mobilization within poor communities can only win – at best – partial victories and set the stage for future battles on more equal terms.

Balance Sheet

An assessment of OCAP’s work requires more than a balance sheet of the entitlements and concessions it has forced from political and bureaucratic structures. We also have to ask ourselves, especially as recent G20 gatherings frame the international agenda of austerity, what have we created with our work that will be of use in this situation? I’d suggest that two major considerations are important. First, what have our struggles instilled in those communities in which we have organized? Second, what examples and models have we generated that can be put to good effect in challenging the attacks that are coming down on us in the near future?

OCAP’s first major base was established in the early 90s in the homeless population of the downtown east. We confronted the removal of services, including the loss of shelter beds. We challenged police crackdowns and the business and upscale residents’ associations behind them. We held mass panhandling actions and public meals and campouts to give the homeless a capacity for collective resistance when the goal of those in power was to render them powerless and invisible as individuals. Certainly, the gentrification of the area has continued but our resistance has not been without considerable impact and political significance. Not least of which is the impact it has had for homeless people who, in large numbers, have first hand experience of resistance and mobilization. A study put out this week suggests that for each person homeless in this country, another twenty-three are on the verge of losing their housing. The attack on the Special Diet, which can be seen as an early manifestation of the new climate of intensified austerity, gives us a glimpse of how important fighting homelessness and defending the homeless will become in the next few years. The base we have built in this population and the forms of struggle we have adopted will be a resource in the challenges we will be up against.

Toronto Community Housing (TCH), the public housing authority, is the largest landlord in Canada. Its stock is crumbling and the various levels of government to blame for this have no intention of preventing this from happening. In allocating public resources, they would sooner let a dozen buildings collapse and thousands lose their housing before they would lay off one cop. In fact, it’s more than a question of apportioning resources. Public housing was produced by a social compromise that has now faded. It sits on land the developers want and it strikes a discordant note as far as the architects of austerity are concerned. The loss of a system that provides rent geared to income housing to nearly 200,000 poor people in this City would be devastating and appalling. OCAP has taken up fights for individual tenants and general campaigns in several housing projects that have brought out hundreds of TCH residents and produced some important victories. So far, the issue has been gradual decay of the housing stock and the creation of a few showpiece replacement condo communities. The developing agenda of austerity, however, will sharpen the attack on public housing and the first skirmishes we have fought will serve as a starting point as a much larger fight back emerges.

Grassroots, Community Mobilizations

In Toronto, a movement to fight poverty will succeed only to the extent that it is able to root itself in immigrant communities. The base we have built in the Somali Community is a precious first step in that regard. The large scale organizing that has taken place in the Somali community around the Special Diet, housing, immigration and police repression has been possible for some of the following reasons.

A central aspect of Canadian history has been the ways in which immigrant communities have been oppressed and exploited and how any resistance has been contained or repressed. In large measure this has been achieved by establishing structures of control operated by privileged gatekeepers within the communities. In this regard, the model that was there to be utilized was the system of ‘governance’ imposed on First Nations peoples. Within each immigrant community government-funded agencies and spokespeople have been developed to safely channel discontent and ensure compliance. The Somali community faces extreme levels of poverty and racial discrimination that create formidable barriers to employment, education and housing. Police repression and harassment of Somali youth generate a sense of outrage that is never far from the surface. Somalis in Toronto have massive grievances but a relatively weak system of channeling and containing that discontent. The layer of privilege in the community is thin and many of the agencies that have been established are dominated by men who have lived in Canada for longer periods. Many Somali women tend to view these bodies with hostility. This lack of effective control through the normal systems of containment has been a major factor in creating an opening for effective action by members of the Somali Community. Over the years OCAP has built strong relationships with key women organizers in the Somali Community. These relationships that we have established so far can be built upon as the grievances created by the developing austerity drive create new openings and possibilities for resistance.

Through the years that OCAP has been fighting poverty, we have been keenly aware that we were not just challenging governments and the measures they sought to impose on us. Rather, we were opposing the social and economic system that underlay these attacks. Anti-capitalism has not been a clumsy title to add on as an afterthought, but something at the very centre of what we do.

The large amount of Indigenous solidarity activity work we’ve engaged in over the years has been based on a realization that capitalism was created in Canada through dispossession and colonization of the original inhabitants. Support for the sovereignty of First Nations peoples must be a starting point for any serious movement to change society. While continuing the colonization and genocide of Indigenous people here, Canada plays an imperial role on an international scale. It is integral that our organization chooses to support resistance to imperialism in Afghanistan, Palestine and across the world.

In the fights against poverty and social cutbacks in Ontario, this perspective of anti-capitalism has been a political compass for us. If, as some would have us believe, governments are fundamentally honest brokers who hear from the competing ‘stakeholders’ and then decide how to act in the best interests of the greatest numbers, then you want to consult with and educate them. If, on the other hand, you say that governments operate state structures that serve the interests of an exploiting class, then you fight for concessions by disrupting and posing a threat to those institutions and you look for ways to undermine the systems of control that hold back social upsurge and decisive struggle.

The period of OCAP’s work to date has been marked not just by the regressive agenda the system has imposed on us with considerable success. The years have also been dominated by crises of opposition. Unions and social movements have not found the means to resist effectively – much less go on the offensive. By and large, they have been locked into forms of activity that reflect an earlier period of relative social compromise. As such, they have failed to act as called for by the situation. Prior to the present crisis of capitalism, gains of the past have been subjected to a process of gradual erosion (an exception was the aggressive period of attack under Mike Harris). Today if we see what is unfolding in country after country, it is clear that the scale and pace of the attack is accelerating. Failure to fight back decisively, and to fundamentally challenge the system that is imposing austerity on us, will no longer mean incremental losses but catastrophic defeats.

OCAP has organized in poor communities with few resources and its victories have been overshadowed by much greater general defeats. We have, however, created a small example of fighting to win and we are still here, after two decades, ready to carry on that fight. The IMF now promises us twenty years of austerity. The challenge is to ensure that the next historical period is dominated by sweeping resistance to that austerity. If the lessons we’ve learned, the model we have created and strengths we take into the impending social struggles are of any significant use, then everything we have done will have been worth it. •

John Clarke is a writer and retired organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). Follow his tweets at @JohnClarke and blog at johnclarkeblog.com.