Published in “Brisbane From Below” n°1 (Brisbane, 2011).
Justice, Dignity, Resistance: An Interview with John from Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP)
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you became involved with OCAP?
I was a worker at a factory in Ontario in the 1980s and, after being made unemployed, I helped form a union of the unemployed. In 1990, this organization helped out in the campaign that led to the formation of OCAP.
I was laid off from the London Westinghouse Plant (Ontario) in ’82 and a group of us in the union Local formed an unemployed committee. We tried encouraging others in unions to do the same but opted in the end for a city wide meeting to set up an unemployed union. It’s first campaign was to shut down a business called Job Mart that was selling people info on jobs that were available in the newspapers. We picketed them until they folded up. We then focused on the regressive local welfare system and were able to win quite a lot of positive changes in their policies and halved the rate of denials for financial assistance. We then focused on a call for an increase in provincial welfare rates and it was at this time that OCAP was formed. The London organisation carried on until about 1993 when illness among several of its leading members made the work too hard for them.
OCAP is a militant, direct-action, anti-poverty organization based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. We mount campaigns against regressive government policies as they affect poor and working people In 1989, people in various cities worked to organize a three pronged march on the Ontario Legislature. Three groups of marchers each spent two weeks on the road coming into the Provincial Capital from three different directions. OCAP came out of this march. Soon after we were formed, we realized that the best tactic was to focus our efforts on organizing in the biggest centre, Toronto and we are still mainly based here with allies in other cities we work with. We don’t have a strict system of membership but hold meetings every two weeks that are open to all who are interested. Outside of this decision making system, we have a much broader periphery of people in low income communities who support and participate in what we do. Our meetings usually involve about thirty core members and our base of active supporters is in the hundreds.
We are doing a lot of mobilizing in the east end of central part of the City around attempts to drive out the homeless and we have worked over the last few years on a campaign to access a benefit known as the Special Diet. This provides up to $250 a month more to a person on social assistance if a medical provider fills in a form.
It has been something we have really mobilized and fought for taking it from, in 2005, a $6 million a year benefit to a $200 million one. The Government at present has announced the elimination of the Special Diet and we are launching a big fight to defend it.
The Special Diet and the fight around the homeless are examples of long term work but we have had our share of experiments that we could not carry through on. We always decide on actions at our meetings and plan outreach campaigns in poor communities. We hold special meetings to plan our major actions with people being given particular roles.
How do you begin with solidarity actions and opposing regressive measures? Tell us a bit about the ‘Housing Takeover’ actions.
I can think of a few things. First of all, we do a lot of case actions to challenge individual denials and abuses. The system hurts people not only through its policies but the way the local offices act to deny and abuse people. The second example is the concept we have of ‘full entitlement’ out of which the fight for the Special Diet came. That is to say we work to ensure that people are aware of and assisted in obtaining the things they are entitled to but don’t get without a fight. Part of that is the casework but we have also pressed for rule changes. For example, there use to be a rule for people on disability benefits that, if they got more than 120 hours work in one month, they would be cut of and have to reapply for long term disability which takes months. We got that abolished. The biggest change we are up against is the 55% loss of spending power for welfare in 15 yrs. Our fight on the Special Diet took that on but, as the attack on welfare merges with broader attacks on public services, we are starting to get more allies. With the Canadian Union of Public Employees, we are talking about holding meeting across Ontario to try and set up Raise the Rates Committees. I think the fights in the next few years will be much bigger and important than those that have happened up to now. We do do casework but always try to avoid the appeal procedures laid down by the system. We use ‘mass delegations’ to welfare offices and such like to resolve these things. It really does build us a base in poor communities because we are defending people and winning small but clear victories that give people a sense of power and hope.
We do outreach in poor communities and use various methods to promote our actions and meetings. We have a big e mail list that lots of poor people access. Even homeless people, often have e mail that they access through the libraries. We poster and leaflet poor areas, drop ins, shelters, etc. The key thing, though, is that we have taken years to build up a reputation that makes this outreach count. People know we have taken up their fights and want to support us. Without this, it would probably not have the same effect.
We have tried housing takeovers. It’s tough here because there are no squatters’ rights at all. If you take over an empty building, the cops treat it like any act of entering private property without permission. We have won a few things, for example, we had a building occupied for about six months. Another big building which we occupied was also converted into social housing.
Where does OCAP operate from and how does it maintain itself? For example, how are funds raised and is it a struggle to keep up administrative costs?
We operate on about $60,000 a year and pay three people plus keeping an office. Money is very tight and it mainly comes for individual supporters and a few more progressive sections of the unions.
What level of consultation, if any, occurs with the Indigenous-American populations in Ontario?
We have done a lot of work on solidarity with what we can call the First Nations People. Much of our work around homeless issues in Toronto deals with indigenous People. We have an especially strong link with the activists in the Mohawk Nation and have done a great deal supporting and participating with the takeover of stolen land in Caledonia by the Six nations People. The Mohawks, especially, have returned our support a thousand times over. At many of our rallies, they have gone out and hunted to supply to food and, when we have taken people to actions at the National Capital in Ottawa, they have put us up and fed us on their reserve. We support the First Nations people because they are massively affected by poverty issues but, more fundamentally because, like Australia, Canada is a settler state that exists on stolen land. We owe a debt of solidarity to those who have been robbed in this way.
What response do you get from the broader community? Do you encounter a lot of stereotyped/prejudiced behaviour? Has OCAP ever experienced violent attacks from landlords, haters or bosses? How are police and other repressive groups dealt with?
Deep seated and backward ideas about the poor are real but we actually find we have a lot of respect in the general working class population. Whenever we take actions that make it into the public eye (even if the media coverage is bad) garner lots of support and donations.
We’ve faced our share of attacks, especially from police. We’ve had major trials in court and done some time in jail. We try to defend ourselves in a serious way in these situations but make sure we don’t get so focused on legal defence we stop moving forward with our work.
WHATEVER IT TAKES!
The direct action casework that OCAP does is conducted with an understanding of three principles. These are:
1. To combine legal work with disruptive action.
2. Not to duplicate the work of legal clinics or other agencies.
3. To forward political goals but never compromise the interests of those you are working with in the process
1. To combine legal work with disruptive action
This means having an understanding of what people are entitled to under the law, and at the same time realizing that poor people have power in disruptive action. By taking on the cases of people who are not receiving all the benefits they are entitled to under the law you create a legal backing to your demands. By combining law with disruptive action you bring teeth to those demands.
Landlords, bosses and government bureaucrats break the rules all the time at the cost of the poor. They often do this unchallenged. The official channels of appeal that are available are often lengthy, costly and ineffective. Direct action casework is designed to cut though this to get people what they deserve.
Trade unionists have the power of going on strike. They have a power that comes from withdrawing their labour and suspending their participation in the system. But if poor people simply stop participating in the system it gains them no power at all. If some one stops participating in welfare for example, it benefits the government because they have to cough up less cash. Instead poor people need to disrupt the regular functioning of the system in order to secure power. Keeping business as usual is very important to the functioning of many institutions; it is often easier for them to make a concession than to function while disruptions are taking place. Our success comes from demanding people receive what they legitimately deserve under the law and backing it up with disruptive action.
2. Not to duplicate the work of legal clinics or other agencies
There are numerous legal clinics and agencies that are given money (usually from the government) to fight on people’s behalf or provide them with services. At the same time there are numerous gaps where these groups can’t or aren’t providing people with the help they deserve. By doing direct action casework you are able to fill some of these gaps. One example is with welfare. A legal clinic can make an appeal if some one is unfairly turned down, but they do so completely by the book, and the process takes
weeks to months and no money is necessarily available to the family during that time. The appeal process concentrates power in the hands of bureaucracies. It is a biased process that can’t be counted on. The process is designed to discourage people from pursuing what they are due. It is important not to duplicate the work of legal clinics or other agencies. You could easily get bogged down with work that others are capable of, and funded to do. Instead know what services are provided in your region, so you can refer people to them. Many times the people who approach us have exhausted all official legal channels.
3. To forward political goals but never compromise the interests of those you are working with in the process
Whenever you take on a case, make it political. You are obviously doing it to aid those who approached you. But you are also protesting an unjust system. Forwarding political goals should be done wherever possible. But it should never compromise the interest of those you are working with. After several years of consistently confronting welfare offices, we have built to a point where welfare offices know to respond promptly and favorably when OCAP letterhead comes through the fax machine.
Case work is extremely effective; but we realize that just doing casework isn’t enough. It only benefits a small fraction of those affected by unjust policies. We need to not just fight for those wronged by the system but also fight to change those systems. Campaign work is not as consistently and clearly effective as casework, but with out campaign work we would be little more than a service organization.
Types of casework
OCAP takes on a various sorts of cases. We started by taking on Welfare (Ontario Works) and Disability (Ontario Disabilities Support Program) cases. Welfare offices in Toronto are now so familiar with OCAP, and we have caused them such disruption in the past, that responding favorably to a letter from us is written right into their policy. But if ever our demands are not met we hold disruptive actions at their offices, and escalate with further actions until a check is secured; however these
escalations are most often not needed. Many people staying at Hostels (shelters) experience many horrendous situations and injustices. We have done cases around individuals who get banned from hostels for swearing or those who have had their belongings confiscated by hostel staff. One of the problems with this sort of casework is that once individuals have been barred from hostels and are staying on the streets it becomes quite difficult to track them down for any action that happens. Tenant cases are
often fought through legal action at the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal, but we are able to compliment that work through disruptive actions at landlord offices. One time when a landlord was threatening to illegally evict a tenant we changed the locks in order to provide a sufficient delay.
Immigration casework can be a long process and requires a good understanding of immigration law. The way we work is by utilizing any remaining legal channels, and use disruptive action of Immigration Canada offices and institutions to speed up these processes, or to demand that bureaucrats stay (delay) deportations until all legal appeals have been heard. These cases can take many months or years. Any one who is interested in taking on immigration casework should understand the serious commitment that is required. You should consider getting in touch with OCAP’s immigration committee to find out more. In the past we have carried out some cases in defense of non-unionized workers. When one man worked for 5 days at a gas station, only to be told at the end of that time that he was not going to be paid, OCAP set up a picket line to discourage cars from attending this gas station, within hours they had agreed to pay him for his work… OCAP has by no means taken direct action casework to its limits. Other groups are building on our work and taking it up in other areas. The “Tenant Action Group” in Belleville has successfully used direct action casework to fight against Hydro cut-offs. The Montreal group “No One Is Illegal” has been pushing Immigration case work to new limits – instead of fighting for and with individuals or individual families, they are fighting for and with whole communities at once.