Quebec City: A squat short story (from Barricada #18)

  Quebec City: A squat short story (from Barricada #18)

On Friday, September 20th, the 920 de la Chevrotiere squat in Quebec City was evicted following more then 4 months of occupation. The eviction was carried out by a small army of cops and city officials.

At around 6 pm several plainclothes officers entered the building, read a legal eviction notice with a megaphone and asked the people inside to leave. The squatters did not resist the eviction and were given permission to go inside two by two to pick up their belongings.

Once this was done, city workers boarded up the building. As soon as the news of the eviction was known, some 40 supporters and friends gathered in front of the building for an impromptus support demo. The official reason given for the eviction was that the place was no longer safe because there was no running water (water was cut a few days before the raid). Despite the eviction, the former squatters will continue the struggle and move ahead with an already planned demonstration scheduled for September 26th (some 100 people came to the demo).

The Story of 920 de la Chevrotiere

On Friday May 17th, after months of organizing, some 300 angry tenants, housing activists, anarchists and other radicals gathered in Quebec City for the largest local demonstration around housing issues since the 1970’s.

The call, issued by the Comite Populaire Saint-Jean-Baptiste, was crystal clear: “come support a direct action” and announced an “unlimited occupation against the housing crisis”. As this was part of a wider campaign coordinated by the FRAPRU (Quebec largest reformist tenant union federation), locals where joined by a busload of tenants from Montreal and Sherbrooke who occupied various abandoned industrial buildings during the week. 12 occupations were organized all over the province by various housing groups involving more then 1200 different people. At this time, no one knew that the Quebec City action would be the longest occupation of the week.

The occupied house was highly significant for the neighborhood and the Comite populaire. In the 1970’s, during the great demolitions, 6 houses known as l’Ilot Berthelot miraculously stood tall and were not demolished. The place was bought and sold so many times in the last 30 years that it’s impossible to keep track of the various owners. All of them, however, wanted to demolish the 6 houses and build in their place huge towers instead of luxury condominiums. There was so much speculation on the value of the buildings and the land that by 1991, it had became the most expensive plot of land in the city.

That’s also when the Comite Populaire, a citizens committee active in the neighborhood since 1976, and the social ecologist group Les AmiEs de la Terre de Quebec chose to move their offices into one of the houses (910 De la Chevrotiere). Their demands were clear: they wanted the take over of the buildings by a self managed housing cooperative. In the face of growing public awareness, the city finally bought the 6 houses in 1994 at the cost of 1 000 000$ (that’s almost 10 times their 1970 value!). Four of them where initially transformed into a self managed housing cooperative, but the 2 southern houses were not. They stood empty for 3 years before the squatters moved in. The city hoped to sell them to some promoters who would demolish them and build luxury condominiums sold at 150 000$ each.

The occupied house was a small two story building typical of the neighborhood. While the action was organized by the Comite populaire, a collective of squatters and supporters have taken over from day one (you believe in autonomy and self-management or you dont!) and the Comite was relegated to a “support” role. The struggle was led by a general assembly of squatters and supporters and the house was managed via regular squatters meetings. The demands of the squatters being three fold.

– First they want the place to be given away to a non-profit group so that it be used for collective needs (such as a social center) and they want the empty land surrounding it developed into a self managed housing cooperative for low-income families.

– Second, they want a stop to the transformation of apartments in the city into luxury condominiums and a total ban of them on site.

– Third, they want the government to finance at least 8 000 new social housing units a year in the province (which would mean 700 in Quebec City).

Support for these demands is high in the city. More then 2 000 people from all over the place –including Basque refugees and French squatters!^?came to visit and signed a petition. The majority of the cooperatives in the neighborhood originally sent letters of support, including the Coop de l’Ilot Berthelot who gave cheap electricity and water to the squatters for three and a half months. You can see posters of support in many houses and, to the squatters surprise, in more then a dozen local stores. Social groups of all kinds sent support letters and some of them, especially student unions, made small and big donations. In this context, the so-called left-wing municipality didn^?t want to send in the cops and hoped the squatters would either burn out or that the support would erode.

A delicate and unforseen situation developed in the last two months of the occupation. Indeed, since the beginning, the occupation attracted it’s fair share of victims of the housing crisis who needed a temporary housing solution, the time necessary to catch up and find a more stable place to stay. In the vast majority of cases, it was going fairly well.

This said, however, we must recognize that, thanks to capitalism, the vast majority of the people of our class who end up in the street are also those that are the most vulnerable and it is rare that housing is their only problem…

A conflict developed in the squat which resulted in homeless people moving in the empty building on the other side of the street, the 921 de la Chevrotiere (which was deemed unsafe by the general assembly). Soon, there was no discussion possible between the two groups, the occupants of the 920 de la Chevrotiere had become the ennemy, false squatters, false anarchists, etc. In the beggining there was three of them… but they where fast joined by other homeless who where kicked out of the various “community resources”. In the end, there was 15 of them.

Sometimes it was calm, but other times they would take to screaming after any and all passersby. One of them tried to assault a women of the neighborhood cooperative. Concrete threats were made against individuals and the squat. Serious violence erupted from time to time inside the building. Soon, the attitude and anti-social acts of these people started to affect everyone. The occupants of the 920 tried to deal with the situation but failed to act on it fast enough. The cops and the municipality succeeded in using the situation to split the support of the squatters.

Political Maneuvers in the Last Two Weeks

Two weeks before the final eviction of the squat, the neighborhood coop had a general assembly where it was voted unanimously to find a “final solution” to the problems coming from the 921 de la Chevrotiere. While the squatters of the 920 tried to explain the differences between the two squats, the executive committee of the coop came to the conclusion that since the unwanted squatters came from a split in the first squat, the only way to get rid of the problem was to close both (which was not exactly what was voted on in the general assembly).

In the end they announced that they would cut electricity and water to the 920 de la Chevrotiere building and would publicly withdrew support if nothing changed. It took a few days to convince all the people in the 921 de la Chevrotiere to move elsewhere, but when it was finally done, the coop had already called the cops and the municipality. The day after the last person moved out, the cops came in and boarded the place (that was on Friday, Sept. 13th).

In the meantime, the municipality had mobilized all of it’s allies to launch a full fledged political attack on the squat. On Monday, September 16th, the chairman of the neighborhood coop and the coordinator of the regional housing coop federation called a press conference to officially denounce the squatters as people who don^?t help the struggle for social housing and to ask them to put an end to the occupation. The same day, the mayor also came out saying that the occupation must end now and that social housing was to be built on site as soon as the squatters were evicted.

Indeed, the coop federation had made a deal with a private promoters to build both social housing and luxury condominiums on the site. The public message was that the squatters were in the way… The intent of the city was clear, they wanted to isolate the squatters and make it look like they where loosing support. This strategy didn^?t work however, and, in less than 24 hours, the squatters succeeded in mobilizing most of the allies they had in the housing rights movement and other social movements to restate their support for the occupation after some 3 months of silence.

But the city chose to ignore this and on Friday, September 20th they sent in the cops to evict the squatters. Only time will tell if the city will pay for this or get away with it as usual, but it is clear however that the regional coop federation did isolate itself from the social movement and that they will pay for it (a new local housing rights coalition was just formed and they where not invited).

Partial victory and the Struggle Continues

While there still is no total victory, the occupation already did get some positive results. First, there will be new cooperative housing on the site (around 30 units). This was not granted at all since the city only wanted to have condominiums. The issue now is whether it will be possible to totally ban condominiums on site (that’s the theme of the next demo).

Second, the city finally gave in in August and voted a moratorium on new conversion of apartments into condominiums. This moratorium is shitty, as it has many holes and exceptions, but it is clearly a response to the occupation and other actions. The whole anarchist criticism of legislation applies here, of course, but it is still a small step. So the squatters did win a few things from the powers because of their action, but the main victory is not there.

The occupation legitimized direct action in the mind of people and showed the support it can have. It helped to educate a large number of people about the housing crisis and the remedy to it. Furthermore, the squatters where not just sitting on the place, it was an experience in itself. An experience of direct action, direct democracy and another kind of social relations. And an experience that allows for other actions.

A radial Infoshop was opened in the basement stocking literature ranging from union newsletters and ecologist literature to Maoist newspapers, anarchists books and Trotskyist magazines. The kids in the neighborhood had a safe place to come and play (and do their home-work!). There have been a number of community activities ranging from free meals to video nights and parties. And groups from all over the city use the space (including the local NEFAC group who had a number of meetings and public activity there). People are already talking about forming an autonomous collective to continue the whole experience elsewhere.

The squat as direct action is one of the ways we can get out of the dead-end of protest as usual. Short of a massive rent strike, it’s the most dramatic action a movement around housing can take. While most of the time public opinion can just ignore the effect of the housing crisis, high profile political squats polarize it. On one hand there are homeless and badly housed tenants, and on the other there are empty buildings. Squats bring all of this in your face, and force people to take a stand. As a direct attack on private property, squats can also bring to the fore the fundamental contradiction of the housing question (housing right vs property rights or human needs vs market). Squats are also everything but symbolic and contrary to most protests, they can’t be ignored by the authorities, tilting the balance of force further to our side.

Nicolas Phebus
La Nuit Collective (NEFAC-QC)

The 920 de la Chevrotiere occupation was the longest single direct action ever on the housing front in Quebec and probably Canada.

[Ok, this was a subjective report written from *my* perspective. Other participants in the squat may (indeed DO) have another interpretation of the events (this is why the article is signed!). This article will be published in the october issue of Barricada. Objectivité existe pas!]

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Nicolas Phébus