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Will a Scorched-Earth Campaign Successfully Invisibilize Toronto’s Homeless Encampments?

Photo of the aftermath of the fire that destroyed Jeff Dagg’s tent taken June 21, 2020 by Doug Johnson Hatlem.

When Jeffrey Dagg returned to the tent he shared with his sister in Toronto’s George Hislop Park on Sunday, June 21st of last year, all that remained were the smouldering ruins seen in the picture above. The southern wall of the tent next to Jeff’s, as can also be seen, had been blown to hell shortly before 2 a.m. by the initial, very intentionally set, explosion. The occupant of that neighbouring tent, an Indigenous man in his twenties, narrowly escaped terrific injuries when he smelled diesel gasoline being poured from a yellow container, dropped the art supplies he was working with, and exited just in time.

Toronto’s police, fire department, and most other City officials have provided a carefully drawn study in steadfastly looking the other way when it comes to the cause of such fires.

Jeff, a gaunt, goateed man who had just turned forty-six years old, dealt drugs in the Sanctuary-Hislop encampment.

He made no apologies for such, though he did request extra time in the Sanctuary church basement during drop-in that evening. A swarm of 51 Division officers arrived in the park at the behest of a woman who had been traumatized by the fire and by the reported rape of another woman. The woman who reported the sexual assault pointed to the same man, nicknamed Sumo, that many encampment residents accused as responsible for the fire.

Jeff had outstanding warrants and feared police might run his name if he left the building.

Police, however, were uninterested in investigating the fire, though they were a bit taken aback by the large blackened area in the park. Officers from 51 did take possession, eventually, of the yellow canister of diesel, but the cops present the evening after the fire spent most of their time mocking the woman who had called 911 and was still hollering. The officers seemed to think they could calm things down by reminding her loudly and publicly that if she appeared to be cooperating with them, she might well face retaliation in the park. (She did not face any such retaliation.) Sanctuary’s staff, of which I am also a working member, instead convinced her to come inside for a second shower.

I had arrived first, early in the afternoon, to set up for Sanctuary’s drop-in that chaotic day. Over the subsequent hours and days, I managed to speak with four people who were outside in the park when the fire was lit or who were otherwise awake enough in their tents to know what was going on. All four fingered Sumo as the arsonist, together describing to me how things went down to a significant level of corroborative detail.

Jeff, who was not present at the time of the fire, described Sumo’s operational mode. “He showed up every night, driving his black BMW, telling everyone in the park that they had to buy from him and his dealers and not me – except on the nights where police raided us. And he’s just not there those nights. Why do you think that is, Doug?”

Photo of Jeff Dagg taken from his Facebook profile.

Other campers shared those sentiments, directly suggesting that Sumo was working with police as a confidential informant.

Less than three weeks earlier, police had arrested two of Sumo’s other rival dealers in the park next to Sanctuary, then quickly leaked damning details to a Court reporter for the Toronto Sun. The Sun article led with a bit about “the fentanyl-infested Tent City.”

Another of the more prominent dealers – one more friendly to Sumo, and with first-hand knowledge of the events surrounding the fire – spoke to me for this article on the condition of anonymity. “Look, that’s just how things work out here. If the police have something over you and ask you to do something, there are very few people who will say no. Certainly I don’t see any reason why Sumo would. He plays those games like everyone else. It happens all the time.”

A second woman accused Sumo of raping her the following evening and requested support reporting that sexual assault to police. Bypassing calloused frontline officers and untrustworthy upper ranks, I made use of an exception I have long allowed to my policy of not cooperating with the system of mass incarceration.

The second woman spent hours recounting what had happened with professional and sympathetic mid-level, sex crimes unit police women. Sumo, real name Hatim Zedan, was charged accordingly. He was, however, released on bail within twenty-four hours. Toronto Police showed no interest in further investigating the fire that destroyed Jeff’s tent, and the woman who had reported the second rape was attacked with bear mace to her face by two of Sumo’s associates the evening after his release.

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There is a long history of police in Toronto (and beyond in Canada) targeting anti-poverty and anti-racist groups with undercover activity. Just before the G-20 meetings in Toronto in 2010, undercover police officers, later named as such in court proceedings, attempted to infiltrate Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) meetings. They were rebuffed.

Brian Dubourdieu, a long time Sanctuary community member, often organized with OCAP. Just days before the G-20 events began, a plain-clothed man tried to start a fight with him on the south end of George Hislop Park. Several police officers quickly rushed into the scene. When Brian dusted himself off, he realized that all the police officers and the plain-clothed man had quickly disappeared, along with a back pack that held a laptop he had recently been given for his organizing work. Brian is convinced the man who tried to fight him was working directly with police and the G-20 security apparatus.

A source, who asked not to be named to protect their occupation, relayed to me that they were present at a training session where a Toronto security company reviewed examples of their guards being used undercover in an attempt to infiltrate an OCAP demonstration at City Hall in 2013.

The use of confidential informants, as opposed to undercover officers or security guards, in Canadian context is even more murky.

In 2013, Mi’kmaq peoples engaged in months long resistance to shale gas fracking on Indigenous land in Elsipogtog, New Brunswick. APTN reported on the use of a security firm led by a Mi’kmaq man who wrote an entire book, still available on Amazon, which regales readers with tales of his time as a confidential informant working for the RCMP, primarily on the east coast, but also in Ontario. Those exploits included participating in gang rapes as part of his confidential work with biker gangs. Stephen Sewell directly stated that he kept police informed of such activities, even as he was regularly being paid by the same forces. “They told me that if the victim doesn’t file a complaint, then they were not going to act,” says Sewell in the book, as noted by then APTN reporter Jorge Barrera (now at CBC).

More recently, just two days before the June 2020 fire at the Sanctuary-Hislop encampment, Maclean’s published an article focusing on a nearly half million dollar bank transfer received by Gabriel Wortman, the man who killed twenty-two people during an hours long crime spree in Nova Scotia. During the massacre, Wortman was dressed as a police officer. The Maclean’s article more than strongly suggests that the type of payment transfer involved is only ever made as part of Canadian police remuneration of confidential informants.

Last Tuesday morning, I connected by phone with Ryan Teschner, Executive Director and Chief of Staff for the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB). I asked Teschner whether there are any written policies governing Toronto Police (TPS) recruitment and use of confidential informants. Beyond knowing that TPS carefully guards the identity of such informants for their supposed safety, Teschner did not believe that the Board, or any other level of government, had specific written policies, outside of Court rulings, controlling such activity. But he was not certain.

Teschner followed up on Thursday morning by email, directing me to a TPSB policy that does, in fact, exist for these matters. Stunning in its breadth and detail, the policy consists of one entire sentence as follows:

“It is the policy of the Toronto Police Services Board that the Chief of Police will establish procedures and processes relating to the use and management of informants and agents.”

The policy was promulgated on October 26, 2000 and updated after the G-20 events on November 15, 2010. Ontario’s Police Service’s Act, to which the policy’s header material refers (Adequacy & Effectiveness of Police Services, O. Reg. 3/99, s. 13(1)(e)), does require each police chief in Ontario to “establish procedures and processes” for informants and agents. It does not, as per a subsequent message from TPSB Senior Advisor Sandy Murray, preclude a Board from guidance, oversight, or governance in establishing them. Murray, nevertheless, told me that it was only possible to ask for a copy of such procedures and processes from the Chief’s office.

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Beyond the fire that destroyed Jeff and his sister’s tent last June, I wrote separately in these pages in December in the article “Is It Arson? Seven Suspicious Fires in Seven Days Rock Toronto’s Homeless Encampments.”

The main question and related questions from that article are still unanswered. Toronto Police, the fire department, and the larger City apparatus are focused, like Ahab on the white whale in Moby Dick, on clearing such encampments, consequences be damned. They continue to remain steadfastly incurious as to the cause of such fires.

To review, update, and extend the relevant reporting in that article:

Jimmie Tierney woke up to a fire being set in the foam dome next to his at HTO Park on the waterfront around 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 5. Toronto Police took a statement from Jimmie and his friend, but even after a subsequent fire in the same location a week later, police have never publicly established a cause of the fires, made an arrest, or engaged in any kind of visible further investigation. Jimmie noticed an unmarked car that he felt uneasy about near the encampment. It left, per Jimmie’s recollection, just after the fire was put out.

On December 7th, a Tiny House was set ablaze in Moss Park. My Sanctuary colleague Greg Cook drove the resident affected to shelter for the evening. Along the way, she told him that a person had threatened her just before the fire, demanding that she turn over possession of it immediately. A second fire, much less damaging, scorched the roof of a second Tiny House in the same location the following evening. At least one park resident told Jeff Bierk, Encampment Support Network (ESN) lead for Moss Park, that they had seen a police car keeping watch over the area of the encampment where the fire started from across Shuter Street just before the first night’s fire began.

On December 8, the evening of the second Moss Park fire, a major fire with terrific explosions rocked the homeless encampment on the west side of Lamport Stadium in Liberty Village. M.J. and her partner Warren were in the tent at the time the fire was set. M.J. got away from the scene after challenging the man she says doused the tent with gasoline, then set it ablaze. She did, however, receive minor injuries to her neck, which she showed to CBC News a few days later. Her partner Warren was less fortunate. He was taken to ICU and spent nearly a week recovering from his injuries in a nearby hospital.

Toronto Police Constable Edward Parks told the online outlet BlogTO that police were investigating reports of “a person who intentionally threw accelerant onto the fire” at Lamport. Police then showed video, reportedly with a man pouring liquid onto the tent prior to the fire, to multiple camp residents the next morning. Those residents included a woman named Kiki who described the video in detail to me. M.J. says she also viewed the video, but thought it was a neighbourhood resident, also a woman, who showed her the video. I immediately filed an Access request with Toronto Police to get a hold of the video.

TPS took far longer then the statutory 30 days to get back to me, after asking if I could provide written permission and photo ID from affected residents. I have informed TPS through email and and an appeal that the residents had given me verbal permission, but did not have photo ID. I and the affected residents were willing to work on other ways of relaying permission to the police for the video. I also stated that I did not feel it was necessary to prove such permission as this is clearly a public interest matter. The fire took place in a public park, multiple media outlets have reported on the matter, and a police spokesperson commented publicly on the fire and explosions, making reference, in fact, to the evidence in question.

In a letter dated February 22, 2021, Mr. P. McGee, Coordinator Access & Privacy for TPS denied my request for the video. While TPS is not claiming that the video does not exist, they are claiming that releasing it would violate the privacy of those involved and are claiming that PC Parks’ statement does not matter as “there were no formal statements released concerning the events on December 8th, 2020.”

Again, Toronto Police have made no effort to further investigate the matter and have, in fact, told media outlets that the fire is deemed accidental.

Another fire, considered highly suspicious by one or more residents, sent up in flames an encampment off Fleet Street in Toronto’s Parkdale area the week following my previous article on these matters. I have extensively interviewed Davit Sesishuili, who was badly affected by that fire. That event is beyond the purview of this article as it would require many more paragraphs to detail. Suffice it to say that Davit is convinced that the fire was set intentionally, and may well involve City employees or a specific police officer who regularly participated in a local Facebook forum that berated the encampment.

I am also, for now, mostly leaving out discussion of two fires at Holy Trinity Square behind the Eaton Centre which, together, would demonstrate the City and Toronto Police’s commitment to ignoring targeted fires that harm poor and racialized people while working to scapegoat an Indigenous man for a fire that harmed no one, where intent is completely unclear, and where Holy Trinity Church, whose south wall was partly blackened, had and has no interest in seeking legal proceedings criminal or otherwise.

It is, however, not just encampments that have seen major fire damage in recent months in Toronto. At least two shelter hotel rooms have caught fire, leading to the death of at least one resident so far in 2021. On December 29, 2020, Sasha Grey’s room at the Hotel Victoria shelter burned.

Sasha died of injuries from that fire on January 1.

On February 14, a fire at The Bond Place Hotel trapped a resident named Jennifer Jewell, who suffers physical disabilities, on the fifteenth floor, per her recollection. A man named Jeremy died a few days later, and some community reports have suggested the fire played a part in his demise. As per the media article noting Jennifer’s entrapment, Dixon Hall has stated clearly that there were “no injuries” related to the fire, a statement that Dixon Hall’s David Reycraft confirmed to me again this past weekend. The Office of the Fire Marshall in Ontario (OFM) has stated that it has no information about a death or injuries in that fire, information it would normally receive if a death or serious injury had occurred.

(On April 6, on CBC‘s Metro Morning show, I referred to two deaths by fire in shelter hotels so far in 2021. The preceding paragraph corrects that information based on better sourcing. I had submitted questions about the Valentines Day fire at The Bond to the City on April 1 toward the completion of this article but still have received no reply to any of the eleven total questions for this article as submitted.)

The best information I have been able to glean to date suggests that the fire that killed Sasha Grey, however, may well have been suspicious, and “[t]he incident remains under investigation” per a statement from OFM spokesperson Kristy Denette.

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All of that foregrounds a major fire near dawn on Ash Wednesday, February 17th in the encampment that formerly existed at Richmond and Power Streets just on the edge of the downtown east area. Ms. Denette also confirmed that, in spite of the way the City has run riot in using this fire politically, OFM has not tendered its analysis: “[W]e are in the midst of completing a report into the origin, cause and circumstances of this fatal fire.”

Photo of Gordon’s burned wooden structure taken February 19, 2021 by Doug Johnson Hatlem.

While remaining relatively or totally mum on the fire that killed Sasha (with nothing at all in response to direct inquiry about whether sprinklers were installed and worked properly and whether there was an adequate fire safety plan in place), the City has consistently made exploitative use of the Power Street fire in media, camp clearance notices, and court documents. In particular, they have used the fire publicly to justify seeking an injunction against carpenter Khaleel Seivwright, a Black man who has used his experience of homelessness to help others by building Tiny Houses.

The resident who died in the Power Street fire, though never named in the City’s propaganda on this matter, was known by the first name Gordon per two other former residents of the encampment named Dan (last name withheld at his request) and Dave Gordon. I have so far not been able to track down Gordon’s last name.

Dave knew Gordon for years, particularly as they had both stayed at the Maxwell Meighen Salvation Army Shelter. Dave describes Gordon as a gentle, fun loving guy who got himself in trouble every now and again at the shelter when high. “He was a very humble guy, didn’t ask for much. He was a good friend. He was kind and caring and willing to help people. When I got my new place, I thought of home because he was always over there visiting the Asian guys [who stayed at the encampment].”

Dave, however, insisted that Gordon did not use opioids. “He wouldn’t touch down. He hated it. He was a crystal guy.” According to Dave, Gordon finally left Maxwell Meighen for the encampment at Power Street because of an interminable body lice infestation that he couldn’t beat while in the shelter. Dave, who had finally landed housing of his own a short time before the fire, gave over his wooden structure for Gordon’s use.

Toronto Police blocked off the site of the fire for several days, but told journalists that they could not investigate or comment further until OFM has completed its investigation. In the absence of official comment on the cause and circumstances of the fire, a wide variety of theories have arisen, some more credible than others.

One theory suggests that Gordon used opiates and fell asleep with a candle that subsequently tipped over and caused the fatal fire. There are several problems with this theory, however, among them Dave’s insistence that Gordon stayed away from “down” meticulously. There is, furthermore, no evidence that Gordon used candles for heating or lighting. Dave’s testimony, and evidence I viewed myself at the scene, suggested that Dave and Gordon used small flashlights for lighting. Dave said that the blankets and sleeping bags he used, and left to Gordon, provided plenty of heat even on the very coldest nights within the well-insulated wooden structure. “You could sleep in your underwear, and it was still warm.”

A second and third set of theories suggest that the real target was Dan, who stayed until recently in a tiny structure less than a metre from the structure in which Gordon died. Dave discounts these theories, as he believes which structure was used by whom was widely known, even by those who would have reason to attack Dave or Dan. Theories two and three suggest either that someone Dan owed money to for drug use attacked the wrong shelter or that a man Dan had gotten into a fist fight with approximately thirty-six hours before the fire was responsible. While Dan himself entertained such theories in multiple conversation with me, he was ultimately not convinced. He had been friends for years with the man he fought with on the Monday prior and just did not think him capable of such violence. He also could not think of anyone he owed enough money to engage in such a shocking act.

Dave, however, thinks he may have been the real target, as he had lived in the structure that burned until a few weeks prior. Dave’s girlfriend died of an overdose at The Bond Hotel on November 6, 2020. Dave is persuaded that she died of an intentionally strong dose, intended for someone else (a dose strong enough to kill someone is known on the street as a “hot shot”).  Dave says he has made it clear to the person he holds responsible for his girlfriend’s death that he intends to seek revenge. Dave’s theory, accordingly, is that he was targeted in the fire to pre-empt retaliation. I have been told that other sources, who were present the night of Dave’s girlfriend’s death, dispute this account, but I have not been able to reach any of those sources for comment with or without attribution.

A fifth theory has now arisen since my most extensive interview with Dave, a theory which caused a bit of a shift in focus and ire for my last conversation with Dave.

On March 18, a month and a day after the fire which killed Gordon, Dan’s Tiny House was removed from the encampment area by the City of Toronto. When workers, including myself, inquired with the City as to why it was removed, Esther Afriat, General Supervisor of Parks for Toronto and East York, told me: “There was a fire on Thursday morning, March 18. I saw it on my way to work. 911 was called and Fire Services and Police responded. The shed was on fire. A construction worker noticed the smoke and alerted the paid duty [police] officer on-site.” Dan lost belongings including a bike, phone, and tablet that were inside the Tiny House.

At this point, Dave feels the City’s answers are “total bullshit,” and it is not hard to see why. He and Dan went and examined the site, finding no evidence of a fire, just wheel tracks, likely from the City vehicle that removed the structure. As there would have been no one in the shelter at the time (I witnessed the door to the shelter as locked just hours prior on the previous afternoon), we would need a reasonable explanation as to how this fire mysteriously started with no one around, no other tent or structure nearby, and how it just happened that a City employee who works on camp clearances and a police officer discovered the fire in the exact same location a month after the previous fatal fire.

Dave, like so many other encampment residents and related workers like myself, has no confidence that the so-called proper authorities will ever actually get at the truth. “I’d like to see them to go to jail. People are dropping like flies around here. Nobody is doing anything about it, you know. Nobody’s trying to help us. We’re junkies, right. They don’t care about us.”

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When it suits purpose, the City will ignore or brush aside a death for which they might reasonably be held responsible for failing to prevent it. (See my Twitter thread here on the recent CoVID-19 death of a shelter system resident that the City is hiding.) But when they want, for political reasons, to go after an Indigenous man or a Black man doing his best to help, City officials are plenty willing to talk ad nauseum.

As such, questions remain outstanding: does the political apparatus (including Mayor Tory and “progressive” downtown Councillors like Kristyn Wong-Tam, Joe Cressy, and Gord Perks who have strongly pushed and supported camp clearances) have any knowledge of tactics police have used, are using, or are planning to use in order to clear camps? Are there figures from the City engaged with counterparts from other cities like Los Angeles and Kansas City where recent camp clearances, and newly installed fencing, were also justified partly on the basis of the need to re-sod grassy areas in parks where encampments had existed for months? Will anyone at all that gets their paycheque from the City show that it cares a single solitary whit when it comes to figuring out what has actually happened with a bunch of highly suspicious fires?

Another angle overlooking the area (circled in red) where Jeff Dagg’s tent was intentionally burned down (photo by Doug Johnson Hatlem on April 8, 2021).

We cannot know for sure if Toronto Police are engaging confidential informants in the City’s scorched-earth campaign to clear highly visible encampments. None of the evidence or allegations in the stories above, on their own or taken together, are conclusive. However, not only does TPS feel the need to protect the confidentiality of specific informants, but TPS “[s]imilar to other Services across Canada has a procedure for handling confidential informants,” per a statement by Connie Osborne, Manager of Media Relations for TPS. “To ensure the security of individuals and to protect the integrity of our tactics we would not comment on the specifics” of those polices and procedures.

This, exactly, is how we wind up with confidential police informants bragging about participating without consequence in gang rapes, of which police handlers were informed and aware, and how a man dressed up as an officer could cut down twenty-two people in Nova Scotia after having received a $475,000 payment that looks for all the world like it came from Canadian police. A terrifically hierarchical system, rife with cash and with laughably non-existent accountability structures, is a perfect petri dish for terrible violence and abuse.

Late this Autumn, Jeff Dagg, who suffered from worsening COPD, was found in distress where he was staying at The Bond Hotel and was transported to St. Michael’s Hospital where he was pronounced dead on November 17. I am working with his sister, but have not yet discovered the cause of death. We recently learned that his cremated remains were released to an uncle.

I have appealed to Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner in an attempt to overcome Toronto Police’s naked refusal to release the December Lamport fire video, a video which may well show arson. If it was an arson event, like many others including the one that destroyed Jeff’s tent, police and the City appear to have less than zero interest in finding and telling the truth about it publicly.

Doug Johnson Hatlem writes on polling, elections data, and politics. For questions, comments, or to inquire about syndicating this weekly column for the 2020 cycle in your outlet, he can be contacted on Twitter @djjohnso (DMs open) or at djjohnso@yahoo.com (subject line #10at10 Election Column).

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