Internal documents reveal City staff, police, Mayor Tory’s secret plans to evict homeless encampments
Last June, unhoused encampment residents were chaotically removed from Trinity Bellwoods Park (Bellwoods) in Toronto; but internal documents, including the City’s tightly held operational manual for the day, reveal the way it was planned – and executed – was anything but chaotic. Beginning months earlier, meticulous and detailed planning for eviction involved the highest levels of the City’s power structure.
Xiao, a small woman in her forties who immigrated to Canada from mainland China over ten years ago, has a big smile and an even bigger disdain for abusive governments – whether Chinese or Canadian. She was living in Bellwoods when she was forcibly evicted. According to the “City of Toronto Operational Plan Trinity Bellwoods Encampment June 22-23, 2021” (Operational Plan), published here in full, encampment residents were to be strictly given two hours to pack up everything they owned. Xiao spent hours getting ready to leave the park – but it was not quick enough. She says she planned to “take back the tent and then all my belongings,” but the City “called the police [to] sweep us out of the park.” Xiao and dozens of remaining supporters were violently kettled out of the park around 7 pm. Distrustful of the City that had just forcibly evicted her, she was afraid City staff or the police would plant drugs or weapons in her belongings and decided against retrieving them from City storage. “I [had] to sacrifice all those things because I [didn’t] want to be in jail,” she said. Xiao lost nearly everything she owned, including her phone, tablet, and tent.
Starting with Trinity Bellwoods, Toronto used a phalanx of police, and security guards – public and private, in what City Councillor Josh Matlow called a “militarized approach toward people without homes.” Matlow reports that he presented Mayor Tory and senior City leadership with clear alternatives “informed by both activists on the ground and city staff” and respectful of basic humanity and the right to housing. Former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Housing Leilani Farha told us she had also provided the City with options. Instead, Mayor Tory, Toronto Police, and the City’s highest-ranking bureaucrats, including Deputy City Manager Tracey Cook and her boss Chris Murray, chose a plan that involved armed officers, horses, semi-permanent fencing, direct conflict with advocates, drones and other forms of surveillance, trampling a fire kept by Indigenous people that the City deemed “sacred,” and the traumatization of some of Toronto’s most vulnerable citizens, forcibly separated from their few belongings and the tiny slice of community they could call their own. A month later, in spite of heavy criticisms, Mayor Tory, Toronto Police, and the Citymanager’s office chose to run the same violent strategy – including the forcible exclusion of major media – in two further parks (Alexandra and, for a second time, Lamport Stadium) on back-to-back dates.
Readying for the Bellwoods eviction, police, security, City workers, and a private fencing company began staging for the Trinity Bellwoods Park (Bellwoods) operation before dawn on Tuesday, June 22. City staff planned to wake encampment residents up at 6 a.m. to begin the eviction process, according to the Operational Plan. Like other encampment evictions that have become disturbingly common in North America, this operation cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and displaced a few dozen people to other parks.
While the Operational Plan called for a “peaceful exodus from the park,” a violent melee unfolded. Multiple people were beaten or arrested. At least 33 people were displaced from where they had been living, according to the meticulous “Encampment Office Report” – updated throughout the day of the Bellwoods eviction.
This eviction came on the heels of a failed attempt to clear the Lamport Stadium encampment on May 19, 2021. Encampment residents and their supporters held off police and the City, who were only able to evict encampment residents from part of the park. Perhaps the show of force at Bellwoods was to ensure the community did not again best the police. Internal emails for the Bellwoods eviction demonstrate the City was incorporating lessons from Lamport into its planning.
These emails are part of four thousand pages of documents obtained by an activist research team we work with, which has been digging into Toronto’s Encampment evictions for over a year, via Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. Records show that senior City bureaucrats and high-ranking police officers jointly plotted complex and resource-intensive operations involving multiple divisions and hundreds of staff to remove a few dozen people from four “priority” parks beginning in Spring 2021. Eviction plans began after, and, FOI documents suggest, were likely triggered by Mayor John Tory wanting answers about the encampments. Tory did not respond to our direct inquiries by email and by text and a phone call to his cell phone for this article. His media team also ignored our emails other than a generalized response sent after we reached him by cell phone.
City and police public relations issued the official account of the events immediately following the eviction. Throughout the summer, Mayor John Tory denied responsibility for the police violence during encampment evictions, saying he “do[es] not direct the police.” He told City News that he had “no involvement in the decisions” concerning on-the-ground operations of police or security. Tory, nevertheless, defended both the evictions and police actions, calling the City and police actions “compassionate, but firm.”
The Toronto Police Service (TPS) issued a press release saying that Toronto Police were “only one part” of the overall operational plan and that it used a “measured” response. But FOI documents show that this official account is, at best, not the full story.
The Mayor was not only aware of the plans to evict encampment residents from Trinity Bellwoods Park months in advance, but the planning for it commenced after Tory inquired in the first week of the new year about senior City staffs’ plans for encampments. “[H]oping to meet with you in the next couple of weeks to discuss encampments and, specifically, our plan for the spring. The Mayor has started asking,” wrote Courtney Glen, Tory’s Deputy Chief of Staff on January 7. The documents obtained show the Mayor met, on two subsequent Fridays that January, with senior City leadership as they began encampment clearing plans.
For their part, Toronto Police were far more than “one part” of the overall operational plan; they were key players from the beginning in drafting the plans.
Multiple City of Toronto divisions were involved in creating the Operational Plan to clear parks of encampments. The detailed step-by-step plan for the park’s eviction and clearing was drafted at least three weeks before Trinity Bellwoods was cleared. Disconcertingly, nascent plans in City slide decks for violently evicting encampment residents, clearing their belongings from parks, and ensuring encampments wouldn’t re-form were based on models developed in Philadelphia and San Francisco. These plans stretched back at least five months to January 12, just five days after Mayor Tory’s Deputy Chief of Staff wrote Deputy City Manager Tracey Cook inquiring about spring plans for encampments.
The large-scale plan to evict encampment residents from four sizable parks began while the City was participating in an “Encampment Discussion Table” that it created to engage with community advocates to “help build trust and relationships.” The talks began in December 2020; consultants for the City invited about 30 advocates–and no encampment residents–to participate. The lack of meaningful engagement with encampment residents would be an ongoing point of contention throughout the talks.
After two Discussion Table meetings in December, community advocates didn’t hear from the consultants or the City again until February. By this point, the City had decided to engage in consultations with encampment residents and had decided that the role of the consultations was “to design and implement a targeted encampment resolution pilot at a designated encampment site,” but they never told the community advocates they were at the table with about this plan. Dan Breault from the City’s Encampment Office called a Discussion Table meeting for February 12. But Breault had been busy. On the same day as the meeting, the City filed for a legal injunction against Khaleel Seivwright to stop him from putting tiny wooden shelters (used by unhoused people) in Toronto’s parks. The injunction application included an affidavit from Breault – a statement in support of the City’s case against Seivwright. On February 18, Breault and City staff consulted with encampment residents and several community advocates and Discussion Table members helped facilitate these consultations. The lawsuit was only announced on February 19, 2021 – the day after the consultations. After predictably ensuing outrage, Breault told the advocates not informing them about the lawsuit at the discussion table meeting “was an oversight and we apologize.”
Months later, the ninth and final version of the Operational Plan was circulated to staff the day before the eviction, laying out the City’s justification for the violently removing residents, the timeline and command structure for the day; it is so detailed that it assigns individual parking space to staff participating in its implementation. The document was approved by City Manager Chris Murray, the highest ranking City bureaucrat, and was signed by Deputy City Manager Tracey Cook.
The Operational Plan is clear that the initial role of police officers was to “assist with public safety and security along the perimeter fence line.” However, it states that “[i]n the event protest events escalate beyond the capacity of deployed Corporate Security staff to address, operations will be escalated to Toronto Police Service.”
The Operational Plan includes 174 security guards for the first day of the two-day eviction schedule. Emails between City staff say there would be an additional police officer for every five guards at the outset. On the day of the eviction, there were however scores of police present, including bike police; pepper spray was used, and at one-point, mounted officers–who were present in the park from the earliest hours of the morning–rode through the crowd.
Members of the Toronto Police were central to creating the Operational Plan. TPS declined to tell us how many of their staff were involved in drafting the plan, but at least eleven people with TPS email addresses were included in emails with City officials to plan the Bellwoods eviction. On June 18, 2021, for instance, Joanna Beaven-Desjardins, Director of the Emergency Operations Centre and Toronto Police Superintendent, instructed Acting Manager of Corporate Security Michael Tippett to “discuss further as to tactics” in a phone meeting with Staff Sergeant Peter Trimble.
The Operational Plan, distributed to select City staff, included detailed personal information about the Bellwoods encampment residents and a map of their location in the park. An encampment resident and the former “Mayor of Trinity Bellwoods Park,” J the Letter is described in the Operational Plan in the “past incidents” section: “Main incidents have occurred by three encamped individuals,” and the Plan goes on to describe how he “has told numerous City staff how he knows karate and is not afraid to use it … and use[s] his body in an intimidating manner.”
J called the detailed notes on himself and other residents (which included close-up and drone photos of encampments taken weeks prior to the evictions) the work of “actual spies, like, espionage.”
The Operational Plan states that J, who identified himself right away from the information included in the Plan even though his name was redacted, “[t]alks very strongly about the ‘war’ against the City.” Operational Planners repeatedly raise the “war” comment; it is used no less than four times in the Operational Plan and related Trinity Bellwoods Park Analysis” (sometimes called the “Site Plan”) documents. In one instance the comment is accompanied by a photo of the feet of a man next to a painting reading “we will need an army of bodies to stop city from removing us.”
J lived in part of the park called “Bruce Lee City,” a name encampment residents adopted because of a Bruce Lee poster they had found. J says that it was in this context that he was often talking of “not being afraid to use karate, [it] was cute.” J suggests his “war” comments are hyperbolic – a call to have residents’ demands met, but “in the year and a half I stayed in the tent, there was no sign of them suggesting any housing for us or any plan or anything. It was a push just to get anybody into the hotels.”
The Site Plan, a report put together by Toronto’s Encampment Office, identifies several people as especially vulnerable or prone to escalation. Deputy City Manager Tracey Cook was sent a version of this report prior to approving the Operational Plan. Among the 33 people the final report identified: six people/couples who would not respond well if rushed; four of them plus an additional three others were considered to have an “excessive amount of belongings” or were using more than one tent as storage; and two couples and an individual were also identified as being known for “[h]eavy use/used harm reduction supplies.”
The City of Toronto says it supports harm reduction; however, the Operational Plan informs all staff to “secure the tent and inform Toronto Police Service immediately” if drugs are found.
While the Encampment Office report says one “individual will not respond well if rushed, however will leave site if told he has to leave in a timely manner (2 days),” rather than two days, residents were told two hours.
Greg Cook, a front-line worker who has attended many encampment evictions, says about encampments, “people have their whole lives, all their belongings…two hours is not enough time to pack up.” [Full disclosure: Greg works with both authors, with one at Sanctuary, a downtown church, and with the other as a member of the Shelter and Housing Justice Network’s Steering Committee.]
The Operational Plan notes that if staff determine “progress is genuine and more time is needed [rather than] if individuals [were] being obstructive,”the two-hour limit could be extended, but only “at the discretion of the incident commander.” John Burnside, Manager of Strategic Initiatives in the Deputy City Manager’s Office, who participated in the planning of the Trinity Bellwoods Park eviction, but who did not attend the eviction itself, recalled in his interview with us for this piece, “my boss said, we have to make the time” for people to take the time they need to pack. The Operational Plan includes a summary of information to be conveyed to encampment residents at the time of the eviction, but this information about the potential for more time is not included. While discretionary policies like these may open possibilities to accommodate people, they may also open possibilities for discrimination.
Given how the intensive surveillance and documentation of encampment residents’ particularities was operationalized, it is evident that unhoused people were under surveillance so the City could enable their expulsion from the parks rather than to support their well-being. No efforts were made to accommodate, support, or prevent the further traumatization of encampment residents based on the extensive information that had been collected about them; the information was used against the residents and their interests.
Colonization in Action
“The City of Toronto acknowledges that we are on the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples,” says the City’s official land acknowledgement.
Toronto has committed to reconciliation and adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which prohibits the forcible removal of Indigenous people from their land. In spite of these things, the word “Indigenous,” like the word “rights,” never appears in the Operational Plan.
Just the day before the eviction, Mayor Tory said: “the City of Toronto is committed to advancing truth and reconciliation and justice.”
Selina Young, Director of the City of Toronto’s Indigenous Affairs Office, raised concerns about the treatment of Indigenous people in her email to high-level City bureaucrats when she returned from vacation on Friday, June 18, 2021 – just four days before the eviction, but while the Operational Plan was still being revised.
Young pointed out the disproportionate rates of Indigenous homelessness. Indigenous people make up about 2.5 percent of the population, but nearly a quarter of all people sleeping outside. Young was apprehensive about the optics of the eviction taking place the day after National Indigenous People’s Day and the “increased negative impact to the many Indigenous people in the camps because of the findings [of mass, unmarked Indigenous children’s graves] in Kamloops, Manitoba and Saskatchewan” outside of residential schools.
Young also stressed that it was “important that we don’t take a homogenous approach to all people living on the land.”
Young’s concerns were dismissed.
City Manager Chris Murray told Young: “We have to weigh all the considerations. … People should be aware of the supportive housing being built in part for indigenous people.” (These 51 units, which were not all for Indigenous people, did not, and still do not, yet exist.)
Toronto Fire Services Division Chief Darla Tannahill, who was involved in high-level communications preceding and during the eviction, contacted officials to “reinforce what [they] already kn[e]w”: that “a differing point of view” was held by the Toronto Police Services Aboriginal Peacekeeping Unit.
Acting Fire Chief Jim Jessop asked Young to “Please give me a call at the earliest opportunity.”
Young backed off after a conversation not recorded in the available documents, saying: “[e]ven more safety concerns as I understand human trafficking, predatory behaviour and overdoses are occurring.”
Sometimes bad things happen, a fact not reserved for people residing in encampments. The illicit drug supply is toxic across the city. Neither the fact of drug use and occurrence of overdoses nor the alleged presence of crime within a community provide reasonable justification for the removal of a whole population from an area.
We asked the Toronto Police Services how many, if any, human trafficking and “predatory behaviour” related charges had been laid in relation to Trinity Bellwoods or any other encampment. They told us to file another FOI if we want to find out.
Dr. Ann de Shalit, who teaches at York University, says there is “very much a conflation” between human trafficking and sex work. She told us “human trafficking” is a strategic “relabeling of different social conditions and social issues.”
“It’s just being used as an excuse,” she continued, “to displace people, to not meet their actual needs.” Dr. De Shalit adds , “the appropriate response to human trafficking is meaningful resources … especially housing.”
Regardless of the presence of (alleged) crime, as Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) Associate Professor of Social Work at York University Ruth Green says, it does not extinguish Indigenous rights – including the right to live on their lands and to practice their culture.
In her email to City management, Young suggested the possibility of “conduct[ing] ceremony for the land and the people” at the eviction.
The Operational Plan was so detailed that it identified where staff would be eating their Subway sandwiches for lunch. Yet, it did not plan for Indigenous people, grieving newly found Indigenous children’s graves and dealing with the trauma of forced displacement, to do what they often do at times of grief and loss: ceremony.
At 8:30 a.m., the City’s half-hourly “situation report” stated: “Incident Commander requested Toronto Police Service to engage its Aboriginal Peacekeeping Unit re: fire in the south zone – this fire has been deemed to be sacred.”
Associate Professor Ruth Green tells us that once a fire has been determined to be sacred, “it should be dealt with in community, not with policing.”
Kayla, an Omushkegowuk woman who people call “The Girl Who Sings” and who only wanted her first name used, attended Trinity Bellwoods Park to support the encampment residents on the day of the eviction. She was at the fire that morning and says, “No one gave any warning. At that point, we were all told that they’re not going to remove [the fire]. Suddenly, as the wall of police approached, an officer in the line said, ‘the rules have changed.’” Kayla says, “we then get shoved, and the fire got trampled … which consisted of a lot of violence.” The City extinguished the fire and pepper-sprayed those protecting it.
An email sent the day after the Bellwoods eviction from General Manager Employment and Social Services Tom Azouz to senior City management encapsulates the City of Toronto’s approaches to Indigenous people and reconciliation. Azouz’s email signature says: “I am committed to reconciliation through honouring the land, respecting its Indigenous heritage, and being supportive of Indigenous peoples and their ongoing efforts towards decolonization.” Yet, following an event where a fire the City of Toronto “deemed to be sacred” was stomped out and Indigenous people were violently displaced off of Indigenous lands, Azouz sent a single line email: “Congratulations everyone for managing this highly complex situation so incredibly well!”
Toronto City Council reaffirmed its commitment to a human rights approach to encampments and housing less than two weeks prior to the Trinity Bellwoods clearing.
“The City of Toronto actions trespass enforcement only after exhausting all tools and options available,” the City told us when we asked them about the evictions. “Under international human rights law,” says Leilani Farha, “one of the criteria or part of adopting a human rights approach to a situation where a government wants to remove people from lands where they’ve been living is that they have to exhaust all viable alternatives to the eviction.” Farha co-authored A National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canadawhile she was the United Nations’ Housing Rapporteur. She is continuing her human rights and housing work with The Shift.
“[The City] didn’t explore all of their options – I know this because they never tried the approach that we offered to them in detail. We provided them with a detailed document of how we thought it could go. We were suggesting the City create a table of sorts where The Shift could assist in bringing together City Councillors, representatives of people living in homelessness and homeless people themselves to help the City engage and to develop solutions together with those living in encampments. We offered all of that to them directly, and they did not pursue any of it.”
Farha called the City’s Operational Plan, which we provided her a copy of, “shocking.” “The lack of humanity in that document struck me,” she said.
Reached directly by cell phone and text message, Mayor Tory did not provide an answer as to why Farha’s plan was rejected and why he also refused Josh Matlow’s alternative option presented in the City’s June Council meeting. “I will pass this on to Don Peat,” Tory wrote by text. Peat, the Mayor’s press secretary, ignored calls, texts, and a voice mail but his colleague Lawvin Hadisi sent a boiler plate response noting that Mayor Tory has done “three housing related” photo-ops “[t]his past week alone.”
In August of 2021, two months after the Bellwoods eviction and weeks after the final Lamport Stadium clearing that saw an even greater magnitude of police violence, the City tried an option it previously failed to exhaust: direct dialogue with encampment residents and offering residents housing. According to City front-line workers, this “pilot project” in Dufferin Grove park resulted in more than 20 people from the park being housed, and around fifty had accepted rooms in shelter hotels ahead of the onset of winter.
One of the last few Dufferin Grove residents to move into housing was J the Letter. J was carry a shovel like a staff while walking up and down the police line and was arrested for allegedly assaulting a peace officer at the Bellwoods eviction – a charge that was withdrawn when he completed a simple diversion program. After being displaced from Trinity Bellwoods, J found himself at the Lamport Stadium encampment, only to be violently evicted from there. While the City had never tried connecting him or anyone he knew with housing before or during two highly orchestrated, armed evictions, the Dufferin Grove pilot program meant J “got a wonderful fucking place” in December 2021 that he calls “beautiful.”
“Safe Inside Spaces”
The City of Toronto works “to help move people at encampments to safer indoor spaces,” City spokesperson Brad Ross said, explaining the encampment evictions to us.
Many encampment residents and advocates did not buy into the claims that the shelter system was safe, however. Xiao said, “I get abused two-thousand-million times; so, that’s why I run away from the shelter.” She described sexual harassment, being kicked out when it was -20°C and other indignities. Over a third of encampment residents surveyed in March said they did not access the shelter system because of a “lack of safety.” There were over 10,000 reported incidents of violence in the City’s shelter system between 2016 and 2021.
Sadly, the shelter-hotels also have a body count. Drug toxicity deaths by sector are not public, but according to other FOI data we have obtained, 50 percent of all overdose deaths in the shelter system, which typically makes up about a third of the population, took place in the shelter-hotel sector during the first 11 months of the pandemic. There have been at least 149 suspected opioid toxicity deaths in the shelter system since April 2020.
With a full shelter system, the spaces in the shelter-hotels were especially precious. The City turns people away from the shelter system nightly. We asked the City how many people were turned away from the shelter system the night of the Trinity Bellwoods eviction, but it would not tell us; this has been an ongoing issue.
By noon on June 23, 2021 – the day after the eviction – fourteen people living in the encampment had “accepted referrals to safe, indoor accommodations.” The word “accepted” implies a level of voluntariness that may be questionable given that there were armed police overseeing people’s evictions.
Of the 266 people deployed by the City of Toronto to carry out the Trinity Bellwoods Park eviction on June 22, 2021, not counting the police, there was only a single worker from Streets to Homes – the department responsible for moving people into shelters and housing. “In a caring, compassionate, human rights-oriented city, those numbers would have been reversed,” as Farha points out.
Moreover, the vast majority of people who moved into shelter-hotels from encampments got stuck there. This is despite promises of housing workers and available housing; a mere eight percent were moved into housing by September 1, 2021, according to the CBC.
A lot of encampment residents, including both Xiao and J the Letter, wanted housing, not a spot in the shelter system.
Xiao thinks the City will find any excuse to blame unhoused people who are looking for housing when the City fails to get it for them “They promise you have something” for housing she says, but in practice, they use “procedure [for] denial.”
There are about 1,600 more people recognized as “actively homeless” by the City of Toronto today than when the Trinity Bellwoods Park encampment was evicted just over ten months ago. Indigenous homelessness has increased 27 percent in this same period. We asked the City of Toronto and the Mayor’s Office where people are allowed to sleep and keep their belongings when there is no space in the shelter system. We did not get a specific answer. Instead, we were told there are “more than 300 additional supportive homes expected to begin occupancy in the coming year.” As the City moves to close its 3,200 shelter-hotel spaces by April 2023, these new homes will not be enough to accommodate even 10% of the soon-to-be-displaced residents. Many former encampment residents who accepted spaces in the shelter-hotels, but who can’t go into the main shelter system – either because of the conditions or a lack of space – will end up back outside in encampments.
At the same time, the City has criminalized encampment residents and supporters.
Twenty-one people were criminally charged in the four major encampment evictions from May through July 2021. While around half of the charges have been or are in the process of being withdrawn, the majority of the remaining defendants are fighting collectively, beginning with a challenge to their charges on constitutional grounds. Nearly a year later, key pieces of disclosure have yet to be provided by the Crown prosecutor to several defendants. Dozens of other people were initially arrested and held for hours in police custody before being issued trespassing tickets. Those who are fighting the accompanying $65 fine are still waiting a court date. A joint lawsuit for millions of dollars against the City and police for injuries sustained by police is progressing through the system. At least one officer was guilty of unlawful action, according to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) for Ontario. Another OIPRD case, accusing six officers of violent misconduct, is being appealed to divisional court after the OIPRD stated that they would only entertain a case brought by those who claim they suffered directly from police misconduct, not just witnessed misconduct – even though the OIPRD has a public mandate stating otherwise.
The criminalization of encampments has made unhoused people who sleep outdoors even more vulnerable. J the Letter, twice violently evicted by the City before being housed, says, “it’s just breaking my heart to see. It’s just people, like sleeping in the rain, like no tents at all.” J says “housing is the most important thing to people right now” – as do most of the other people we interviewed for this story. Nevertheless, advocates expect more evictions with Toronto’s warmer months upon us as it seems that the City is likely to respond to the homelessness crisis with the continuing threat and presence of boots and billy clubs, rather than with roofs and bedsheets.