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“Democracy might get in the way”: Why Toronto’s Mayor Tory Rejected a Human Rights-based Alternative to Militarized Encampment Clearings

A page from planning documents for the initial militarized clearing at Trinity Bellwoods Park on June 22, 2021, Toronto.

“Nothing this big or controversial ever happens without the Mayor and the Mayor’s Office being involved in every step of the decision making process,” explained midtown Toronto City Councillor Josh Matlow, when asked who rejected a documented, human-rights based alternative to militarized homeless encampment evictions. “That’s how it works in City Hall for good or bad.”

Emails, documents, and slide decks, recently obtained through Freedom of Information requests made by a team of activists of which I am a part, include a new set of speaking notes received the day after publication here of “War” Preparations: the City of Toronto’s Approach to Homelessness. They strongly appear to back Matlow’s view that Mayor John Tory had to be involved “in every step of the decision making process,” and suggest that the Mayor and City Managers’ offices were prepared, even at this early stage, to ignore their legislated human rights obligations

The speaking notes for Slide 9 of a deck, discussed in two meetings with City Managers, the Mayor, and his top aides on back-to-back Fridays and then again four days later with the Interdivisional Encampment Steering Committee, present the following “Concern”:

“Concern re: political aspect of policy going to council; enforcement action at some point in the parks & this will a challenging [sic] element of the work – very concerned about advocates response. Described this file as a political nightmare to contain – that council might hear two days of deputations before a decision will be made. Concerns about a million motions coming forward with every councillor’s agenda attached.”

Councillor Matlow was one of more than thirty sources I attempted to speak with for this story in order to share relevant pieces of information from the FOI documents and to get their responses. More than a dozen people responded and the vast majority spoke on the record. Over the phone, I read Matlow the “Concern” from the speaker’s notes.

He seemed stunned.

After a few moments of silence, he said, “well, that implies only the Mayor’s agenda counts and no other elected representatives’ voice—or who they represent—matters as much.” He continued, “that’s fundamentally wrong in the understanding of our democratic system. This was certainly a very centralized decision-making process.”

***

A comprehensive human rights-based alternative to the City’s militarized mass eviction of unhoused people from parks in the summer of 2021 was put forward to senior City officials by Leilani Farha, former United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Housing, and her new organization, The Shift in April. This plan, if adopted, would have re-started dialogue with unhoused people and their advocates in a more deliberate attempt to resolve differences over what to do about the large-scale encampments that had arisen during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto.

Documents related to the back-to-back Friday discussions between Mayor Tory and the City’s top bureaucrats reveal that serious planning for evictions began months before they occurred. Following a January 7th request from Tory’s office for an update on plans for encampments come spring, an initial draft of an “encampment resolution plan” that laid out the structure of a highly orchestrated strategy to clear encampments from four City parks was prepared for a meeting among the Mayor, his Deputy Chief of Staff Courtney Glen, his Director of Legislative Affairs Edward Birnbaum, and representatives of the City Manager’s office that included at least Deputy City Managers Tracey Cook and Giuliana Carbone. The first version of the eviction planning slide deck, dated January 12, was prepared for the first meeting on January 15, and was published as part of Sunday’s article here.

“Hot off the press – I haven’t reviewed yet – but gives an idea of what we are looking at,” announced Cook in an email sent twenty-one minutes after the scheduled start of their second meeting on January 22. Attached was the fourth version of the slide deck, version six of which would be presented four days later with the speaker notes which we are publishing along with this article.

The centralized decision making process is evident in the speaking notes, which say City staff are “grateful for your top down support to this file.” There are other points of concern in addition to centralization and the intention to figure out a way to push through a highly controversial approach to dealing with homeless encampments.

Slide 3 “… We are all concerned about encampments and the springtime.”

Slide 9 “… Noted timelines are tight & will require a tight communication strategy … Will require a very political astute approach to the work – there will be 2 days of deputations before council when this policy piece goes forward; concerned about the end result of the policy following the political process”

Slide 10 “… Agreement on resolution (clearing) date – is this negotiable with executive leadership?”

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Slide deck slide 7: Encampment eviction timeline.

Both Matlow and downtown Councillor Mike Layton put forward motions at the June 8, 2021 City Council meeting, crafted in consultation with Farha and frontline workers and advocates. One motion  in particular directed City staff to effectively pursue the approach Farha had recommended. That motion and all but one of the others, failed. Councillors Matlow and Layton separately told me that they understood Mayor Tory’s rejection of their motions as proof that it was the Mayor that had rejected The Shift’s human rights-based approach.

City Staff that I contacted for this story refused to talk about who made the decisions or crafted the accompanying political strategy. This includes the person who sent the slide deck and prepared the speaker’s notes for his presentation to the Interdivisional Encampment Steering Committee, Dan Breault, the lead of the City of Toronto’s Encampment Office. Throughout January 2021, Breault was communicating back and forth with Tracey Cook over email about various drafts of related slide decks.

Breault referred CounterPunch questions to the City of Toronto’s media office.

Eventually, City spokesperson Brad Ross responded for all involved (including the Mayor’s office). Ross asserted, in spite of evidence presented to the contrary, that in “all manners concerning … the enforcement of City bylaws, decisions rest with the City’s Senior Leadership Team, comprised of senior civil servants. Staff kept elected officials apprised of the unprecedented work they were doing throughout the pandemic to ensure that our most vulnerable residents continued to have access to safe, indoor accommodation.”

The Mayor has also refused to comment on his involvement. I have now put the question regarding the rejection of a non-violent human rights-based approach and why that decision was made directly to the Mayor, his communications secretary Don Peat, and Peat’s associate Lawvin Hadisi at least ten times. I have received no tangible response, despite repeated promises that one would be forthcoming. Furthermore, the Mayor’s office – including Glen and Birnbaum who were in the critical January meetings with the Mayor and City Managers and were copied during those meetings by email with the critical slide deck on encampment plans – has further refused to answer questions about the speaking notes, including the material on Slide 9. Birnbaum texted back only to say, “I believe Brad Ross responded to you. Thank you.”

Ross, senior civil servants, and relevant members of the Mayor’s Office, including Tory, who were copied on Ross’ response, did not respond to follow up questions.

While ex-cop and former Councillor Jonathon Burnside did go on the record stating of the decision, “it’s above me” as a Manager for Strategic Initiatives in the City Manager’s office, he insisted, “I don’t know who made the decision. Honestly, I can look you in the eye and say that.” Still, he was certain, “It wouldn’t be the Mayor. … The Mayor does not get involved in operational stuff.”  On repeated questioning, Burnside could not, however, state who should be responsible at all, even theoretically, for such a call.

Burnside did remember lots of back and forth with Farha and The Shift, “I was in on the meetings where she was talking about various things, but specifically an alternative plan? I don’t remember an alternative plan.”  However, emails that include Burnside and more than a dozen others, dated April 23 and May 4, contain The Shift’s plan and the City’s response, authored by Cook. We have not yet obtained the attachments (that include the City’s response) for those emails.

On the record, Burnside did not relay details of what they had talked about in such meetings in any detail. According to another participant in those same meetings, Andrew Bond of Inner City Health Associates (ICHA), the conversations were held under Chatham House Rules, binding participants against reporting specifics of the conversation outside of the group. Bond did share that, in those meetings, ICHA supported The Shift’s position on a human rights approach.

Farha also feels constrained by Chatham House Rules and, therefore, could not speak on the record to specifics of why the City refused The Shift’s plan. Nor could she pass us related attachments, but she says she “supports any efforts to retrieve them by way of Freedom of Information.” (A follow up request has been filed.)

The one participant who did agree to speak to me about what had caused the City to reject Farha’s plans, did so on the condition of anonymity. “The dynamic was, they were looking for something that could solve everything, quote- unquote, within sort of a six to eight- week timeline.” The source continued, “my gut is, if the human rights approach happens within a timeline, they would have accepted it.” They told me that it strongly appeared the decision was made by someone above the head of Deputy City Manager Cook, who was Chair of the encampment meetings.

“Democracy and protecting human rights are not always convenient or the most efficient way in the short term to get something done,” Farha noted when I asked her directly if the timeline question was what caused the Mayor and senior City bureaucrats to reject her plan.

As Bond noted, “People have a right to housing. They have a right to help. … If you ever have any timelines where you’re competing [between] recreation and fundamental rights to housing, safety, dignity and health, there’s no comparison there.”

***

FOI documents further show a carefully crafted communications strategy that saw emails first go to downtown Councillors informing them of the clearing only at 5:02 on the morning of the Trinity Bellwoods Park clearing followed by a similar notice to all other Councillors and the Mayor about an hour later.

Ahead of the enforcement action, plans for it, including especially the Operational Planwere tightly held in several other ways. Only those who drew up the plans knew what was happening until nine days in advance when relevant divisional heads were briefed but given strict instructions not to alert others. City employees and private security guards meant to show up at Trinity Bellwoods Park on Tuesday were only informed on Monday, lest the plans leak.

They leaked anyway.

On Friday, June 18, four days before the clearing at Trinity Bellwoods Park, I received a tip that a massive enforcement action involving hundreds of police, security guards, and City workers would take place on the following Tuesday.

Working to confirm the tip, I asked Farha and Scarborough Councillor Paul Ainslie, among others, if they knew of such plans. Farha noted that she had been told days earlier that “all sizeable encampments will be dismantled in the next two weeks. But I’ve received no more specific info since then.”

Ainslie is a member of Tory’s Executive Committee and eventually answered to point me to the latest information City Council had on the matter. Upon follow-up as to whether the Executive Committee knew more, he stated clearly, “No. What is given publicly is what we get. Unless at the local level they are giving more detailed information to the local City Councillor.” (Ainslie initially agreed to speak on the record for this article but proved too busy after reading over the materials.)

The Mayor and City Manager’s offices had been successful in stick-handling around Council members, avoiding having almost any of them gain knowledge that a militarized response had been in the works for months when they voted on how to address encampments at Council in early June.

***

Matlow wasn’t the only one who immediately smelled the anti-democratic powder keg in the slide speaker’s notes, talking points that appear to have flowed out of the meeting less than 100 hours earlier between the City Manager’s office and the Mayor’s Office, including John Tory.

Farha read the Speaking Notes and quickly replied first with a: “Wow” and then continued, “Let’s plough ahead because otherwise, democracy might get in the way. It’s appalling, but but perhaps not surprising.”

Mayor Tory says violent encampment evictions are “meant to help the homeless people.” If left unchecked, Toronto’s Mayor may continue to push rapid, violent encampment evictions over human rights-based alternatives as Toronto’s housing and homelessness crises intensify.

I would like to thank the team of other activists who helped to obtain this material and closely read various drafts of this article to make sure that errors, egregious or small, were avoided to the greatest extent possible.