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Tenant coalition fighting evictions in Ottawa told to ‘cease and desist’

Real estate company Timbercreek announced in May that low-rent townhomes would be demolished.

Herongate meeting on Timbercreek evictions

Herongate meeting on Timbercreek evictions. Photo: herongatetenants.ca

 

by Andy Crosby

This article was first published by ricochet on July 23, 2018.

A company that issued eviction notices to over a hundred families in Ottawa’s Heron Gate neighbourhood has now sent a cease and desist notice to the tenant coalition fighting for the community’s survival.

In the notice, Timbercreek Communities and its parent company Timbercreek Asset Management (TCOM) accuse members of the Herongate Tenant Coalition of libel for making social media posts that “contain numerous false, misleading, inaccurate, and highly defamatory statements about the character and business of TCOM and its employees, which has resulted in damages to TCOM and its employees.”

Timbercreek announced in May that the low-rent townhomes “within the borders of Heron Road, Baycrest Drive and Sandalwood Drive have reached the end of their lifecycle,” and would be demolished. Residents were given until Sept. 30 to vacate.

Heron Gate is one of Ottawa’s most diverse neighbourhoods. According to the Herongate Tenant Coalition, of more than 400 people facing eviction, 89 per cent are people of colour, with more than two-thirds Somali or Arab. Nearly half are children.

The coalition’s data comes from 79 occupied homes, and it estimates that accounting for all 105 occupied homes would result in about 570 residents.

The coalition calls this “the largest mass eviction in Canada.”

‘Attempting to consume all our resources’

The Herongate Tenant Coalition was served the cease and desist notice on July 9 by multinational law firm Gowling WLG.

Josh Hawley, one of the coalition members named in the notice, believes that it was issued as a scare tactic to fight the working-class people of Heron Gate.

“They are attempting to consume all our resources by fighting some BS claim of defamation,” he says.

The notice contains several quotes from social media and website posts raising issues such as racism in relation to the actions of Timbercreek. Most of the quoted posts were not made directly by the Herongate Tenant Coalition, but the cease and desist notice claims that the coalition is liable for sharing the statements.

‘Never a complaint in my file’

Ikram Dahir has lived in Heron Gate for more than 25 years. She currently resides in a Timbercreek-managed high-rise building with her husband and 20-month-old son. Her parents live in one of the Timbercreek townhomes, and their eviction prompted her to get involved with the Herongate Tenant Coalition.

She is also named in the notice.

According to Dahir, she filled out work orders on behalf of her parents, but Timbercreek did not heed these requests for repairs and she had to go to the City. Then she received a letter warning her of eviction from her own place, allegedly due to items being thrown off her balcony on a date when she and her family were out of town.

“I have lived in the high-rises for five years, and there was never a complaint in my file,” says Dahir.

“Timbercreek is targeting me and looking for reasons to evict me since organizing with the Herongate Tenant Coalition.”

Neither Hawley nor Dahir are quoted in the notice’s list of allegedly defamatory statements.

Sowing doubt

Hawley has been an outspoken critic of the eviction and was previously named in a letter sent to Heron Gate residents by Timbercreek, in which the coalition was accused of obstructing the relocation process.

In the June 28 letter, Timbercreek’s director of operations, John Loubser, acknowledged that the eviction process “is very stressful and we understand that you may not want to move.” He also said that it “appears that some of you are being misled by Josh Hawley (who does not live in Heron Gate) and the Herongate Tenant Coalition.” Hawley’s name appears in bold in the original.

In what seems to be a precursor to the cease and desist notice, Loubser added, “We have made several attempts to communicate with the Herongate Tenant Coalition and have asked that Josh and others stop misleading tenants; we will continue in those efforts.”

Hawley disputes those claims, saying that Loubser has never explained how Herongate residents are being “misled,” or reached out to talk with him.

“What I believe he is doing is trying to sow doubt in tenants’ minds about us,” says Hawley. “But we are constantly talking with neighbours and know that absolutely nobody trusts Timbercreek.”

Human rights issue

Loubser did not respond to a request for comment by publication time. In the June 28 letter to residents, he urged them to move out sooner rather than later, as there would be more rentals available in the summer, and to seek independent legal advice.

According to resources provided by Community Legal Education Ontario, residents can refuse to move out if they disagree with the eviction. The landlord can then apply to the Landlord and Tenant Board for an eviction order, and tenants may be able to qualify for “relief from eviction.”

The Herongate mass eviction is more than a local issue of affordable housing and gentrification. UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Leilani Farha considers it to be a human rights violation.

“Forced evictions are considered a gross violation of human rights,” said Farha at a recent meeting with Herongate residents, which was recorded by journalist Neal Rockwell for GroundWire. “There is a responsibility on the part of government to make sure that every alternative to the eviction is explored.”

Revitalization vs. gentrification

Timbercreek Asset Management, the multibillion-dollar real estate giant that owns Timbercreek Communities, owns about 23 hectares of low-income housing, home to some 4,000 residents, in Heron Gate.

Under Timbercreek, the neighbourhood is changing.

The Herongate Tenant Coalition alleges that Timbercreek (and its predecessor Transglobe, which bought the property from Minto in 2007 before selling to Timbercreek in 2013) has purposefully neglected the property and refused to do maintenance work.

In 2016, the company evicted families from 80 townhouses and demolished the buildings, citing structural problems and replacing the units with luxury high-rises.

Timbercreek’s aim is to “to help the area become a premium, active adult-oriented rental community meant to offer resort-style living,” according to Real Estate News EXchange.

Real estate developers refer to such efforts as revitalization. The Herongate Tenant Coalition says it is gentrification.

“Nowhere in their plan does the word ‘affordable’ appear,” Hawley says, referring to Timbercreek’s July 2016 design brief.

For those already living there, with scarce options for affordable family accommodation in Ottawa’s tight rental market, Heron Gate is home. Residents are now taking a stand to prevent displacement, gentrification and the fracturing of the community.

Three migrant justice activists freed following hearing, demo in the French Alps: Délinquants solidaires to face human-smuggling-related charges

by Leveller Staff

Photo: Leveller Staff

Around 200 people gathered under the midday sun on May 3 in a small green space between the Palais de Justice and the Conseil Général des Hautes-Alpes in the city of Gap in southeastern France. The demonstration coincided with a hearing for three young people – Bastien, Théo et Eléonora – who had been arrested and remained in custody [détention provisoire] following an April 22 rally near the mountain city of Briançon. Anti-fascists rallied on April 22 to assist the passage of around 30 migrants from Italy into France after far-right group Génération identitaire constructed a human chain in the mountain to block what they call is an “invasion” of “unskilled” and “criminal” migrants.

One speaker at the event cautioned the criminalization of people assisting migrants signaled a descent into fascism. “The seeds of fascism are being sown … in France and in Europe. Seeds only grow when there is water and dirt.” He warned, “Fascism sets roots because of our silence and our inaction in the face of the gravity of the situation.” [Le fascsisme sème des graines … en France et en Europe. Les graines ça ne pousse que s’il y a de l’eau du terreau […] Le terreau du fascisme c’est notre silence, notre inaction face à la gravité de la situation.]

There was heavy police presence outside the Palais de Justice including dozens of national police officers. Some were armed with assault rifles, while others stood ready with riot gear alongside five police vans and a large police bus. In the background, the Conseil Général building appeared peppered with blue paint. Frequent demonstrations have been organized throughout the region in support of asylum seekers attempting to cross the border and in solidarity with those criminalized for supporting the passage of the migrants through dangerous mountain conditions.

Around 40 people were permitted into the Palais de Justice for the hearing where the Tribunel correctionnel de Gap decided to free the three prisoners – two Swiss and one Italian nationals – two of whom were recently transferred from Gap to the Baumettes prison in Marseille. They will appear before a judge on May 31 to face serious human smuggling-related charges – pour aide à l’entrée d’étrangers en situation irrégulière. Strict release conditions forbid the accused to use social media or return to their home country. They face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of 750,000 Euros (over $1.15 million CAD).

Various migrant support groups and anti-fascist activists were present at the demonstration. A variety of speakers discussed the situation in France under the reforms of President Emmanuel Macron and the militarization of borders attempting to stem the tide of asylum seekers. Various chants arose from the crowd, including, “libérez nos camarades,” “police partout, justice complice,” and “de l’air de l’air, coupez les frontières.”

Activists also circulated pamphlets and a petition. One pamphlet described how a tourist ski village at Montgenèvre had recently been turned into a military camp on the Franco-Italian border by the French military who patrolled the mountain trails at night hunting for migrants. The pamphlet further discussed the April 22 demonstration near Briançon, organized as a response to the militarization of the border and to the actions of Génération identitaire, described in the pamphlet as a neo-fascist group and in the media as a nascent European version of the American alt-right, who also sought to block asylum seekers from crossing the border.

Racist meme of anti-migrant vessel – the C-Star

Génération identitaire also made headlines last July as its members, as part of the “Defend Europe” movement, raised funds to procure a large boat – the C-Star – to prevent the arrival of European-bound migrant vessels and by disrupting NGO vessels saving migrants in the Mediterranean. The extreme-right group vows on its website to protect Europe from the invasion of Islam and illegal migration. The group’s website opens on a video announcing “mission Alpes” and shows dozens of young people donning blue ski jackets emblazoned with “Defend Europe” logos. Supported by a helicopter, the group is shown snowshoeing in the mountains and setting up a barrier. One of the media personalities of the movement is a Canadian, Lauren Southern, described by the UK’s Express as an alt-right political activist. Southern was on the first anti-migrant boat in May last year, a dinghy, which attempted to block an NGO vessel bringing migrants to shore in Italy. In preparation for the C-Star’s launch, Southern told Express the group “had enough military and sailors to have our own personal army.”

Back in Canada, extreme-right anti-migrant groups have also rallied in Quebec along the U.S. border. In September last year, the St-Bernard-de-Lacolle border crossing was temporarily shut down as anti-fascist and pro-migrant groups confronted a rally organized by the self-described “ultranationalist” Storm Alliance supported by La Meute. The CBC also reported that Storm Alliance members patrolled Roxham Road – a popular crossing point for migrants into Quebec – where RCMP officers routinely guard. Tens of thousands of migrants attempting to enter Canada from the United States have been arrested and detained.

Carleton CUPE 2424 workers strike to protect their pensions

By Rick Telfer

Around 850 administrative, technical and library workers at Carleton University began picketing at campus entrances on Mar. 5 as they went on strike to protect their pensions.

The workers are represented by Local 2424 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). The strike followed nineteen days of bargaining since Jul. 2017. Negotiations with the university administration broke off early in the morning of Mar. 5. 

Picket line at Bronson entrance, Mar. 14 Credit: Rick Telfer

In a statement released by CUPE on Mar. 5, Local 2424 president Jerrett Clark said “Throughout bargaining, Carleton has placed obstacles in the path to a fair deal by insisting that a new collective agreement remove our bargaining rights around pensions.”

In the same release, the union “expressed disappointment and frustration at the university’s continued attempts to strip pension language from its employees’ collective agreement.”

A collective agreement details terms and conditions of employment for unionized workers and their employer. It replaces individual employment contracts and is negotiated on behalf of workers by their union representatives — the process known as collective bargaining.

On Mar. 6, the day after the strike began, the university administration posted a memorandum addressed to CUPE 2424 members to its website accompanied by a video in which Alastair Summerlee, the interim president of the university, stated that “the university remains absolutely committed to reaching a negotiated settlement with the union.”

According to Summerlee, the key issues in the negotiations relate to pension governance. Specifically, he said that “the union is asking for direct involvement in the design of the pension plan, the composition of the pension plan committee, and how voting on the committee would work.”

“At no time has the university, the board of governors, or our negotiating team ever raised the prospect of converting our pension plan from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. Nor have we raised the prospect of changing the composition of the pension plan committee,” Summerlee added.

Defined benefit pension plans are considered generally favourable by employees because they specify the exact level of payments that retirees receive — a minimum guaranteed regular payment for the rest of their lives — according to a formula that is based upon earnings history, years of service and retirement age.

Defined benefits are paid to pensioners from a pooled fund of contributions accumulated over time. Employers are responsible for ensuring that the size of the fund is sufficient to make the promised payments.

On the other hand, defined contribution plans are essentially individual retirement savings accounts that are employer-subsidized. The amount of money that an employee will receive is limited to the balance in that individual’s account upon retirement. The balance is the sum of contributions made over time and any investment returns — or losses.

Unlike defined benefit plans, defined contribution plans do not provide minimum guaranteed payments for the rest of one’s life — and any investment losses are not covered by the employer. Instead, the retiree assumes all the risk and must absorb any losses. Additionally, defined contribution plans entail less administrative overhead for employers. Such plans are therefore considered generally favourable by employers.

The university administration’s Mar. 6 memorandum also provided specific details about proposals that the university administration claims its negotiating team had put forth for improvements to remuneration and other benefits.

However, at a union rally on the campus on Mar. 2, Clark directly contradicted Summerlee’s statements. “We’re not asking for a complete veto on the pension plan, we don’t believe we should have special treatment, and we’re not asking for anything that will negatively affect the other employee groups or unions on campus,” Clark said.

“The university’s messages have been meant to confuse and create complications in the minds of our members and in the university community to try to divide us — to try to drive a wedge between the union and our members and the campus community,” he added.

On Mar. 4, CUPE 2424 posted an open letter from Clark addressed to Summerlee.

“You have stated the University does not plan to change or remove our existing pension benefits,” Clark said. “However, the University is demanding the deletion of key language that clearly protects our members from changes to pension provisions that may be decided without the agreement of the Union.”

“We have tried repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, to engage the University’s negotiating team in frank discussions about possible changes to the pension plan. In the absence of any forthright answers, we have no choice but to assume and expect the worst,” he added.

In an interview on Feb. 26, before the strike began, Clark said that the union is specifically concerned that a change to collective agreement language proposed by the university administration may be part of a strategy to eliminate the workers’ defined benefit pension plan in the future.

At a well-attended community teach-in on the evening of Mar. 14 in downtown Ottawa that was organized by some Carleton faculty members in support of CUPE 2424, Clark told the crowd that CUPE 910 — the union representing maintenance workers at Carleton — had the same pension-protecting language in its collective agreement until “a couple of years ago.”

Being a smaller union, “they had to give it up” owing to pressure from the university administration during collective bargaining, Clark said.

Two other panelists also spoke at the teach-in: Kevin Skerrett, a researcher with CUPE, and Nancy Parker, a retiree and volunteer organizer with the grassroots Ottawa Committee for Pension Security. They linked CUPE 2424’s dispute with Carleton to the wider political-economic context.

Skerrett, who is also the co-editor of a new book entitled The Contradictions of Pension Fund Capitalism, said that workers’ pension plans have been under attack in a variety of ways by many employers during the last 20-25 years — and especially during the last decade, despite employers’ plan costs falling in recent years.

Parker told the audience about the federal Liberal government’s Bill C-27. She called it a “horrendous bill” and said “it gives employers the tools they’re going to need to continue the attack on our pension plans.” According to Clark, if adopted, the legislation would allow federally-regulated employers to establish target benefit pension plans in place of the more secure defined benefit pension plans.

Regarding the university administration’s other proposals, CUPE 2424 responded with a post to Twitter on Mar. 7 stating that “the University indeed made offers concerning wages, other benefits, and a necessary internal wage equity process, but made their offers conditional upon a pension proposal that simply could not be accepted or recommended to our members.”

In a subsequent post to Twitter on Mar. 7, the union added: “We encourage Interim President Summerlee to stop bargaining in public and demand that Carleton return to the bargaining table immediately.”

On Mar. 13, CUPE released another statement in which Jacynthe Barbeau, one of the union’s negotiators, accused the university administration of bargaining in bad faith and revealed that the union had filed a complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board.

“Since the strike began, Carleton has misrepresented and mischaracterized its own position and the union’s, including the issues that led to the strike. But this type of behaviour only serves to prolong the dispute and prevent the kind of negotiations that are needed to resolve it,” Barbeau said.

CUPE 2424 has received strong expressions of support both on campus and beyond, including from the Carleton Graduate Students’ Association, the Carleton University Academic Staff Association, the Ottawa and District Labour Council, the Ontario Confederation of Faculty Associations, the Canadian Federation of Students and CUPE 4600 — the union that represents teaching assistants, research assistants and contract instructors at Carleton.

Guest speakers have also cancelled their scheduled appearances at Carleton University because they refuse to cross picket lines. OC Transpo bus drivers will not cross picket lines, either, as an expression of solidarity with the striking workers.

On Mar. 6, the Graduate Students’ Association, together with three employee unions at Carleton, published an open letter addressed to Summerlee.

“The current deadlock over pensions is especially disconcerting given that Carleton has huge pension reserve funds. As demonstrated in the university’s audited financial statements, Carleton has also had massive annual surpluses,” they said.

Then, on Mar. 14, over 200 Carleton University faculty members published an open letter in support of CUPE 2424. The number of signatories to the letter has since grown to more than 300.

“Unions have the right to protect the pensions of their members; there is nothing exceptional about CUPE 2424’s effort to negotiate a just settlement on behalf of its members,” reads the letter. “Every union at Carleton has or ought to have some language in its Collective Agreement to protect members’ pension benefits.”

The next day, on Mar. 15, the Carleton University Academic Staff Association (CUASA) announced that it was pursuing a grievance against the university administration for “downloading” CUPE 2424 work to employees who are not members of the striking union — a practice known colloquially as “scabbing.”

A grievance is a formal complaint — an allegation of a collective agreement violation or of unfair labour practices — that triggers a dispute resolution process as prescribed within the collective agreement and labour laws.

“CUASA has been made aware of practices in various departments where CUASA members and others are being told to take on CUPE 2424 work. This practice is disrespectful to the bargaining certificates of 2424 and CUASA members and will not be tolerated,” reads the announcement.

On the same day, the Ottawa Citizen reported that Clair Switzer, one of two non-faculty staff members serving on Carleton’s board of governors had resigned her position the day before because she was advised by the university’s counsel that, as a member of the union, she was in a conflict of interest.

“I think the board, unfortunately, is insulated. They’re sheltered. They’re getting the side that the university is choosing to give them,” Switzer was quoted as saying.

Joel Harden, the Ontario NDP MPP candidate for Ottawa Centre, has also expressed his support for CUPE 2424 and joined the workers on the picket lines numerous times.

In a post to Twitter on Mar. 6, Harden said that he worked as a contract instructor at Carleton University for years. “I know exactly how precarious, underpaid and under-appreciated this work can be,” he said. “Exploitation is increasingly the norm at our universities.”

The steady inflow of support seems to have nudged the university administration back into talks with the union.

On Mar. 16, the university administration posted a notice to its website to report that “the university and CUPE Local 2424 have agreed to meet to continue discussions in an attempt [to] find a resolution and put an end to the labour dispute. Furthermore, the parties have agreed that discussions at the table are without prejudice and going forward, will remain confidential.”

CUPE 2424 confirmed the agreement on the same day. “The bitter cold was tempered by good news that the employer has agreed to return to the bargaining table. Cautious optimism was the mood of the day,” reads the statement posted to Twitter.

“Pensions are not a gift; they are employees’ deferred wages and we need a say in our future,” the statement concluded.

But as the strike entered its third week on Mar. 19, both the university administration and the union announced that talks had broken off again. The university administration reported on Twitter that the parties had met for 14 hours on Mar. 18 with the assistance of a mediator but “they were unable to reach an agreement.”

The union had also posted an update to Twitter: “The negotiating team worked extremely hard at the bargaining table with sincere efforts to find acceptable solutions for both parties, but our employer still refuses to negotiate in any meaningful way.”

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 6 (Mar/Apr 2018).

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