A friend of mine raised some concerns on her blog about Bill 106 – ‘The Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act’, which was recently introduced into the Ontario Legislature as a private members Bill by Ottawa Centre Liberal MPP Yasir Naqvi. This post is an extension of the comments I left as responses to her post.
Twelve years ago I was living in a rooming house in Hintonburg, at the time it was probably the worst neighbourhood in Ottawa.
Back in 1996 prostitutes and their johns were having afternoon sex in the park, parents and their kids were always finding handfuls of needles in the sandbox, and when I got home late at night it was expected there’d be emergency vehicles somewhere.
What they did to clean it up, from memory, was form a community action team which took down license-plate numbers of johns, they patrolled the parks at night in shifts, they cleaned the playgrounds everyday, they monitored their neighbours for suspicious behaviours and they had a direct tip line to the police.
I was one of those neighbours exhibiting suspicious behaviours. So were the other people living in the rooming house. Mostly because we were the poorest people on the street, but we were also the scariest as well. My 50-year old down-the-hall neighbour and friend, “Wild Bill”, was a 5’10” 240lb, weight lifting, solvent huffing, ex-biker with swastika tattoos and a massive beard. And there were always alcoholics or addicts in the early stages of recovery coming and going from the house.
One of the tactics my neighbours used to clean up their neighbourhood, at least my little piece of it, was to call 911 to report seeing someone walk into the rooming house carrying a gun. I woke up to the tactical team a few times, but there were never any guns. We were not a crack house… if anything we were an early-recovery house.
However, I do think they did the right thing. I really do. I think the neighbourhood had gotten so out of control that extreme measures were warranted. Even if I was an occasional target.
Back in 1996 I had just walked home from downtown and was in the back of the Mac’s Milk trying to decide between chocolate milk and pop. It was 2am and I was listening to White Zombie on my Walkman. When I turned around there were five kids screaming at the clerk. Then three of them started stuffing their jackets with junk food while the other two started punching the clerk, trying to get at the cash.
After I chased the kids into the street the youngest one, the police later told me he was thirteen, turned and pulled a paring knife out of his pocket. But his buddies were already running so he did as well. When the police arrived, in an effort to find and maybe identify the kids, one of them took me on my first community tour of Hintonburg. We drove slowly down a block and he showed me the crack house. Then he showed me the one on the next block, and the next block, then the park where the wet condoms would be left on the playground equipment.
I recently walked through the area a few months ago for the first time since moving away. I walked along Wellington from Parkdale Avenue all the way east to the bridge near Bayswater. Most, if not all of the architecture is the same, and there’s still an edge to the whole area, but the people and the contents of the shops were all different.
According to Hintonburg.com, Hintonburg was named as “one of the top ten emerging neighbourhoods in Canada” by enRoute magazine in its April, 2007 edition. And according to a 2008 editorial in the Ottawa Citizen “the changing nature of the neighbourhood is fascinating to watch… There is a hip, urban edge.”
Since his piece of Ottawa seems to be in full recovery mode, maybe it shouldn’t be totally unexpected provincial Liberal MPP Yasir Naqvi, whose Ottawa-Centre riding includes Hintonburg, would be responsible for introducing Bill 106 into the legislature. The private members Bill would give community action groups direct access to serious legal powers by creating “a [municipal] Director of Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods” for them to report serious incidents.
The biggest difference between the Bill and the tactics used by the Hintonburg community group back in 1996, and the point of biggest contention, is “[t]he Director can then apply to Superior Court to evict the tenant or close the property for up to 90 days through a ‘Community Safety Order’.” But right now the Ottawa Police Service Street Crime Unit, for example, works closely with local community groups, and together they do try to get the landlords of the crack houses involved in getting the squatters removed, or the property cleaned, through the courts.
Even the “anonymous allegations of unsafe or illegal activities”, and the “powers to conduct surveillance of accused tenants and homeowners”, are already in place between community groups and the police. Besides, the Hintonburg people back in 1996 had no problem doing either.
According to the Kingston Whig-Standard the legislation “would apply only if a municipality opts in to the program.” Kingston city council actually sent a proposal to the Ontario government pressing for the legislation last year, soon after Ottawa did the same. The City of Hamilton has also done the same. Actually most provinces have similar legislation, but they force their cities into the program. Ontario would be the only province to allow cities to opt in or out.
Personally I’d prefer to formalize this stuff to at least give the local activists some guidelines. Hintonburg did what they had to do to make their neighbourhood livable, and they managed to do it without breaking any existing laws and without anyone making any new ones for them. But they had a lot of help and input from the police. Not every community is so lucky.
…just an aside… I think what’s really bothering me is there are Hintonburg people — new,old or both — who are forming a new action committee against this Bill. After all the crap those fuckers put me and my friends though they should at least remember their own history, because it seems to me they got their area all nice and sparkley by using tactics very similar to those in this Bill. There are serious reasons not to like Bill-106, but if they get all “holier-than-thou” after what they did ten years ago it would really piss me off. Anyway.
The problem with “cleaning up” neighbourhoods, of course, is everyone just moves. Before Hintonburg it was the Vanier region of Ottawa where the majority of the problems where. There are serious urban social problems in every city, and treating the neighbourhoods like they were snow globes where all you do every ten years is turn everything upside down and let us all scatter to a new part of town is not a solution.
The legislation, as it stands now, would require the new agency to find out if the people being evicted have a place to stay, and if not information or arrangements for short-term accommodations would be made available. But that sounds vague and unenforceable.
But I can still see where this, or similar legislation, would make it easier for people living in “at risk” neighbourhoods who don’t have access to the activist talent pool Hintonburg had…
Hi, I just read this now. Thanks for sharing your stories about life back in the day in Hintonburg. While I’m a Centretown resident (and have been for many years now), I also used to live in Hintonburg back in the early 1990s so I remember the flavour of things back then. I guess that for me (in spite of experiencing several break-ins, street violence, etc.) part of this is as you say – sometimes part and parcel of living in the urban core of a city. Anyway, I just wanted to let you that none of those of us who are opposed to this shit law, at least among those who are organizing against it that I’m aware of, are or were part of the gentrification or vigilante / ‘false gun reports’ club. For my part I’ve been fighting the NIMBY crowd for all my adult life because of the self-interested and ‘holier-than-thou’ perspective that they tend to have. Some of us who have more of a live-and-let-live philosophy (which cuts both ways, of course) organized to provide an alternative voice on this that was missing. But as far as I know, the gentrifiers who don’t give a shit about people’s housing rights are still alive and well and living in Hintonburg (and elsewhere), and the HCA still supports SCAN and similar measures. Anyway our point is the same as yours – we don’t need these kinds of Orwellian laws to solve problems.