Tent Cities and Protests
Tent-based informal settlements in Toronto have continued till today, emerging as a refuge for those avoiding the city’s shelter system or a way to congregate during long-term protests. In the twenty-first century, their emergence is often defined by conversations about whether they should be allowed to exist, for how long, and what amenities should be afforded them. In 2004, The Globe and Mail reports on the mayor of a shantytown under the Spadina bridge requesting a porta potty and the city come to pick up baggage. The headline places ‘mayor’ in quotes threading the report with undertones of incredulity at the situation. The article is quick to note that this is only believed to be a temporary home by the residents in contrast to the waterfront Tenty City that was bulldozed in 2002.
Until the Covid-19 encampments, the Tent City clearings were Toronto’s most profiled and reported-on encampment. The documentary The Mayor of Tent City discusses how due to shrinking shelter space and a desire for more autonomy, an encampment was created on Toronto’s waterfront was created. Tent City was established on a plot of land that Home Depot had left undeveloped. Due to media-fuelled anxieties about the encampment constituting a blemish on Toronto’s image, suggestions of festering criminality, and paternalistic rhetoric, Home Depot under public and municipal pressure evicted those living in the encampments. Some of the residents were afforded rent supplements to support them after their eviction. Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big-city Shantytown by journalist Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall documents some of the experiences in Tent City. The clearing of Tent City is perhaps the first recorded moment of such a large-scale informal settlement eviction in Toronto that mobilized both police and private security.
Courtesy of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee Archives
Encampments were also formed to support protests. When the G20 protests occurred in 2010, an encampment was formed. So also during the Occupy Toronto protests. While these ‘tent cities’ vary from those set up by people seeking housing, they were also subject to policing and regulation which was at times violent. The Ontario Coalition of Poverty in protesting the city’s housing policies has also been known to set up encampments or ‘safe park’ actions to draw attention to the insufficient housing options available to the poor and the unhoused. These have also been subject to policing, and evictions. It could be argued that this historic trajectory that threads the use of harassment, legal maneuvers, and forceful eviction set the stage for the Covid-19 encampment evictions which were largely described as ‘violent’.