When I last visited the pope Squat it was the end of the summer, and those of us who'd attended its opening ceremonies were allowing ourselves to feel relieved at the lack of police response. Last Friday, November 1, I stepped off the King streetcar and through the looking glass. Where I'd once sat on the curb through humid nights talking, I was now shivering -- half from cold, half from anger -- as police systematically evicted squatters.The police were called in by the office of the fire marshal, whose representatives were there with doublespeak at the ready. The media were supplied with a press release titled "Toronto Takes Action To Protect The Tenants Of 1510 King Street West." First, Tent City residents were "protected" by eviction, and now this. Opposite Day must occur monthly over at City Hall.
According to Jack Collins, chief of fire prevention, the building presented an "immediate threat to life." Questions of whether freezing to death on the streets presents a more immediate threat to life were obviously not at issue. Fire services was, after all, just doing its job.
Not known for resigning themselves to fate, OCAP and their supporters mobilized with the speed that only passion can muster and were back the next morning to reopen the building. Renovations aimed at bringing the building up to code began immediately.
The crowd of volunteers pitched in to remove debris, use the window boards to repair floor damage, keep Toronto Sun annoyance Brett Clarkson from getting in everyone's way (he refused residents' requests to go outside), and someone went to buy smoke detectors.
The giddiness didn't last as long as the first time the building was liberated. A few hours later, police brass came in and told everyone to leave (which, after OCAP secured a meeting with the fire marshal, they did) or be in violation of the fire safety order. The order states that repairs can not be made without the assent of the owner: the province, according to fire services.
But the province has repeatedly stated that it does not own the property. I checked with the attorney-general's office to see if the province got notice from fire services. "The answer is yes," said rep Brendan Crawley. "Why did we not respond? Because the province has not taken control of the property."
Jack Collins insisted,"We were dealing with who we considered to be the owner of the building. When the final response came back that they weren't going to do anything at all, it really left us no choice but to remove the people from the building."
Whether they had no choice is still up for debate. That debate hinges on the question of "immediate threat." The province's official documents on the Fire Protection And Prevention Act (FPPA) state that "an immediate threat to life must involve an immediate threat of fire."
The list of violations at the Pope Squat -- which residents were not given prior to eviction -- covers mostly insufficient fire closures, such as fire doors. The only threat of fire is exposed wiring (located in the empty basement), but according to the FPPA, that wiring -- an "ignition source" -- must be "in close proximity to combustibles [such as] flammable vapour" to be immediately threatening. I asked Chief Collins if any vapour was present. He said no.
As far as combustibles go, there were, menacingly enough, "mattresses" and "collections of, I guess, things which they had collected up. Some of the units were full of things, shall we say."
Now, full disclosure: I admit to sleeping on a mattress. I also have "things" in my room. And to be honest, I can't find any "fire closure" systems anywhere in my apartment or the apartments of any of my friends. Yet we are allowed to remain in our homes.
During the eviction, Frances, a Parkdale resident and neighbour, scoffed at the fire safety pretense. "They'll use any excuse. We can't even get the inspectors to go to all the other buildings. They have huge holes in them." This was, rather, a targeted eviction-by-proxy. To what extent the office of the fire marshal has been complicit is still unclear.
I proposed to Chief Collins that people be allowed to live at 1510 if the building was safe, and that it was immaterial from a fire department perspective if the renovations were done "legally."
"You're absolutely right," he admitted. I hope he meant that, because the idea of the fire department being used as an extension of the police force -- itself being used as a poverty-enforcement team -- is, quite literally, chilling.