Squatter drama

homeless Montrealers occupy historic property and keep cops at bay

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montreal — housing activists scored a rare direct-action victory in Montreal over the weekend when several hundred demonstrators seized an abandoned heritage building to protest the city’s housing crisis. There are 15,000 homeless in the city, the vacancy rate is less than 1 per cent and one in four tenants is at risk of becoming homeless.The action was organized by the Comité des Sans Emploi (the Committee of the Unemployed), the Montreal anti-poverty coalition that achieved notoriety in the 90s for “evicting” politicians from their offices and “re-appropriating” food from luxury hotels.

The Comité publicly announced the “squat-in” two weeks in advance, but didn’t specify which building they would take. Even the 500 supporters who showed up for the Comité’s Friday-afternoon (July 27) march through the city did not know the final destination.

As the march meandered through the downtown core, accompanied by police, not only the police but the protestors themselves made several wrong turns as they tried to guess where the building was. When it seemed like the march would go in aimless circles all day, the organizers led a charge across an empty parking lot and surrounded a vacant three-storey 19th-century building on Overdale Avenue. Crowbars were produced, and the plywood barricades blocking the entrance to were demolished as press and police looked on.

By 8 pm, the protestors had established full possession of the building. By 11 pm, it seemed that they would have to defend it by force. Scores of riot police assembled on the far side of the parking lot and warned the 100 remaining protestors to leave. Anarchists in the group responded by masking their faces and assembling an arsenal of bricks, rocks and bottles. Quebec City: The Sequel seemed about to unfold.

Shortly after midnight, however, the riot police simply climbed back into their vans and drove away.

The police commander, Paul Chablo, had told NOW earlier in the evening that no action could be taken until the building’s owner could be found. Throughout the remainder of the weekend, protestors had worked to make the building habitable by cleaning, painting and installing a generator. A handful of police observed from a distance, but their presence was outweighed by public support in the form of friendly visitors and sympathetic articles in the next day’s La Presse.

Police finally located the owner of the building on Monday. He turned out to be Robert Landau, the same developer who, back in 1987-88, used riot police to forcibly remove low-income tenants from Overdale houses so he could demolish the buildings and build luxury condominiums. But the condos were not built and the area became a parking lot, with the sole exception of the 19th-century heritage building that sat vacant for 13 years.

Contacted by NOW at his company, Grinch Realties, Landau says, “We have absolutely no comment.”

The Comité was joined in the weekend’s housing action by several other Montreal activist groups, including CLAC (the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, which starred in the Quebec summit demos earlier this year) and Food Not Bombs, as well as reps from OCAP in Toronto.

Last-minute negotiations with Mayor Pierre Bourque fell through late Tuesday afternoon when the squatters rejected the mayor’s offer to relocate them to government-run housing. The occupiers say they want to be in charge of their own house. At press time, there were still 50 squatters in the building, and meetings with the mayor were continuing.

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