Encampment evictions: Another face of colonial violence in Canada

The encampment evictions in Toronto are a crystallisation of multiple layers of violence involved in sustaining settler control over Indigenous land.

People scuffle with police officers after the eviction of two dozen people from a homeless encampment at Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto, Ontario, on June 22, 2021 [Carlos Osorio/Reuters]

Starting before 5am on the morning of June 22, more than 150 police officers and private security guards descended on Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto to evict two dozen residents of a homeless encampment.

Armed with assault rifles, drones, pepper spray, mounted cavalry, and security fencing for caging the dispossessed, the operation lasted almost 20 hours. It was one particularly clear embodiment of the brutality embedded in Canada’s colonial capitalism, erected on a foundation of anti-Indigenous genocide, and fuelled by continuing “accumulation by dispossession”.

The gross display of state aggression at Trinity Bellwoods was preceded by recent evictions at several other encampment sites across Toronto, and more evictions are planned for the days and weeks to come: a crystallisation of the multiple layers of violence involved in sustaining settler control over Indigenous land.

First is the violence of Indigenous erasure that underpins Canada’s colonial sovereignty – which claims the right to evict and exclude on lands governed by Indigenous nations for thousands of years, long before and after European “discovery”.

Toronto was first “purchased” by the British in 1787, by a contract in which no property boundaries were specified and the signatures of the chiefs who “sold” it were stuck on from a separate piece of paper: a legal façade for land theft, mirrored in various forms across the country that now calls itself Canada.

The Toronto parks from which encampment residents – more than one-third of whom are Indigenous – are now being evicted are situated on historic “park lots”. These were land allotments carved up during British settlement of the city and distributed on preferential terms to wealthy industrialists and military leaders – a colonial subsidy for the privileged.

Trinity Bellwoods, for instance, is on land that was originally granted to Samuel Smith, commander of the Queen’s Rangers, the military regiment specifically organised to colonise Ontario.

Second is the economic violence that has rendered hundreds of thousands of people homeless in Canada: a state built on ongoing colonial “domicide,” the devastation of Indigenous homes and homelands.

The profits extracted from Canada’s appropriation of Indigenous lands and resources are used to feed state institutions of coercion, such as the military and police, as institutions of social care are stripped to the bone.

Social assistance is kept at unliveable rates, to produce a steady supply of precarious workers to fill menial jobs for poverty wages. Toronto – a city with one of the largest “super wealth gaps” in the world – spends almost five times more on policing than on shelter and housing. Last year the city rejected a motion to cut the police budget by 10 percent, but has achieved savings by spending $35m less on housing and shelter than planned for this year so far.

As abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore observed, the state’s “organised violence” and “organised abandonment” are two sides of the same coin: both of which are overwhelmingly borne in Canada by the colonised, the racialised and the economically marginalised.

Third is the legal violence that underwrites this unjust social order with the imprimatur of the “rule of law”.

Canadian courts have repeatedly refused to recognise housing as a human right, as required by international law, while the proliferation of “neo-vagrancy” laws prohibits people from performing basic life functions outdoors – creating an impossible situation for those who are unhoused.

“Quality of life” offences punish homeless people for sleeping or “loitering” in public space, rather than government agencies for exposing Indigenous people to uninsulated, dilapidated, and toxic mould-infested housing on reserves. Canadian courts protect corporations expropriating and depredating Indigenous lands, while permitting the eviction of homeless encampments from parks. Sleeping in a park is illegal “trespass” – but Canada occupying Indigenous lands is legal “sovereignty”.

Perversely, judges have rationalised encampment evictions in the name of preserving “parks [as] public resources, intended to be available and used by everyone”. Encampment residents are expelled not only from parks, but from the human “everyone” entitled to make use of them to fulfil their needs.

Fourth is the spatial violence that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for homeless people to survive in cities like Toronto.

Public space is deliberately constructed as hostile terrain – designing benches that cannot be slept upon, depriving parks of washrooms and water fountains, and deterring people from accessing the surplus warmth of sidewalk grates by installing spikes. In urban planning literature, this is known as “defensive design”: a phrase that speaks volumes to how those bearing the burden of society’s structural injustices are projected as its enemies.

Fifth is the informational violence wielded to obscure and obfuscate the damning reality behind a wall of official untruth.

The city justifies encampment evictions by inflating the availability and safety of shelter space. In reality, Toronto’s shelter system cannot accommodate everyone sleeping outside; every 13 minutes, someone is turned away. People placed in the city’s shelter “hotels” report being put in rodent-infested rooms, being walked in on for “wellness checks” while naked, and expelled without adequate clothing into the winter night. One disabled resident said she was left abandoned on the 15th floor during a fire.

The city’s propensity for spinning violation as virtue was on display during the massive police operation at Trinity Bellwoods Park, described by Toronto Mayor John Tory as “mostly peaceful,” “reasonable,” and “compassionate”. Yet journalists were blocked and arrested for covering it.

Sixth is the accompanying terminological violence that enables such brutalisation to be packaged as benevolence.

The city refers to encampments as “encroachments” and the residents’ belongings as “litter,” so that evictions become “cleaning” and “restoration”. This resonates with colonialism’s long tradition of representing its raison d’etre as “the civilisation of waste”, even as it lays waste to colonised lands and lives.

Finally, seventh is the brute physical violence that is always on reserve to defend this property regime, in the face of challenges to its legitimacy – as unfolded so overtly and disturbingly at Trinity Bellwoods three weeks ago.

While anti-maskers imperilling public health have been handled by police with kid gloves, encampment residents are crushed with an iron fist. The disparity is not an anomaly, but a manifestation of the police power’s original function: “the consolidation of a new order founded on private property,” as political theorist Mark Neocleous writes. Thus, the historically entrenched “tendency to punish property offences more severely than offences involving violence against the person”.

The present evictions are the latest episode in the long histories of violence inscribed on these parks; the violence intrinsic to converting Indigenous land into colonial property. Trinity Bellwoods, for example, is bounded on one side by Dundas Street, named after a British politician responsible for prolonging the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Canada was not only a terminus of liberation on the Underground Railroad, as is commonly celebrated, but also a site of Black and Indigenous enslavement itself.

Buried under the park is a river, previously used by Indigenous people for centuries, that was choked by settler sewage and garbage in the early 1900s – emblematic of how the assault on colonised people is intertwined with the assault on the ecosystems that sustain them.

All of Canada is a crime scene – as critical commentators have pointed out in the wake of the discovery of at least 1,300 unmarked graves of Indigenous children outside former residential “schools” – institutions of genocide.

Encampment evictions are one expression of the colonial power relation that has turned ancestral Indigenous territories into zones of extraction, exploitation, impoverishment and death.

Even ostensibly progressive discourses participate in the anti-Indigenous erasure lying at the heart of settler rule: for example, countering the state’s immiserating policies by asserting a “right to the city” or to “the commons” built on colonised land.

Yet in the face of this erasure, Indigenous peoples continue to exercise sovereignty and protection for people, animals, waters and lands. From providing care, healing and resources in homeless encampments; to confronting colonial pipelines and chemical pesticides endangering sacred sites; to challenging the ravages of gentrification in Toronto with guerilla art installations, reminding settlers of treaty obligations to share and care for the land – these practices maintain that land is not a commodity, but a web of relationships and responsibility.

“Toronto” is believed to be derived from a Mohawk, Seneca and/or Wendat word meaning “trees standing in water,” likely a reference to ancient fishing weirs or an historic meeting place. According to Indigenous histories, it was once known as a place of gathering and abundance, instead of division and scarcity: a reminder that beautiful worlds existed before the settler-colonial present, and can exist in the future after it.

The authors would like to thank Babie, Derreck Black, Desmond Cole, Greg Cook, Doug Johnson Hatlem, Les Harper, Hayden King, Nesewin Makoons, Brianna Olson, Papi, Shelter B and Ladrel for generously and thoughtfully sharing their knowledge with us.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.