Visiting our MPP’s office: day 2 of the S-CAP 11 trial.

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Last Monday, and again today, I got to learn a little more about the legal system. I’ve been watching the court proceedings for trespassing charges against 11 members of the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty. The Coalition had done a bit of activist theatre back last year, bringing sleeping bags and soft drinks to our MPP’s office to turn it into “Sudbury’s newest homeless shelter.” I was one of the people there, though I left before the arrests commenced and I’m writing as an individual.

We wanted to raise awareness of the likely results of cuts to the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit. We were only there for about 20 minutes before someone in the office (presumably the MPP himself or one of his staff) pressed a panic button summoning the police. We had said we would leave when the office closed for the day at four o’clock but not before but the staff and police insisted we leave early.  What could have been a very pitiful small event turned quite dramatic once the building was surrounded by police officers. Here’s some video footage of the event:

Well, now we’ve had the first two days in court. Charges against four of the S-CAP members have been dropped based on the crown’s stunning lack of preparation. As I understood it the prosecution forgot to summon the police officer who could have identified two people, and just forgot to ask other police officers to identify the year and location the event took place. I really hope legitimate criminal charges are not dropped over technical issues like this that could be corrected simply by recalling the relevant witness. The judge seemed to be getting a little frusturated and it almost seemed puntative on the part of the crown to drop the charges, like they were attempting to punish the prosecution for its bumbling.

I admire the court reporters who endured the tedium of the day in order to write up their reports from what little excitement they could scrape together, but I wonder, how do we get the community to look again at the issues? The CSUMB is still cut and the $42 million that the government injected into its replacement program in response to protests will be coming to an end soon. A couple of municipal councilors – Joe Cimino (now provincial NDP candidate) and Claude Berthiaume – have been working with S-CAP to help prevent the municipal replacement from being cut but we don’t know how long that will hold out. S-CAP put a budget request in when the city was looking for suggestions for its next budget and have attended various committee meetings since then.

The Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit was a mandatory benefit for people on Ontario Works (welfare or OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). That meant that if the person qualified for the funds they would get it regardless of how many other people qualified that month or year. It is ‘replaced’ now with a network of municipal programs frequently known as the ‘Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative’ (CHPI). The rules for CHPI vary from city to city and each city has a pot of money from which to spend on the program and when the money is gone the money is gone. It is a very different program than the CSUMB was.

S-CAP went to talk to MPP Rick Bartolucci about the CSUMB in the spring of 2012 but he didn’t respond. We tried following that up with phone calls. He never responded. How are we to get the government’s ear, if not through our elected representative? He refered to us as “rabble rousers” and said the decisions need to be made by ‘the experts’ but they refuse to listen to the experts who examine the costs of cutting the CSUMB. There are human costs to attempting to balance provincial and municipal budgets on the backs of the poor. There are people who will remain in abusive relationships or substandard housing because there is no clear cut criteria for if they will get assistance in moving or not. There are people who will remain homeless or couchsurfing because of this decision.

Somehow we went from the need to talk to our politicians, to make them come face to face with some of the people who will be effected by their decisions, to sitting for a day and a half of police testimonies about arrests, and hearing decisions about the charges being made not on the basis of ethics or truth but technicalities. Protestors need to know they can protest – even being inconvenient, blocking traffic or disrupting business as usual – and without police assistance.

Fight back. We need to fight back. We need to make the human costs visible. We need to defend the rights of our neighbours to live in dignity whether they have paid employment or not. It is time for more letter-to-the-editor writing, more phone calls, more sit-ins.

One of the things that really struck me watching the trial was the ease at which police officers grabbed for the Bible to be sworn it. I wondered how watching police officer after police officer be sworn in would feel to non-Christians preparing to participate. Yes, they could choose to affirm instead of swear but to do so they would be stepping out of the norm, asking for an exception. It is like the very ritual of swearing in police officers affirmed that there is an in-club, a state religion of sorts. We don’t know that any of them take the Bible seriously, but they didn’t seem to have any problem casually identifying with it.

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