Imagine how you would feel if you woke up from a nap to find nine unexpected, uniformed people in your bedroom searching through your personal belongings. This is the challenge posed by Katherine McFadden, a scenario that closely resembles the experience of her daughter—a first-year student at Durham College in Oshawa—in the last week of September.
The student returned from school to find police officers, a fire marshal, and a building inspector searching her personal possessions. A locksmith had picked the locks to her rental home to gain access. Her roommate was awakened from a nap when the officials entered her bedroom to search.
McFadden’s daughter is only one of many students who had their houses raided by police and city bylaw officers in September. The city of Oshawa gained search warrants to enter 17 houses being rented by students to confiscate leases and rental agreements. At least 10 houses were searched.
Students were given no notice of the searches and houses were entered whether or not the students were at home. One student said officers searched his home for three hours, overturning his mattress and going through all of his roommates personal papers to try to find a lease agreement.
“I understand how frustrating it must be for nearby neighbours to have so many students living in the area,” McFadden wrote in her letter to the editor, “but surely the city of Oshawa can find a different way of combating this problem without intimidating and frightening young adults by picking the lock and entering without notice.”
David Selby, of the Durham Regional Police communications unit, neither confirmed nor denied that officers were involved in the raids. “I don’t know if I would classify them as raids,” he said. “I know we were part of the team that was working with the college and the city to reduce the number of public complaints about noise and vandalism and alcoholic issues. In terms of the actual events where people went into homes, that I don’t have that information.”
Although the city did not return phone calls from Maclean’s, local news reports quoted Mayor John Gray as saying the warrants were obtained as part of an investigation into alleged fire and building code violations. “This is absolutely not targeting students,” he told the Durham Region News.
But not everyone sees it that way. The University of Ontario Institute of Technology student newspaper published an editorial entitled, “Officials are in denial in regards to students complaints of discrimination.” The article points out that the crack down on housing bylaws is only happening in one neighbourhood of Oshawa: the rental area surrounding Durham College and UOIT campuses. The area has also been the target of a blitz to enforce noise bylaws and parking infractions, according to the editorial.
The zoning of the area surrounding campus only permits single-family detached dwellings. However, many students rent in the neighbourhood. Some students have posted their lease agreement on the outside of their door to prevent officers from entering their house in the event of further raids.
“It’s systematic discrimination against students,” one student told the Durham Region News. “We have exactly the same rights to live here as anyone else, but you don’t see the police knocking on the door of a family that has lived here for three or four years.”
Some students are concerned that the investigation will lead to evictions. One student, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “They’re not going to stop until they have the students out of here. If they think the houses are illegal, eventually they are going to have the landlords kick us out.”
In a recent interview with Maclean’s, Ronald Bordessa, president of UOIT, spoke in general about the off-campus housing situation. “The worst is over,” he said, referring to tensions between students and residents. He noted recent efforts to curtail absent landlords from purchasing homes and renting to as many students as possible.
But the student president representing students at Durham, UOIT, and Trent University’s Oshawa campus disagrees. Fraser McArthur said, “The worst is not over. The city is still working to classify rental houses near the campus as rooming houses.” If the houses are labelled “rooming houses,” the city will be able to evict the students.
McArthur says that the city has agreed not to evict students during the academic year. But that does little to comfort students who are afraid of further raids. “The city is being short-sighted,” he said. “You need young people in a community to be successful. If they continue to discriminate against students, they run the risk of chasing away their future.”
Jen Hassum, Ontario chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, is concerned that the City of Oshawa could be setting a precedent that could affect students across the province. Many cities with universities have tensions between students living in the community and residents. “These raids were directed against students,” she said. “Students aren’t criminals.”