Middle-aged anarchists - Macleans.ca

Middle-aged anarchists

From Ottawa’s accused bank bomber to the G20 Black Bloc organizers, Canada’s radicals aren’t at all what you would expect

by

JAYME POISSON/Toronto Star

Back in the summer of 2002, a quiet, middle-aged Ottawa public servant named Roger Clément began offering the use of his shower to a group of young squatters occupying a derelict Tudor home not far from his modest flat in the city’s occasionally gritty Centretown district. To Marc Sauriol, who owned Clément’s building, the gesture was yet another aggravating display of his tenant’s anti-establishment bent. “I always thought it was ironic that he worked for the federal government,” says Sauriol, who asked Clément to stop inviting squatters in to use the water. “He was always protesting it.”

Those squatters, half Clément’s age, had set up camp at 246 Gilmour St. as part of a protest timed to coincide with the G8 summit in Kananaskis, Alta. The occupation, shut down by police a week later, was designed to highlight what the group argued was a lack of affordable housing in Ottawa, and it targeted a building that had sat vacant for seven years—hence the group’s name: the Seven-Year Squatters. Over the course of that week, 20 or so protesters unfurled banners from the Tudor home’s roof, planted a garden and reinforced the building’s sagging floors. Later, in the raid that evicted them, police broke a back window and hurled canisters of tear gas into the building.

Few then would likely have predicted that members of this band of young, ragtag squatters would remain so deeply committed to radical activism well into their 30s, or that the older man who had been so generous with his shower would now find himself charged in one of the most astonishing instances of anti-establishment violence in recent memory—the May 18 firebombing of a Royal Bank of Canada branch in Ottawa’s upscale Glebe neighbourhood.

Today, 36-year-old Amanda Hiscocks, one of five members of the Seven-Year Squatters to successfully defend herself in court against charges of break and enter, criminal mischief and obstructing police, remains in custody following her arrest on the morning of Saturday, June 26, the very day that chaotic G20 protests in Toronto saw masked, black-clad youths burn police cruisers and smash windows, precipitating the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. Hiscocks, who lives in Guelph, faces various charges in connection to the G20 protests and is scheduled for a bail hearing this week. Authorities had been investigating Hiscocks and a handful of other alleged organizers picked up before the Toronto summit since April 2009.

Said to be a leader of the Southern Ontario Anarchist Resistance, or SOAR, Hiscocks’s activist career stretches back to 1996, when police arrested her for planting a garden at Queen’s Park, part of a protest against the Ontario’s government’s food policies. In April Hiscocks led a workshop at the Toronto Anarchist Assembly and Bookfair entitled “The Black Bloc and Diversity of Tactics.” That “Black Bloc” refers to a confrontational brand of protest with roots in European anarchism that emerged at the G20 as small groups of demonstrators infiltrated the crowd, then changed into black to dart away from the pack and wreak havoc. The latter phrase—“diversity of tactics”—refers to a doctrine widely adhered to in activist circles whereby the tactics of others, including the destruction of property, are never dismissed or publicly criticized. Perhaps in keeping with this doctrine, Hiscocks some years ago posted a photograph of herself on a social networking site playfully holding a flaming lighter to a copy of the Pocket Criminal Code.

Another of the Seven-Year Squatters, Amy Miller, is the Montreal freelance journalist arrested at the G20 who later made claims she was threatened with rape by police at a Toronto detention centre. “I was told I was going to be gang banged,” she told reporters. Rachelle Sauvé, a third squat veteran who now lives in Peterborough, distributed free food at the G20 as part of the People’s Kitchen; she was later charged with obstructing police and wearing a disguise to commit an indictable offence (Sauvé told a reporter she was wearing a clown costume to stand out).

That commitment of purpose and the long-standing relationships belie a common view of the G20 demonstrators as hobbyists or kids out to smash some windows. Yet a glance at Canada’s increasingly militant left shows that, far from being driven by socially isolated ideologues or rampaging teens, it is composed of sturdy networks of committed, methodical people organized into “affinity groups”—small, intensely democratic collectives that reject words like “leader” and “organizer,” and insist that executive positions are transient if they exist at all. Such groups can move quickly and fluidly, both during mobilizations on staging grounds like the G20, and more routinely in their communities.

Clément, though at 58 older than the squatters to whom he once offered his shower, and never militant in the past, has shown himself to be similarly active in Ottawa’s leftist scene. Over the years, he has been a frequent participant in demonstrations—helping plan a show of solidarity with protesting teachers in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006, to name one example—and an active member of a pro-Cuba, pro-Fidel Castro association in Ottawa. Sauriol, his landlord for years, recalls seeing protest signs propped up in his apartment, which was otherwise so thick with books he could not see the walls. On one occasion, Sauriol watched as a protest march swept up Ottawa’s Sussex Drive, only to realize it was being led by his tenant.

Identified in media accounts as a public servant, Clément held relatively modest jobs in a career that hopped between federal government departments—most recently the Canadian International Development Agency. “He was known to be a Mensa member,” says a former colleague. “The lore about him was he was really smart but worked in the mail room.” Tall, gangly, with a distinguished grey beard and distinctive walk, he speaks English without the francophone accent suggested by his name. “He was a very nice guy—that’s the thing,” says the former colleague.

Some years ago, Clément took early retirement to care for his younger sister, who was ailing with breast cancer. He moved in with her, caring for her in the months before she died. His sister’s death left him devastated, friends say. At about that time, Jacques Chenail, who along with his wife runs the Ottawa chapter of Not Just Tourists, an apolitical volunteer group that sends suitcases of medical supplies with visitors to Cuba, got a call from Clément. “He wanted us to help him send veterinary stuff,” says Chenail. “He was involved with animal protection, he knew vets, he knew people who did miracles in Cuba for animals. I said, ‘We don’t deal with that.’ You know, we all compensate for things that are missing in our lives. And that’s the feeling we had—that there was something that had stung him or bit him.”

Arrested along with two other men the weekend before the G8 and G20 summits, Clément faces charges including arson causing damage, possession of incendiary material and using explosives with intent to cause property damage. Denied bail, he awaits trial in jail; Lawrence Greenspon, his high-profile Ottawa lawyer, says he is having difficulty sleeping. A co-accused, well-known Ottawa activist Matthew Morgan-Brown, 32, is in custody on the same charges and is slated for a bail hearing this week. The third man, 50-year-old engineer Claude Haridge, faces lesser charges of careless storage and handling of ammunition, and is out on bail.

The RBC firebombing was accompanied by what local media called a “catch-me-if-you-can” video showing shadowy figures emerging from the blazing building seconds after the blast. According to text that accompanies the clip, the bombers targeted the RBC for the role it had taken as a sponsor of the Vancouver Games, which the group said took place on “stolen indigenous land . . . for the benefit of [the government’s] corporate masters and to the detriment of Aboriginal peoples, workers and the poor of the province.” The manifesto hints at further action during the G8 and G20 summits. Before the arrests, Ottawa police Chief Vern White had gone as far as to call the incident “domestic terrorism.”

Even before the bank bombing and the G20 protests, leftist militancy appeared on the rise in Canada. Police in northeast B.C. continue to pursue a bomber who, beginning in 2008, sabotaged EnCana pipelines for months, in one letter citing the “crazy expansion of deadly gas wells.” Earlier, beginning in mid-2005, the Canadian chapter of the Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, a radical environmental group, began taking credit for arsons targeting new housing developments in southwestern Ontario. More recently, using tactics echoed at the G20, protesters in Vancouver broke into small, mercurial groups to rally against the 2010 Games, shattering windows and shouting, “no Olympics on stolen native land.” Then, on July 2, a group calling itself the “Internationalist Resistance” took responsibility for a bomb explosion that gutted a military recruitment office in Trois-Rivières, Que., condemning in a communiqué Canada’s “militaristic practices.”

Such destruction is particularly shocking after years of peaceful demonstrations on the left, and that eerie calm that set in after 9/11—a climate ill-suited to militancy. In reaction to the growing militarization of the police response to protests, activists have upped the ante. The shift has been remarkable. Canada’s last record mass arrest dates to 1993, when 12,000 people opposed to logging at Vancouver Island’s Clayoquot Sound set up blockades, then surrendered to police. Tzeporah Berman, 24 at the time, participated as an organizer, and recalls demonstrators calmly following her instructions to sit on the ground. “The whole wave of a thousand people sat down and it was so silent you could hear a pin drop,” she says. Police arrested 856 of them. The protest is now widely thought to have helped make Clayoquot a household name and save it from loggers.

Though Berman, who is now with Greenpeace, recalls anarchists arriving at Clayoquot seeking to destroy logging equipment and chain themselves to vehicles, she and other organizers said no. “We wanted to make it accessible to a majority of people,” she says. The violent faction simply left. But Berman says that since the 1999 anti-globalization protests at Seattle’s World Trade Organization meetings, no amount of coordination can prevent small but destructive groups from stealing the headlines from peaceful protesters. “That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re seeing an increase of individuals who want to use violent tactics,” says Berman.

Yet the “diversity of tactics” doctrine makes a critique of violence difficult, says Janet Conway, an activist and Brock University sociologist who studies activism: “The whole ideology has functioned to shut down debate.” There’s little doubt also that a generational shift is at work. Peaceful protests like that at Clayoquot, where hundreds sacrificed themselves to police, are more and more deemed old-fashioned, ineffective, doormat-ish. “If you organize a demonstration of 10,000 or 15,000 and it doesn’t get any media play and the government ignores it, that raises a lot of hard questions,” says Conway. “I’m not posing that to be provocative. I’m posing that as an honest dilemma.” But an unwillingness to condemn the tactics of others leaves open a troubling possibility. “The extension of that,” Conway says, “is that there are no pre-given limits.”