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Groundbreaking ceremony disrupted by protesters targeting Mayor John Tory
July 24, 2020
Jennifer Pagliaro

A groundbreaking ceremony on the waterfront Thursday morning was interrupted by protesters demanding Mayor John Tory take action on pending evictions during the pandemic.

While Tory was at the podium at a construction site off Queens Quay East, protesters from Parkdale Organize and People’s Defence Toronto interrupted with large signs and a megaphone, cutting the event short after the mayor refused to speak with them about their demands before the press conference was over.

“Your ribbon-cutting can wait. Your gold shovels can wait,” one protester shouted at the mayor.

After Tory criticized the group for what he called a “violent” protest staged earlier this month outside his Bedford Road condo, demonstrators followed him to a nearby building demanding to speak with him as police officers in cruisers and on bikes arrived (the mayor is always escorted by a plainclothes Toronto police officer).

“I don’t know how I’m going to go back and I’m going to face my community,” said Hamna Mughal, who said her neighbours are being offered repayment plans they can’t possibly afford.

“These are families that can end up on the street and if he does nothing they will end up on the street.”

She said Ontario Premier Doug Ford should be doing something about it, but isn’t.

In March, Ford said tenants who couldn’t afford to pay during the pandemic and amid massive job losses would not be evicted.

But that same month, his government also introduced Bill 184, the Protecting Tenants and Strengthening Community Housing Act, which is now law, which advocates warned could speed up pandemic-related evictions and which applies to nonpayment of rent retroactive to mid-March.

While the law governing evictions is provincial and control of the Landlord and Tenant Board is also provincial jurisdiction, the protesters say Tory has the power to enact a moratorium on evictions in Toronto through an emergency order during the pandemic.

“Under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, municipal mayors have broad powers,” said Cole Webber, with Parkdale Community Legal Services.

“As the mayor of Toronto, John Tory is empowered to make any order to protect the health, safety and well-being of the residents is Toronto.”

Webber said this is something Tory can do now as long as the declaration of emergency remains in effect.

Tory left shortly after the protest began in a car guarded by officers. Demonstrators shouted at him as he left.

In a statement released later, Tory said the city’s legal team has advised him that the city “has no legal authority to impose a ban on evictions.”

He reiterated that he believes no evictions should take place without a hearing, as would be possible under the new bill.

“I have fought throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for tenants -- both residential and commercial tenants who have been hit hard by this crisis,” the statement said.

“I will continue to advocate on behalf of tenants and have repeatedly said I am concerned about people who are at risk of being evicted once the province’s ban on evictions is lifted.”

He also chided the protesters for disrupting the groundbreaking ceremony.

“I am willing to work with anyone who wants to constructively work with me to help the residents of Toronto. I repeatedly offered today to meet with the protesters after the announcement to hear their concerns, but they chose to continue their public protest instead and not let the event proceed.”

As for the group’s other demands, Tory said council will get a report from staff later this month on the possibility of legally challenging the bill on the grounds it undermines the rights of tenants to a fair hearing.

Though the protesters were asking Tory to direct the police not to participate in the enforcement of evictions, including homeless encampments, the mayor noted officials are not legally allowed to direct police operations.

“The city has dealt with encampments in a sensitive manner, finding housing for hundreds of people while at the same time being consistent in saying these encampments cannot remain on public property indefinitely, a position I stand by,” the statement said.