By Andy Crosby

The Herongate Tenant Coalition and their allies rallied on Oct. 4 to protest the mass eviction of over 500 members of their community, one of Ottawa’s most diverse neighbourhoods.

Timbercreek Communities and its parent company Timbercreek Asset Management (TCOM), who purchased the housing development between Walkley and Heron Roads in 2013, ordered over 100 families out of their homes by Sept. 30, threatening to cut off utilities if residents did not move. This is the second round of Timbercreek demolition-evictions of low-rent townhomes in order “to help the area become a premium, active adult-oriented rental community meant to offer resort-style living,” according to Real Estate News EXchange.

The rally wound through the neighbourhood streets, revealing stark images of boarded up windows, asbestos warning signs, and piles of garbage left by Timbercreek work crews who recently started to dismantle the vacated units.

“They have no demolition permits approved, despite what Timbercreek was telling tenants,” said Herongate Tenant Coalition spokesperson Josh Hawley at the rally. “They said ‘we have demolition permits approved, your locks are going to be changed, your stuff is going to be thrown out on the streets.’ None of that was true, they still do not have demolition permits for these homes.”

Homes boarded up at Herongate. Credit- Adam Ashby Gibbard

The day following the rally, Timbercreek lawyer Michael Polowin of Gowling WLG issued the fourth in a series of cease and desist letters to Hawley and Ikram Dahir of the Herongate Tenant Coalition.

SLAPP suits are used as a tactic to scare people from speaking out.

The notice, along with the earlier letters dated July 9, Aug. 7, and Aug. 30, alleges defamatory statements published by the coalition on social media. The notice threatens the use of “all legal remedies” if the use and encouragement of social media posts by the coalition do not “cease immediately.”

“In all of the letters, they repeatedly quoted other social media users as they claim we ‘have encouraged the posting of similar comments which harass TCOM’s employees and contractors,’” Hawley told The Leveller. “We have no control over what other people post.”

“We simply post the facts and an on-the-ground, real-time account of the activity in Herongate,” he added.

Dahir views Timbercreek’s legal manoeuvres as a form of intimidation.

“It is still a scare tactic to get us to stop speaking out for Herongate,” she told the Leveller. “This letter came right after our rally on Oct. 4th.”

The Herongate Tenant Coalition’s lawyer, Daniel Tucker-Simmons of Avant Law, LLP, views the cease and desist notices as equivalent to the threat of a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).

SLAPP suits are used as a tactic to scare people from speaking out.

“The immediate goal is to suppress and silence criticism, but there is a secondary objective, which is very important and can really have a devastating effect on an activist movement,” Tucker-Simmons said. “I always see SLAPP suits as a form of baiting because the temptation is to engage in the legal arena.”

Engaging in legal struggles drains financial and human resources, as well as emotional energy from community organizers and social movements, which detracts from public or political campaigns that function to level the playing field against developers like Timbercreek.

Large corporations are not comfortable, adept, or agile in the activist arena, in engaging in public campaigns, according to Tucker-Simmons.

“They tend to not be very good at it, and so they risk losing in that arena, so what they’re trying to do is bait the activists into an arena where they hold the upper hand, unequivocally,” he said.

“We’re talking about a multi-billion-dollar organization, essentially with limitless resources to litigate and (that) has absolutely no concern with counter suits,” said Tucker-Simmons. “They will dominate in the legal arena, there’s no question, so they want the activists to engage them in that way rather than engaging them in the public arena.”

Although Timbercreek’s tactics to compel Herongate families to vacate have succeeded, the legal battle continues.

Tucker-Simmons is currently preparing to file an application on behalf of some former Herongate residents with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario over the way Timbercreek implemented the evictions.

Further, Tucker-Simmons pointed to another thousand or so Herongate units that could be affected by future rounds of evictions.

“The battle isn’t over,” he said. “The next step in the legal arena is seeking a right of return for all tenants in units of similar size and similar costs.”

“A lot of the work the Herongate Tenant Coalition does is real-time citizen journalism,” said Hawley. “Social media is a superb tool that has allowed us a platform to share some semblance of the actual experience of tenants who have to deal with an abusive landlord.”

“The fact that they are trying to silence and even criminalize us for doing this is scary.”

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