Mike Hermida

hree members of the Herongate Tenant Coalition have filed defamation lawsuits against corporate landlord and developer Timbercreek.

The lawsuit alleges that Timbercreek defamed three individuals — Josh Hawley, Ikram Dahir, and Mumina Egal  — by casting their opposition to mass evictions as “criminal activity,” and by casting them and the Herongate Tenant Coalition as “unstable, unhinged, and extremists.” The developer made these claims, among other places, in a letter sent to Twitter in an attempt to get the Herongate Tenant Coalition account suspended after they posted public information about Timbercreek executives. 

Timbercreek’s lawyer, Michael Polowin, also alleged in the same letter that Hawley and Dahir were arrested and charged at a rally in October 2018. Both deny this, however, and no such arrests were reported in media accounts of the demonstration, nor witnessed by multiple Leveller correspondents, even. 

The Herongate Tenant Coalition has been at the forefront of the struggle against the evictions and have proven adept at getting under Timbercreek’s skin.

Herongate is a neighbourhood in the southeast of Ottawa, between Heron and Heatherington roads. It is home to many racialized people, immigrants and refugees, and people who do not speak English as their first language. The core of the Herongate neighbourhood consists of a housing complex now owned by Timbercreek, which is branded Heron Gate.

The lawsuits come in the context of two mass evictions from the complex: once in 2016 where 80 families were evicted and again in 2018 where 150 families were evicted. Timbercreek is carrying out these evictions to make way for luxury condominiums, with “premium rents” that will likely price many former residents out of the neighbourhood.

In a piece for Huffington Post, UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Leilani Farha called Timbercreek “not your typical landlord” — saying that they practice “unscrupulous demographic engineering in search of profits: replacing poor and vulnerable people with those who possess greater purchasing power.”

“Some people can’t afford homes outside of this community,” noted Dahir, a community organizer who has been living in the neighbourhood for 27 years.

Timbercreek exploits the lack of privilege that many tenants have. Dahir explained that “when you go into [Timbercreek’s] office, if you don’t speak any English or have a hard time understanding, they actually do abuse you.”

To challenge Timbercreek’s power, some residents have organized under the collective name Herongate Tenant Coalition. This coalition has been at the forefront of the struggle against the evictions and have proven adept at getting under Timbercreek’s skin.

Two ex-Herongate residents are also suing the developer in small claims court, alleging that Timbercreek has been ignoring its tenants’ maintenance requests. Some families have had to deal with no heat, persistent flooding, mould growth, and leaks, which residents claim Timbercreek knew about but ignored in order to let the properties fall into disrepair. 

Failing to maintain a property saves landlords money in the short term and allows them to condemn and demolish buildings in the long run, replacing them with more profitable, high-end properties. This is gentrification 101.

Although the coalition is no stranger to engaging in activism, its members reject the allegations made against them by Timbercreek that they were arrested and charged as part of their demonstrations. 

“This is patently false and clearly defamatory,” said Yavar Hameed, the Ottawa-based human rights lawyer representing the three claimants, in an interview with The Leveller. Hameed claims that Timbercreek hasn’t disputed that the allegations were inaccurate and have instead sought to limit damages. “Instead of defending the actions on their merits, the defendant Timbercreek has sought to challenge the extent of damages that can be claimed, suggesting that three cases can only be allocated up to $25,000 cumulatively.”

A ruling favourable to Hawley, Dahir and Egal would symbolize a great victory for the members of Herongate as a whole; the defamation case is one aspect of a wider legal battle being waged in both small claims courts and in Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal. “These cases are examples of [the tenants’] struggle, which directly challenge Timbercreek’s otherwise unfettered control over their community,” said Hameed.

Such a ruling would also prove that it is possible to fight back when the odds are stacked against a group of marginalized people. Timbercreek has significant staff and legal resources to throw into the fray in their battle with the Herongate Tenant Coalition. As documented previously in The Leveller, developers in Ottawa also enjoy a cosy relationship with city politicians and staff. 

All of this means the legal battlefield is tilted, formally or otherwise, against the residents of Herongate. So while they are fighting Timbercreek and the evictions in court, they have also been getting the word out on social media and participating in protests and direct action. The coalition believes by alleging that these protests had led to arrests, Timbercreek was attempting to scare them off from further demonstrations and to get Twitter to “permanently disable” the coalition’s Twitter account, in the words of the letter Timbercreek lawyers sent to Twitter. This is in line with earlier “cease and desist” letters Timbercreek sent to the coalition, calling for them to immediately stop posting on social media over supposed defamation.  

Hameed objects to these tactics and notes that the coalition has every right to do what they have been doing. “They are organizing,” noted Hameed. “They are protecting their right to be critical of the land developer’s tactics.”

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