By Ashton Starr

Ottawa-based climate and social justice groups had to suddenly cancel in-person events and gatherings in the wake of the COVID-19 public health crisis. The Leveller interviewed members of these grassroots organizations throughout the fall of 2020 to find out what had happened to their work since the onset of the pandemic, how it has changed, and what they plan on doing in the future.
Invisible Text

This article will keep growing as we add more groups in the coming weeks.

Part 1: Indigenous Solidarity Ottawa

Part 1: Indigenous Solidarity Ottawa

Protestors during the Ottawa event version of “Shut Down Canada for Indigenous Rights” on October 25, which members of ISO helped organize and promote. (Photo: Brent Patterson)

Indigenous Solidarity Ottawa – Solidarity Work in these Times

Indigenous Solidarity Ottawa (ISO) is a small collective that works to support Indigenous struggles for justice, sovereignty, and decolonization. Anne, a member of ISO who asked to only be referred to by first name, spoke to The Leveller about the group’s work as Ottawa’s pandemic measures took effect. 

Anne describes participating in Indigenous solidarity work as a responsibility for settlers who oppose the on-going colonialist project on Turtle Island, where both Canada and USA were formed as nation-states. ISO is a collective made up of settlers — people who migrated or were born from families who migrated to countries founded through ongoing Indigenous genocide — but who are working for decolonization in solidarity with Indigenous movements.

The group’s work has involved rallies on Parliament Hill and Supreme Court of Canada, concert fundraisers, movie screenings, anti-colonialism workshops, a Reconciliation Book Club organized with Climate Justice Ottawa, and a sit-in of the Justice Minister David Lametti’s office in 2020.

After much-publicized RCMP raids on Wet’suwet’en territory at the beginning of 2019, solidarity actions flared up across the country, and ISO helped organize several events locally.

ISO saw a significant uptick in interest, on-line and in-person, as they worked to support the Wet’suwet’en struggle. Yet this momentum stalled as the pandemic lockdown started.

ISO saw a significant uptick in interest, on-line and in-person, as they worked to support the Wet’suwet’en struggle.

“It didn’t stop being that important,” Anne said of the moment in March when COVID-19 cases initially spiked and non-essential businesses were ordered to close. “We were doing a lot of work around Wet’suwet’en and it kind of stopped almost overnight because people got really scared and everything was shut down.”

The shutdown also led to “low capacity” among ISO volunteers — many of whom engage in other activism, but who also had COVID-19 lockdowns impact their personal and work lives. It was difficult to keep the momentum from early 2020, but the group transitioned fairly smoothly to online member meetings. They still tried to meet in-person when restrictions loosened during the summer but were unable to make it work due to bad weather.  It took a few months for ISO to begin events again.

ISO briefly continued Reconciliation Book Club events on Jitsi, a free, open-source, encrypted video conferencing site and app. They had also hosted an online documentary screening party of There’s Something in the Water (2019) through a feature offered by online video streaming service Netflix.

Protesters at an action last year that ISO helped organize – the Stand up for Land Defenders protest, 20 February 2019. (Photo: Reilly Walton)

While in-person events have been rare, ISO promoted a few rallies and the Idle No More protest of the Prime Minister’s throne speech at the Senate of Canada, across the street from Parliament. They also helped organize a rally at the Supreme Court of Canada on October 9 for an Indigenous Day of Rage against Colonialism. Attendees were encouraged to wear masks and maintain appropriate distances.

ISO also hosted  an online workshop led by Algonquin scholar and activist Lynn Gehl, titled “Algonquin 101: Mapping the Algonquin through Visuals.”  Tickets for the workshop sold out well in advance, and ISO is planning another online workshop with Gehl in November.

ISO has demonstrated how community groups can organize online and rally safely in-person.

Anne has noticed a shift in public discourse in the past couple of years around colonialism and indigeneity, even among friends and acquaintances. While local activists have long acknowledged that much of Canada occupies unceded Indigenous territory — including the Canadian Parliament on Algonquin territory — now even non-activists are talking about this. 

Anne described an apolitical acquaintance from swing dancing who said “You know what I realized? Parliament is not even in Canada!”

“It’s interesting hearing someone who’s not an activist say that is a thing,” Anne said. “That is a victory in some sense.”

A truly post-COVID-19 world is “too far off” Anne says, to know how the group will organize then.. “A lot of what we do [now], except for the rallies, is all online,” which has its advantages. Anne doubted  attendance would have been as high at the Lynn Gehl workshop if it were an in-person event. ISO has found that online events are more accessible, and that people from out of town can join. “Maybe we could do a hybrid-type [event] with things that need to be in person, like rallies.” 

The most recent event ISO hosted, “Shut Down Canada for Indigenous Rights” on October 26, had exactly this hybrid structure. There was an in-person rally on Parliament Hill  in support of the Algonquin moose moratorium, Haudenosaunee land defence at 1492 Land Back Lane and the Pines, the Mi’kmaq lobster fishery, and Wet’suwet’en and Secwepemc opposition to pipelines, and the Pekiwewin homeless camp in downtown Edmonton.  But there was also an online component explaining each struggle and pointing to places where participants could donate and sign petitions, as well as learn more.

While it is impossible to predict when regional COVID-19 cases will drop to safer levels and when restrictions on gatherings will end, ISO has demonstrated how community groups can organize online and rally safely in-person.

Reach out to Indigenous Solidarity Ottawa through:

Part 2: Climate Justice Ottawa

Part 2: Climate Justice Ottawa

Photo: Climate Justice Ottawa

Climate Justice Ottawa and the Move to Digital Organizing

Climate Justice Ottawa (CJO) is a volunteer-run organization that fights climate injustice in Ottawa. They do this by advocating for alternatives to a carbon-centric economy, while foregrounding the voices of Indigenous communities and other marginalized groups most affected by climate change. They were a partner in the 2019 Climate Strike with high school and university groups, and saw an increase of volunteer members after the 2019 federal election. 

By the end of the year, CJO were meeting to restructure for 2020, which involved revisiting their founding documents since their growth. They wanted to shift to focus on educational programming and reaching out to more community organizations to offer their support, since their volunteer base had grown.

By February, CJO was involved in Wet’suwet’en solidarity events, as the Unist’ot’en and Gidimt’en clans’ territory was invaded by the RCMP. They were also part of organizing a Reconciliation Book Club with Indigenous Solidarity Ottawa, as well as anti-oppression workshops at local universities, speaking engagements, and a fundraiser for the Beaver Lake Cree’s Tar Sands Trial.

In March, public health guidelines around COVID-19 had taken effect and workplaces closed. So the fundraiser, workshops, and speaking events CJO had planned at the universities were cancelled. The hope to simply postpone these events faded when lockdowns were extended every two weeks, and the postponement became indefinite. 

 “It is still good to know that we have been able to do something in such a hard, dark time.”

Speaking to The Leveller, CJO volunteer Karolina Krym stated the sudden cancellations of all in-person projects — before moving into digital organizing — gave CJO members time to look back on their work. “When I had to reflect on what we had done, we had done a lot,” Krym said of the organization’s leadup to the lockdowns. “We were doing weekly online art builds, letter writing, and email writing campaigns.”

“We had so much energy right before lockdown and had so many things planned… once the lockdown started we were doing nothing and everything completely dwindled.”

After physical distancing took effect, CJO meetings and workshops moved online and member coordination was primarily through the Slack communication app. When the Book Club became digital, it suffered a drop in participation and lapsed into inactivity. The group felt as though computer fatigue and not understanding digital platforms led to participants not showing up for the online events.

There have been a few successful online events that CJO helped organize after a few months in lockdown. This included webinars with international climate justice organization on the Just Recovery global campaign for economic relief for unemployed and working families. 

Online events hosted and co-hosted by CJO then started to roll out weekly. These included a presentation on the history of non-violent direct action, anti-oppression workshops following the popular Black Lives Matter rallies throughout the USA, emailing campaigns to the federal government, and a press conference prior to the prime minister’s Throne Speech in September.

The switch from in-person meetings and rallies to digital-only does offer challenges, primarily to the emotional and mental health of community organizers. Even when they are constantly emailing and video-conferencing, CJO volunteers can still feel isolated from those they’re communicating with.

“It would be nice to just be able to meet in person and plan in-person events, because I believe we get so much energy just from being around each other,” Krym said. “It’s been tough because there’s been a decrease in energy … Being online all the time with just the in-flow of information that is so constant and almost always so negative, it’s definitely been hard to get people together. It’s just been a small group of us keeping things going, sharing information on social media, and planning these webinars.”

“Everything in a pandemic is worse.” Krym highlighted Indigenous rights violations by the federal government, including Indigenous communities’ access to clean drinking water. In October 2015, Prime Minister Trudeau promised to eliminate all long-term water advisories on First Nations reserves by March 2021, but a recent CBC survey showed that over a dozen Indigenous communities say the target will not be reached.

Krym offers words of encouragement to other organizers and activists during these times. “A group of dedicated people can do a lot more than you can think. It made me realize how important community [is] … having people to rely on to talk to about how you’re doing and how you’re feeling … Just to take care of one another — and that’s what we always have been doing and try to continue to do, even if there are less people meeting regularly.”

“It is still good to know that we have been able to do something in such a hard, dark time.”

Reach out to Climate Justice Ottawa through:

Part 3: Books 2 Prisoners

Part 3: Books 2 Prisoners

Books 2 Prisoners – Reaching Prisoners Under New Guidelines

Book 2 Prisoners is made up entirely of volunteers from both the Carleton campus and surrounding community, who work to do exactly what the organization’s name implies: mailing books to prisoners. And not just books — B2P will also send out board and card games, stationary, and letters to prisoners.

B2P’s purpose in sending letters and books to prisoners is to humanize and connect with people who are incarcerated. The group does not advocate a sole political outcome. Some volunteers mentioned they are motivated by a desire to see prisons abolished, and others aim to reduce recidivism among former prisoners with their work.

As both material and financial donations come in, volunteers will package and mail out items requested by prisoners. Many recipients are in prisons in Texas and California, and B2P has recently made arrangements to send packages to the Collins Bay Institution’s resource library in Kingston.

B2P) has been an international organization since 1974 and a local chapter formed as an OPIRG Carleton working group in 2003. (OPIRG Carleton is an independent chapter of the campus-based Ontario Public Interest Research Group network, which works to foster social and environmental justice, in part by supporting various working groups like B2P.)

Jane Crosby has volunteered with B2P since 2016 and is currently its co-chair. Crosby discussed the history and current challenges facing the organization with The Leveller

In the year leading up to the pandemic, it was difficult to find volunteers from Carleton  to check the mailbox, send packages, and manage book sales. So Crosby contacted the Booth Street Salvation Army Centre seeking volunteers who had community service orders to complete, to fill in the gaps.

“I’m really positive about all the volunteers we got, the donations we’re getting from our social media, and the attention we’re getting.”

The shutdown of Carleton University once the pandemic hit then shut out volunteers from the group’s mailbox, supplies, and mail processing space in the OPIRG-Carleton office. The mailbox had been the primary means of communicating between B2P and prisoners or prison libraries. A book sale scheduled every semester was also cancelled during its planning stages, and overall B2P was in limbo.

It took almost two months before volunteers were able to coordinate online meetings. The other co-chair of B2P, Jeff Bradley, pointed out how volunteering had become different during these lockdowns. Ultimately, it made joining meetings easier. “We were getting a lot of volunteers coming because everyone was online and they can easily attend meetings.”

Jeff Bradley and Jane Crosby receiving and sending mail to a prison in Texas. Credit: Sophia Crosby

“Before, when we met on campus, if you missed the meeting, you wouldn’t know what was going on. There wasn’t that online follow-up … Now that everything is online, people are more willing to keep up and check their emails, join in the chats, and come to the video conference meetings. We actually just tried a physical distancing meeting about a week ago and only three of us attended. So it didn’t really work.”

B2P will likely consider continuing video conference meetings even after lockdowns and physical distancing guidelines end.

In June, an OPIRG-Carleton staff member who had access to the campus delivered B2P their mail and some supplies. A collection of donated books stored at the Carleton Food Collective’s Garden Spot location was given to B2P in lieu of the inventory left behind on campus.

Despite not having a public space or photocopier to use, a physical space to do mailings  was set up in a couple of volunteers’ homes. B2P was ready to begin mail-outs and volunteers were in each other’s physical bubbles at this point, in order to minimize exposure to COVID-19.

The next challenge for B2P came from American prisons. These prisons were not taking packages until late July or early August, depending on the state’s policies. 

Beyond mail, some institutions were even cutting programs entirely. “With COVID restrictions in prisons, people are on 23-hour lockdowns. We’re hearing that they’re not having access to some of their basic needs,” Bradley said.

The US Federal Bureau of Prisons and Correctional Services Canada (CSC) both implemented guidelines for prisoners and correctional staff in reaction to the pandemic. Implemented on March 13, guidelines for the US included suspending internal movement of prisoners, family and volunteer visits, and programs offered to prisoners. Canada’s prison watchdog reported in June that CSC institutions similarly suspended services, with counselling services also paused and many cases of prolonged solitary confinement.

Conditions at CSC institutions have not improved since the report in June. After an outcry in the spring and calls to depopulate prisons, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair eventually asked prisons and parole boards to consider releasing prisoners to cut changes of infection. This resulted in a negligible decrease of 2% in the population of federal prisons — certainly not enough to assure adequate physical distancing in prisons. (Meanwhile, provincial prison populations dropped 25%, showing significant decreases are possible.)

Federal prisoners faced an ironic double bind when they sought early parole to escape crowded conditions primed for infection. “What ended up happening was they shut everything down and nobody had access to programs, and the conditions of parole or release are usually that they’ve completed their programs within the institution,” Emilie Coyle of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies said in an interview with Global News on November 11.

Instead of maintaining safe COVID-19 procedures,  many CSC institutions are currently implementing lockdowns and re-restricting volunteer and family visits during a second spike of COVID-19 numbers. “They’ve compensated for the lack of ability to socially distance by locking people down in really restrictive ways, which has tremendously affected the mental health of prisoners,” Coyle added.

All these restrictions have also affected prisoner mail. Even before the onset of COVID-19, many prisons had restrictive and arbitrary rules about mail. This could make it difficult to get materials into prisons, even at the best of times. 

US institutions would typically hold letters for about three weeks, which included a security search. Pandemic protocols added three days during which the mail could not be touched. B2P members were also concerned about extra delays at the US-Canada border.

Crosby reported that it now takes about a month for a letter to finally be received by prisoners. This complicates the work of B2P, as some institutions only allow two books to be received each month per prisoner. That delay could cause a backlog that exceeds the monthly limit, resulting in a waste of stamps, finances, and possibly books, if they are not returned. While some prisons describe the new mailing processes on their websites, B2P learned of the added delays directly from prisoners.

B2P has also been proactive about figuring out how to organize in these times. Local organizers reached out to other Books 2 Prisoners chapters around Canada to participate in a knowledge exchange over a Zoom conference. This allowed them to figure out what jurisdictions they can send packages to.

By the summer, B2P started exploring in-person events with extra precautions. On August 10, B2P hosted Prisoner’s Justice Day alongside the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project and the Millhaven Lifers’ Liaison Group, another OPIRG-Carleton working group. The event took place in-person on Major’s Hill Park, where former prisoners gave speeches, supporters read statements from incarcerated people, and B2P sold shirts. Masks and hand sanitizer was provided, and physical distancing was encouraged.

As of this fall, the group feels they still need a shared physical space that can be safe for sending out packages, as well as access to a post office, scale, and photocopier. Volunteers are concerned about sharing a confined space and their own homes to others who are not in their bubbles. Bradley and Crosby believe that B2P would benefit from the OPIRG office reopening, or a similar space in which volunteers are able to physically distance, wear personal protective equipment, and pack parcels for monthly mailing.

As of October, B2P registered a small business account with Canada Post to help track packages being sent out. As well, the group made an agreement with CSC to donate books to select prisons in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes, for which they were granted  free shipping. “This is a wonderful accomplishment for our work in outreach to the institutionalized community,” Crosby said.

B2P is also in discussions with Women’s Wellness Within Project in Halifax, Nova Scotia to start an arts bursary of $75 twice a year to women’s art programs for supplies. This would relieve B2P of the work of sending supplies from Ottawa.

Crosby is excited about the future of the group. “I’m really positive about all the volunteers we got, the donations we’re getting from our social media, and the attention we’re getting. That’s something.” 

Reach out to Books 2 Prisoners through:

Part 4: The Garden Spot

Part 4: The Garden Spot

Illustration: Carleton Food Collective

The Garden Spot: Food Security during a Lockdown

The Carleton Food Collective is a volunteer-run food security organization known for its community kitchen and frontline service — also known as the Garden Spot or G-Spot for short — which offers pay-what-you-can meals on the Carleton University campus.

Since it was established in 2002, the G-Spot’s mandate has been to provide the Carleton community with accessible food that is vegan and hypoallergenic to anyone who asks for it, regardless of income or employment status. By doing this, the group has fought poverty and supported their community for almost 20 years, despite pushback from the Carleton administration and its for-profit food service contractors.

Carleton students pay a $2.40 levy (attached to inflation) to the G-Spot through their undergrad or grad student association, something students fought for in a series of referendums and campaigns.  Today the collective is a mix of students and community members who make decisions using consensus or a super-majority vote, while working to strengthen food security on campus and in the broader community.

The G-Spot was born from the realization that students are often cash-strapped and can struggle to pay for food. Meanwhile, the university administration consistently signs exclusive contracts with multinational corporations to provide on-campus food. This was Chartwells during the time of the G-Spot’s founding but is now Aramark. (Both are controversial companies infamous for poor labour practices and serving unsafe food in prisons.) 

These exclusive contracts mean that today Aramark doesn’t only operate the residence cafeteria, the food courts, the library cafe and the catering for all university events; they also run the Starbucks and the Tim Hortons. (Whatever you choose, they get your money!) This monopoly power allows both the corporation and the university to profit handsomely off student hunger. 

Disatisfaction with this cosy arrangement led to the creation of the G-Spot .As we detailed way back in The Leveller’s pages 10 years ago “The G-Spot’s origins go back to the establishment of an Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) food issues working group in 2001. The group incorporated as the Carleton Food Collective in 2002 while serving free lunches sporadically around the Carleton campus to hungry students.”

“It’s really important to foster community, and I think food is one of the best ways to do that.”

Yet from the G-Spot’s first week serving food in 2002, the administration has fought it. Then-Vice-President of Finance and Administration Duncan Watt called the G-Spot “an eyesore” — presumably the sight of students getting food without paying offended him — all while making it clear the G-Spot could not continue as a permanent project, since it would undermine  private, for-profit food services. Over the years, Watt’s administration, the Carleton Board of Governors, and President Roseann Runte have all sought to deny the G-Spot an on-campus location. 

Despite this, the group has survived and remains committed to ensuring accessible, vegan food is available on the campus This is all thanks to student support — countless students have cooked, served, and eaten the G-Spot’s food, while the student levy has provided financial stability and allowed the group to rent off-campus kitchen space.

This space — which is off campus but nearby, so free from administration meddling — gives the group a foundation to work from, when they have never really had a stable serving location on-campus. From this base of operations in 2019-2020, for example, the G-Spot launched weekly sorties to serve food to hungry students, guerilla-style in the university tunnels between the library and Dunton Tower. They report that between 40 and 80 people were served during each hour that they were open.

In order to provide these meals at little cost, the G-Spot uses food donations from local grocers, including the Wild Oat and the Bank Street Herb & Spice. These donations, which may otherwise have ended up being thrown out, are brought to the collective’s rented kitchen space on 329 Bell St. South, then cooked and transported to the university campus. 

By taking food that would have been wasted and turning it into basically-free meals for students and the community, the G-Spot implicitly challenges the waste and supposed superiority of profit-driven food production. 

The kitchen space has also served as a meeting space for the group and is large enough to host community events, including movie screenings. The backyard has a garden planted by active volunteers, who grow and harvest vegetables, berries, and herbs.

G-Spot volunteers Nell Mayo and Ali Stringer discussed the group’s situation with The Leveller

“Trevor and Lou are volunteering for the Carleton Food Collective’s People’s Pantry.” Credit: Blue

In explaining the group’s value, they explained that the G-Spot’s food mission not only fights poverty but promotes community. Stringer said, “It’s really important to foster community, and I think food is one of the best ways to do that. It brings people together. People really like food and they really like free food. There’s something special about giving things to people for free and just doing work for the sake of the community and for the sake of other people.

“It’s important to have a place that promotes that and that enables people to get into organizing in that sense — to get into community membership, become active in their neighbourhoods, on the campus and with their friends, [to] meet new people, hear new ideas, and eat new foods.” 

The group also reaches beyond campus with this mission. For its 18 years of existence, the group has also been involved in the broader community by offering catering for activist events and protests. During 2019, the group had also opened up its kitchen space for weekly donation drop-offs and pick-ups of groceries, as well as stationary and clothing. They dubbed this “the People’s Pantry.” 

“Just being able to maintain a funded student kitchen on campus is a pretty big win,” Mayo explained. Having dedicated funding and a dedicated space has proved invaluable in “weathering a situation like a lockdown, or pandemic, or uncertain circumstances,” Stringer noted. While the G-Spot had to stop serving on campus, it has still been able to do other work. 

Work in the garden has continued and  the time off from serving has allowed the collective to conduct necessary repairs and a deep cleaning of their kitchen. The collective also had an Ecolab sanitization system set up, and volunteers are taught proper food handling and sanitation during a pandemic.

By way of contrast, Stringer mentioned the People’s Republic of Delicious — a similar group at the University of Ottawa, but without the same funding or kitchen infrastructure as the G-Spot. They had to completely shut down due to the pandemic, and it’s not yet clear if they will revive after it’s over. Meanwhile, the G-Spot has been able to keep using its space and keep the organization and their volunteers active and primed for a return.

Carleton’s classes for fall 2020 are being delivered online, which makes the collective’s food serving a bit more difficult. But they’ve relaunched the People’s Pantry out of the kitchen space and are still figuring out where to offer prepared food as Ontario regulations continue to change. Collective members mentioned that they are trying to work with Ottawa Street Medics and have already been working on a mobile trailer that would allow them to serve food during the winter months.

Mayo and Stringer both appealed to students who may be confused about their student levy fees going towards the collective. They are still active, still working to share food and resources with the community, and can answer anyone’s questions or concerns about the service leading into the Fall 2020 semester. 

A little elusive if you don’t know what you’re looking for, the G-Spot still promises satisfaction after all these years to those who find it. 

Find the Carleton Food Collective through:

Part 5: Punch Up Collective

Part 5: Punch Up Collective

Graphic: Punch Up Collective

Punch Up Collective – Collective Learning from the Pandemic

Punch Up Collective is a 4-person group of volunteers that have been around since 2014. Members have a common history of trade union activism and describe themselves as “aging anarchists.” 

“We’re anarchists that believe in trying to build stuff.”

Anarchists have a broad goal of liberating society from government and economic oppression that is rooted in exploitation and degradation of all people. As Punch Up member Chris Dixon said in an interview on the podcast From Embers, “We all feel strongly that there are a set of systems and ruling relations that work in tandem that we have to oppose and have to undermine both in how we organize and what we’re trying to fight.”

“We’re anarchists that believe in trying to build stuff,” Dixon added. “We want to build movements, we want to build organizations, we want to build institutions, when they’re relevant and useful – and we want to do all that in the service of trying to create combative, transformative, multi-sector creative struggles that can fundamentally transform the world.”

The members chose to make a commitment with each other to work together politically in the long-term, as an affinity group. They take part in collective actions throughout Ottawa and provide educational and skills-sharing workshops to the city’s activist communities.

Dixon also described the group as “anti-vanguardist” and “interested in participating in campaigns with other organizations. … We have a theory of change that’s motivated by mass, combative social movements. It’s not about lawyers or politicians – various professionals doing their thing – it’s about ordinary people engaging in collective action.”, 

In an interview on the group’s work, Dixon told The Leveller¸ “We see ourselves as part of a really vibrant ecosystem of movements and organizations in this city.

“We do not try to direct what happens. We do not think there’s a lot of success in making people do things. We like participating alongside many other people, organizations, and campaigns and contributing when we can and try to work in alliance and confederation when possible with others to further the kinds of things that are politically important to us. That for us is based on having all been involved in anarchist political organizing for decades and wanting to bring some of that experience and skill sets and contribute it to the broader ecosystem.”

The most visible face of PUC is their weekly published Radical Events Ottawa list, an announcement list for  local protests, rallies, and workshops pertaining to leftist politics. As they put it on the list’s webpage, PUC started the listserv “in response to what we saw as a gap in Ottawa organizing infrastructure – a way for fellow radicals to share upcoming activities without relying on Facebook and other commercialized platforms.” 

The group periodically hosts skill-sharing workshops and public education events. The most recent workshop offered, “Getting It Together: Organizing Collectives for the Real World,” explained how to form a collective group capable of organizing projects and offering solidarity in common struggles.

PUC has also conducted research on the Ottawa Police Services, contributing two 2019 feature articles in The Leveller: “A Timeline of Ottawa Police Violence” and the sequel “Not Our Friends: The Ottawa Police’s Long History of Violence and Racism.

Prior to the pandemic, the collective had participated in coalitions and campaigns, as well as fundraising for work they align with politically. For example, PUC joined the Ottawa Coalition Against Ford (OCAF), a multi-organization initiative to publicly rally against the provincial government’s austerity programs that cut public funding and privatize services that are vital for families and people living in poverty.

At the end of 2019, OCAF began organizing a picket at the Ottawa Conference and Events Centre to oppose Doug Ford and the Ontario Conservative’s $1,000 per plate Holiday Dinner. The Conservatives ended up postponing their event to 2020 and made the announcement just four days before the coalition and their supporters showed up. 

As OCAF put it in their statement announcing the cancellation, “To be clear, we don’t know for sure why the dinner has been postponed… maybe there just aren’t enough people willing to shell out $1000 to eat dinner with our blowhard Premier. But we have no doubt that OCAF’s mobilization played an important part in helping to scare Ford and his cronies off.”

Hector, one of the kid comrades of Punch Up Collective, working on filling in a graphic designed by Bia Salles for PUC’s May Day 2020 graphic celebration campaign. Credit: Amanda Quance

Before lockdowns began, PUC had been working on was a dance party fundraiser in support of the Ottawa Abortion Doula Collective, the Jail Accountability and Information Line, and for Indigenous land defenders’ legal defence. This fundraiser was to be held on March 27, just two weeks after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 by Ottawa Public Health.

“A lot of that stuff had to stop or be really significantly changed in some way. We had to do a real assessment of what is possible,” Dixon said.

Collective members continued to meet weekly as pandemic measures took effect. They used Zoom to call each other and had to reduce the length of meetings. They shifted to hosting online events and continued offering their events list, while including more digital content from organizations outside of Ottawa.

The first public event PUC organized was an art-focused campaign for May Day — International Workers’ Day on May 1. The collective commissioned graphics by local artist Bia Salles that could be coloured by kids and families to post in their windows around the city. A statement by PUC accompanied the graphics, and a digital May Day hosted by the Ottawa Industrial Workers of the World incorporated this campaign.

The bulk of events on Punch Up’s weekly radical events list were digital for the first few months of the pandemic. But after a couple of months, in-person rallies began to happen. As an example, Dixon mentioned the in-person July 1st bike ride and caravan throughout the city in support of prison abolition and defunding the police, organized by the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP). The public protest was in support of the No One Prison Expansion (NOPE) campaign, which CPEP and Punch Up are both signed on to. 

“Look, things are so unpredictable in the coming year. It’s hard to make solid plans.” Dixon advises that the current pandemic has put community organizing into a “crisis mode.”

“People are focused on the stuff that is happening right in front of them and often in a very immediate way. That makes it hard to do long-term planning.” Dixon notes the urgency of pandemic needs can make it harder for activists to challenge the root causes of social issues.

“The pace of things then have accelerated,” Dixon continues, citing online events being planned and advertised with just a couple of days’ notice. Many possible participants cannot accommodate these actions in their lives, between the precarity of shift work and increased caregiving responsibilities.

For Punch Up, the need for collective action has never ceased. Now it needs to be safer than before. 

Dixon points to the Black Lives Matter rallies as great examples. Within the first week of June, Ottawa saw a vigil for Regis Korchinski-Paquet and a No Peace Until Justice march against police brutality and racism in Canada. Both events had organizers encourage the use of masks, hand sanitizer, and physical distancing, while having street medics available to help in the case of a medical emergency.

Dixon speaks of three important lessons PUC has learned, despite the challenges the group faced during the pandemic.

The first is to be responsive to ever-changing circumstances but never lose sight of the organization’s political goals. The collective remains committed to anti-racist and prison abolition organizing throughout the public health crisis.

The second is to be patient in waiting for long-term goals to come to fruition. There was considerable interest in Punch Up’s old articles on the Ottawa police after defunding police had become an international talking point and popular Twitter hashtag. After noticing this, they immediately put out an infographic in June about “Who Decides How Much Money the Ottawa Police Get?

The third and final important lesson Punch Up has learned is to do activities that include children and caregivers. It is “regenerative and hopeful” Dixon states, and these kid-friendly events “opens up all kinds of possibilities and connects us with people in ways which we would otherwise not be able to. There are tons of rad parents and caregivers out there who are frequently really pushed to the margins of activist and organizing work in the city.”

“We are interested in figuring out ways to hold them and welcome them in whatever ways they can participate.” 

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