OCAP came out of a three pronged March Against Poverty in 1989 that saw people take to the highways in Windsor, Sudbury and Ottawa and march, over a two week period, on the Ontario Legislature in Toronto. Following this, plans were made for a founding convention of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty that took place in November of 1990. At this gathering a vigorous debate unfolded over the orientation the organization should have. Two models were considered. The first would focus on lobbying and public education, while the second idea would be to work for a poor people’s movement that would use militant forms of social action to give
the poor some power and capacity to resist. The second model was favoured by the majority of those present.
As OCAP’s work got underway, we started to understand that, in order to build a base, while we would have to do all in our power to encourage resistance across Ontario, we would also need to root ourselves in a particular community. We chose Toronto’s downtown east, with its huge concentration of poor tenants and homeless people. We demonstrated the effectiveness of collective action not just by taking up campaigns and actions on broad issues but also by developing ‘direct action casework’ in order to win redress for individuals and families under attack by employers landlords and the welfare bureaucracy. This enabled us to demonstrate that fighting back could produce results.
Over the years, OCAP has confronted a mounting agenda of austerity and social cutbacks. We began by challenging an NDP Government that had abandoned its progressive agenda and turned on poor people. In 1995, the brutally right wing Mike Harris Tories took power and OCAP was faced with a major cut to social assistance and an attack on the poor that had not been seen since the 1930s. We marched on the legislature, we resisted the implementation of workfare programs, we fought back against an explosion of homelessness and street deaths. Austerity deepened during those Tory years but OCAP’s resistance was also a defining feature of the period the
Tories held office.
Elected in 2003, the Liberals have played a crafty game of consolidating and deepening the Tory attacks on the poor, while pretending to be more progressive and caring. Under the camouflage of ‘poverty reduction,’ the war on the poor has intensified under the Liberals. We have challenged and exposed them, resisted their cutbacks and placed the demand to raise social assistance rates before them. With a range of community and union allies, we have worked to build a Raise the Rates Coalition to fight for decent income. At this time, the Liberals are planning to keep people in poverty while they run a sham basic income pilot project. We are demanding that the nearly a million people on social assistance in Ontario get the additional income going to a mere 2,000 on the pilot.
As we have fought at the provincial level over the years, we have also taken on Toronto City Hall. We’ve challenge the failure to provide shelter for the homeless, the neglect of public housing tenants and the wilful denial of income to people in poverty by the City’s Social Services.
OCAP has existed in period of worsening austerity but we have shown it is possible to fight to win, even in the face of such an agenda, and created a model of community based resistance that has won respect across Canada and internationally.