HALIFAX — A Halifax police operation to remove wooden shelters for the homeless led to arrests, people pushing against patrol cars and protesters having irritants sprayed in their faces Wednesday afternoon.
The operation began at 6 a.m. local time, prompting a crowd to gather around two of the shelters on a lawn outside the old Halifax central library site on Spring Garden Road in the city's downtown.
One man sat on top of the wooden shelter constructed by an advocacy group for the homeless, and a police negotiator tried to talk him down while the crowd was held back by a cordon of officers.
Late in the afternoon, Nova Scotia NDP Leader Gary Burrill stood behind police lines and chanted through a megaphone, "Homes, not cops!" He said it was disgraceful that years of neglect of the affordable housing supply had led people to erect tent cities.
The largely peaceful protest involving more than 100 people grew rougher after the man came down from the roof of the shelter and was led away police, as some protesters placed their bodies in front of police vehicles.
Halifax police weren't immediately available for comment on how many arrests occurred over the course of the day.
Police sprayed irritants in the faces of protesters as the confrontations broke out around the streets lined with cafes and shops, and some protesters banged their hands on police cars and threw water bottles at the vehicles.
Shelby Peters, 23, said she was pushed by police and then was "maced" in the face when she tried to move her skateboard in front of her body.
“I came down to help with people in the shelters who are facing a housing crisis,” she said, her face and torso covered in milk that volunteers had poured over her eyes to lessen the stinging sensation.
As more heavily armoured riot police began arriving at the protest site, demonstrator Lillie Coolen said she felt the police presence was excessive. “There's so many abandoned schools and public buildings that could be used to house people," said the 25-year-old. "These police are being paid a lot to do this and I don't understand why that money couldn't be allocated towards housing."
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said police were doing their best to de-escalate the situation at the old central library site.
"It's obviously not gone the way that would have been ideal," he said in an interview. "We are trying to treat people with dignity and move people who are homeless into better locations."
Savage said similar removal operations at three other city locations proceeded without incident earlier in the day. He said the city had taken a gradual approach to the library protest, and had given notice of its intent nearly two months ago when it said it wanted the property cleared.
"We told people that we would not move anybody until we knew that they had an appropriate place to go in terms of supportive housing," Savage said. "We have waited and tried to do this in a sensitive and humane way and today was the day."
The mayor said it will take efforts by all levels of government to tackle the homeless issue and the lack of affordable housing. "As a city we will look at any option and accept our responsibility for it," Savage said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 18, 2021.
Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press