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Public” Space for Whom? Encampment Evictions, Spatio-Legal Exclusion, and Differentiated Urban Citizenships in Toronto

Public” Space for Whom? Encampment Evictions, Spatio-Legal Exclusion, and Differentiated Urban Citizenships in Toronto

By Farida Rady

Farida Rady

In summer of 2021, Toronto police executed violent raids, brutalizing vulnerated encampment residents and their supporters in three downtown public parks. During these evictions, state violence manifested in displacement and police brutality, including the use of force and intimidation tactics such as kettling. In response to the public relations fallout that ensued, the City changed course in October 2021, issuing Suspension Notices to encampment leaders that barred them from public space and public services. These tactics constitute a form of legally-imposed spatial exclusion, subjugating a vulnerated group to additional precarity, uncertainty, displacement, and violence. Forbidding unhoused people from accessing and using public space produces an acutely unequal and exclusionary city.

In light of this, questions of differentiated urban citizenship, the meaning of “public” in public space, the processes by which individuals are made illegal, and the narratives and discourses embedded in the aforementioned became acutely pertinent. This work portfolio by MES alumna, Farida Rady, explored the encampment eviction tactics pursued by the City of Toronto in the summer and fall of 2021 in the context of spatio-legal displacement and exclusion, carceral urban governance, and differentiated and propertied urban citizenship.

Location of Lampert Stadium, Trinity Bellwoods, and Alexandra Park where encampment evictions took place (East to West).

The study explored the questions: What implications did the state-sanctioned encampment evictions and suspension notices have on questions of urban citizenship and the reconfiguration of spatial governance in Toronto? How, and why are legal processes of spatial exclusion mobilized against unhoused denizens? And how do these legal tactics produce differentiated access to urban citizenship and rights?

Rady argued that in a moment of neoliberal crisis, augmented by the housing affordability and pandemic crises, Toronto’s municipal administration utilized arbitrary and exceptional enforcement tools to reassert its legitimacy, continuing its subjugation of unhoused denizens to a condition of permanent displaceability. These strategic mobilizations of law are embedded in property relations and propertied citizenship, producing forms of exclusionary and colonial urban governance that create differentiated citizenships.

"The encampment evictions are a result of state failures to provide adequate and safe housing for all, and their existence also produces the state as it responds and adopts new forms of governance," says Rady.

The former site of the Bruce Lee City encampment at Trinity Bellwoods Park

Using a socio-legal approach and a mixed-methods qualitative research design comprising semi-structured interviews as well as document and archival legal analyses, the study investigated how and why legal processes of spatial exclusion are mobilized against unhoused people, and how those processes produced differentiated access to urban citizenship and rights. It also employed arts-based methods to complicate the City’s narratives surrounding the encampment evictions. Through erasure poetry and abecedarian poetry, two municipal press briefings were intentionally reworked to transform their meaning or effect, elucidating the constructedness and instability of the narrative. The experimental and site-specific poetic explorations raised questions of erasure, public memory, and the right to narrate. Finally, through critical discourse analysis, the research identified the dominant narratives about encampment evictions constructed in mainstream media articles and municipal press briefings. The analysis elucidated how discourses of governance, order, and citizenship were mobilized to justify displacement and to minimize state violence, while unhoused people were constructed as undeserving non-citizens.

In a supposedly inclusive city, Rady observed that the municipal administration mobilized all the tools at its disposal - including equity policies - to evict encampment residents and bar them from public space. Accordingly, a veneer of legality was constructed to conceal state violence with the appearance of law and legitimacy. The City resorted to such extreme tactics because the formation of visibilized encampments in public parks was extra-capital, defying property relations and delegitimizing the state’s capitalist and settler-colonial foundations. Despite this, moments of possibility can be discerned from these extra-capital living formations and community mobilization against state violence, and these moments may have far-reaching implications for housing justice advocacy, and left organizing. The work was intended to contribute to socio-legal literatures on propertied urban citizenship and permanent displaceability, and to offer insights on the arbitrary and informal processes of illegalization that exclude unhoused dwellers from public space in cities of the Global North and the narratives used to justify them.

Farida Rady is a MES alumna researcher, writer, and artist. Rady's interests are centered on questions of agency in the city and extend to housing justice, migrations, memory, and counter-narratives. Rady explores these interests within the spectrum of academic and creative processes. The graduate work portfolio was conducted in the MES Planning Program under the supervision of Professor Luisa Sotomayor.