When virtual eviction hearings resumed last August at Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board after a 4 ½-month eviction moratorium, tenants realized that anyone with a link to a scheduled hearing could tune in. Shocking video recordings quickly emerged and went viral: One showed a hearing where a landlord attempted to negotiate with a child on behalf of her mother who couldn’t speak English; another showed a hearing ordering a deceased person to pay arrears.
The videos were shared by thousands of outraged Ontarians, and, besides raising awareness of Canada’s national eviction crisis, also helped build a movement to protect working-class tenants and stop dozens of evictions.
Of course, landlords couldn’t have that, and landlord-protecting politicians sprung into action.
Last month, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government proposed legislation that would allow the province to fine anyone who records or shares recordings of Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) hearings up to $25,000.
Tenant advocates say this new legislation is a concerted threat against the surge of tenant organizing.
“When the government moved evictions hearings online, it did so as part of a number of changes that it made, which have had the effect of speeding up the eviction process,” said Cole Webber, a community legal worker with Parkdale Community Legal Services, a neighbourhood organization rooted in anti-poverty and anti-oppression work. “The government is now attempting to enact measures which criminalize tenant organizing.”
“This was fine as long as it was only happening for a contained audience,” said Bryan Doherty, a tenant in south Parkdale, a historically working-class and low-income neighbourhood that is now the epicentre of gentrification in Toronto, and member of Parkdale Organize. “What they object to is the idea that that behaviour be exposed.”
MPP Prabmeet Singh Sarkaria, the associate minister of small business and red tape reduction who introduced the bill, did not respond to a request for comment.
Since his election in 2018, Ford has pursued a campaign of austerity and anti-worker measures in Ontario that has included funding cuts for workplace safety, healthcare research and public health, women’s shelters, and childcare—all long before COVID-19 made these and other areas even more critical. Instead, he’s approved projects that would benefit his corporate donors and “dismantled” environmental protections.
Tenants who spoke with VICE World News for this story said the new bill is just the latest in the Ford government’s prioritizing of landlord and business interests over tenant safety and housing. Despite announcing an eviction moratorium, Ford offered no financial support directly to struggling tenants. Once the moratorium was lifted, a record number of evictions were scheduled. According to the Advocacy Centre For Tenants Ontario, the board held more than 7,000 hearings in November alone, 96 percent of which were filings by landlords against tenants. Last year the province passed Bill 184, which in some cases would even allow landlords to evict tenants without a hearing.
Members of the provincial NDP, the Official Opposition party, including MPP Jessica Bell, organized a virtual town hall to push back against the proposed measures. “Recording Landlord Tenant Board hearings (are) permitted under the ‘open court’ principle because recordings ensure Ontarians get a fair hearing in our housing court,” Bell told VICE World News.
“Doug Ford has never made any secret of his agenda to help developers and corporate landlords, over renters. His reforms to the LTB are part of that agenda to help his wealthy donors,” Bell said.
Before the pandemic, hearings at the LTB fell under the open court principle, and members of the public could attend any hearing. But given the necessity of in-person attendance, the eviction process basically happens in secret, said Emina Gamulin, a tenant and organizer in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. “Your neighbour moves out one day. You don’t know why, and you don’t know what happens.”
The shift to online hearings has changed that, and inadvertently created a situation where tenants can protect one another by watching and documenting what happens. They can even interrupt hearings via speaking up, both anonymously and on the record, to defend people facing eviction.
“It’s not surprising that the moment people start to take control over it, there needs to be a smackdown saying, ‘That’s not how this works,’” said Samuel Nithiananthan, a member of People’s Defence Toronto, a working-class advocacy group. Nithiananthan has sat in on and intervened during hearings where landlords have attempted to negotiate with children. “There’s a visceral feeling you have of it,” he said. “Any working-class, racialized, immigrant kid could tell you the same thing, of having done that before at banks, at schools, with landlords.”
Nithiananthan said the videos and consciousness-raising are “brilliant... If we can save one person from being evicted just for a few months, that’s a victory. That’s the sad reality of it.”
Advocates say the proposed fines are also a threat to public information. Gamulin noted that journalists have relied on the video recordings to report on tenant struggle. When she called the LTB in December to ask how she could watch hearings, a representative told her that public viewership was not their priority.
“I was told (the priority) was to clear the backlog because during the time where they had the eviction moratorium, they had a hold on eviction hearings over unpaid rent,” said Gamulin. “The board is prioritizing pushing tenants out of their homes over having an open court process, which they’re supposed to have. But they obviously want it to stay a secret.”
A spokesperson for the LTB confirmed that between April 2020 and March 2021, the board conducted 24,946 hearings related to eviction applications, but that it “does not track hearing outcomes.”
The board’s prioritization of rushing eviction hearings has contributed to homelessness, which is “a fundamental component of what makes working-class Torontonians less healthy and less safe,” Doherty said. “That’s what the tribunal hearings expose. It’s not that they want to get $25,000 off some random. They want the information to stop getting out.”
Organizers and tenants said that while they’re unsure of how the bill will ultimately affect tenant organizing, the best response is to continue to grow awareness around and sharing of the LTB hearings.
“When people see what’s happening, they’re disgusted., They recoil and they say, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe I live in a place where this is happening,’” said Gamulin. “If a million people in Ontario decide to share that information, the government is going to have to change their course.”
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