Half of those arrested in tense Halifax housing protest no longer facing charges

HALIFAX — Carmel Farahbakhsh says that when she headed to a Halifax demonstration last August to protest the city's decision to tear down temporary housing for the homeless, she was expecting to peacefully make her point.

Instead, the 29-year-old said she was shoved into a police vehicle, suffered a concussion and was charged with resisting arrest and obstruction — sending her into a four-month legal ordeal before the Crown dropped the case Jan. 26. 

Farahbakhsh is one of 12 people out of 26 who have had their charges from the protest withdrawn or dismissed. Another three people's cases have been sent to restorative justice.

Ten months after the protest, Farahbakhsh says she is still angry for going through what many protesters in Canada experience — being charged by police and thrust into legal cases that don't meet the Crown's standards for prosecution.

"It was one of the scariest experiences of my adult life," Farahbakhsh said in a recent interview about her hours in custody. "There was no communication to me about what my charges were. I wasn't told why I was being held. I was suffering from an injury (a concussion), and there was no care or attention to the injury."

The charges against Farahbakhsh and others who attended the protest resulted from a demonstration that began the morning of Aug. 18, after police were told by the city to clear public grounds of tents and temporary wooden shelters built by advocacy groups for the homeless.

The grounds in front of the former Halifax public library in the city's downtown filled with demonstrators. Clashes broke out between police and demonstrators on streets lined with shops and cafes, and protesters were sprayed in the face with chemical irritants.

Police issued a release later that day announcing the arrests, with the chief stating officers "were in a very complex and difficult situation and responded to the best of their abilities with what they had under the circumstances."

However, defence lawyer Asaf Rashid, who has represented most of those charged in the Halifax demonstration — 11 of his clients have had their charges withdrawn or dismissed — says he'll fight six upcoming cases with constitutional arguments. His clients' charges include obstruction of justice, resisting arrest, and assault of a police officer.

"What was the point of all those arrests and all of that money and time going into that?" Rashid said in a recent interview. "That raises questions to me about why that happened."

Rashid points to Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees "security of the person," as grounds to invalidate the city's order to destroy temporary wooden shelters erected on municipal land.

"People who were staying there had nowhere else to go, so it raises the issue of whether their fundamental rights to security of the person were violated, therefore making the police actions that day unlawful," Rashid said. 

Farahbakhsh said she didn't expect to be involved in clashes when she attended the rally, adding that she wanted to support LGBTQ youth she counselled, who she said were struggling to find housing. Farahbakhsh said she was detained from about noon until about 9 p.m. that night at the police lockup. 

After learning her charges would be dropped in January, Farahbakhsh said she felt a sense of relief, but it was accompanied by a sense of "anger for time stolen from me."

Some Canadian defence lawyers say the events in Halifax reflect a trend across the country: municipalities and police forces are resorting to heavy-handed tactics rather than assisting the homeless in finding shelter other than on public land.

Sima Atri, co-director of the Community Justice Collective in Toronto, said in an email that last July, large numbers of people were detained during a protest against the clearing of a homeless encampment at the city's Allan A. Lamport Stadium. Few charges proceeded to court.

"The way the police and city responded to Lamport Stadium is just another example of … excessive resources and force used against people standing up and protesting, especially around issues of housing and police," she wrote.

Halifax police spokesman Const. John MacLeod said in an email, "As with any case we lay … we believe to be the appropriate charges based on the investigation and evidence and then bring the matter before the courts."

Ryan Nearing, a spokesman for the City of Halifax, said that while the province is the lead agency charged with addressing housing, the city has provided support that has included purchasing and installing modular units to accommodate 64 people. Nearing said the city is also letting provincially funded agencies use city facilities as temporary shelters, adding that Halifax has approved $70,000 to a coalition of 11 community service providers to fund hotel stays to support homeless people.

Farahbakhsh said she remains distrustful of the intentions of police, as well as provincial and municipal governments, in the wake of her rough arrest and her first encounter with the criminal justice system.

"It shows me they're not invested in processes of community repair or reparation," she said. "It shows me a lack of commitment to these promises."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 13, 2022.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press