JOHN CLARKE LOVES A GOOD FIGHT. He became famous for it in Ontario. But the man who founded and led the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) for 28 years is ready for a rest. OCAP won’t be the same without him.
John Clarke was never ready to give a’ inch. The power elites hated him for it. Many fellow social justice fighters loved him for it. Some others, loved his message but questioned the wisdom of his methods. Regardless. No one ever questioned John’s commitment to the fight to end poverty.
Love him or hate him, there is no doubt John made his mark in the world of Ontario politics and anti-poverty activism. John’s way to get action was, more often than not, to make a scene. He didn’t want to make friends. He wanted to end poverty.
People have a right to be angry
John was once arrested for “inciting a riot” at an anti-poverty demonstration in Toronto. Well-known writer and activist Naomi Klein wrote that John’s real “crime” was refusing to play nice.
In a June 2000 column in the Globe and Mail she wrote how Clarke refused to: ... clean up poverty for the benefit of cameras and politicians. The Coalition doesn’t ask its members to abide by the genteel protocols of polite protest. And it doesn’t tell angry people they shouldn’t be angry, especially when confronted by some of the very same police officers who beat them in back alleys or the politicians who write laws that cost them their homes.”
John’s “take no prisoners” attitude made him one of the most influential anti-poverty activists Ontario. He had a hand in every major anti-austerity demonstration since 1990—making the news time and again for his aggressive anti-capitalist standpoint.
Putting the action back into activism
The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) is not a charity in the usual sense. It is not interested in finding a pleasant, non-threatening way to pursue social and economic justice. It is a direct-action anti-poverty organization. It’s goal is to mobilize the poor to speak and act for themselves to bring change. OCAP doesn’t shy away from a fight. They are always ready to go “all in.”
Rather than just organizing campaigns and demonstrations, OCAP provides case-based activism that helps real people find the information needed to access government social assistance programs that are muddied with bureaucracy. Their campaigns are dedicated to helping everyday people fight back against government oppression toward the homeless, minimum wage workers, Ontario Disability Support Program recipients, Indigenous people and many more.
A hard man to silence
John showed his deep dedication to ending poverty in Ontario on June 15, 2000, when he lead 1,000 people in a march on the Ontario legislature in a demonstration calling out the provincial government on the abandonment of the homeless.
The demonstration turned violent and resulted in what the media called “the Queens Park Riot.” Clarke was arrested and charged for the role he played. His bail conditions required him to stay away from all OCAP activities and members. That didn’t stop him.
Despite the government’s attempt, Clarke wasn’t silenced, he argued the bail conditions violated his constitutional rights. Social justice advocates, union leaders and concerned citizens showed up at his hearing to show their support for John and OCAP.
Peter Rosenthal, a Toronto lawyer who occasionally defends coalition activists in court, said in defence of Clarke that his charges had more to do with silencing political comment than keeping law and order.
John Clarke may no longer be found on the front lines of the anti-poverty fight, but his relentless, life-long commitment to fighting that good fight will forever be an example to all of us in that fight.
This article was originally published by The Canadian Labour Institute.
Reprinted with permission for CALM Members use.