In the notice, Timbercreek Communities and its parent company Timbercreek Asset Management (TCOM) accuse members of the Herongate Tenant Coalition of libel for making social media posts that “contain numerous false, misleading, inaccurate, and highly defamatory statements about the character and business of TCOM and its employees, which has resulted in damages to TCOM and its employees.”

Timbercreek announced in May that the low-rent townhomes “within the borders of Heron Road, Baycrest Drive and Sandalwood Drive have reached the end of their lifecycle,” and would be demolished. Residents were given until Sept. 30 to vacate.

“Forced evictions are considered a gross violation of human rights.”

Heron Gate is one of Ottawa’s most diverse neighbourhoods. According to the Herongate Tenant Coalition, of more than 400 people facing eviction, 89 per cent are people of colour, with more than two-thirds Somali or Arab. Nearly half are children.

The coalition’s data comes from 79 occupied homes, and it estimates that accounting for all 105 occupied homes would result in about 570 residents.

The coalition calls this “the largest mass eviction in Canada.”

‘Attempting to consume all our resources’

The Herongate Tenant Coalition was served the cease and desist notice on July 9 by multinational law firm Gowling WLG.

Josh Hawley, one of the coalition members named in the notice, believes that it was issued as a scare tactic to fight the working-class people of Heron Gate.

“They are attempting to consume all our resources by fighting some BS claim of defamation,” he says.

The notice contains several quotes from social media and website posts raising issues such as racism in relation to the actions of Timbercreek. Most of the quoted posts were not made directly by the Herongate Tenant Coalition, but the cease and desist notice claims that the coalition is liable for sharing the statements.

‘Never a complaint in my file’

Ikram Dahir has lived in Heron Gate for more than 25 years. She currently resides in a Timbercreek-managed high-rise building with her husband and 20-month-old son. Her parents live in one of the Timbercreek townhomes, and their eviction prompted her to get involved with the Herongate Tenant Coalition.

She is also named in the notice.

Ikram Dahir has been advocating for her parents, who are among the residents being evicted by Timbercreek. She is also active with the Herongate Tenant Coalition. She believes that Timbercreek has targeted her because of her organizing.

Neal Rockwell

According to Dahir, she filled out work orders on behalf of her parents, but Timbercreek did not heed these requests for repairs and she had to go to the City. Then she received a letter warning her of eviction from her own place, allegedly due to items being thrown off her balcony on a date when she and her family were out of town.

“I have lived in the high-rises for five years, and there was never a complaint in my file,” says Dahir.

“Timbercreek is targeting me and looking for reasons to evict me since organizing with the Herongate Tenant Coalition.”

Neither Hawley nor Dahir are quoted in the notice’s list of allegedly defamatory statements.

Sowing doubt

Hawley has been an outspoken critic of the eviction and was previously named in a letter sent to Heron Gate residents by Timbercreek, in which the coalition was accused of obstructing the relocation process.

In the June 28 letter, Timbercreek’s director of operations, John Loubser, acknowledged that the eviction process “is very stressful and we understand that you may not want to move.” He also said that it “appears that some of you are being misled by Josh Hawley (who does not live in Heron Gate) and the Herongate Tenant Coalition.” Hawley’s name appears in bold in the original.

In what seems to be a precursor to the cease and desist notice, Loubser added, “We have made several attempts to communicate with the Herongate Tenant Coalition and have asked that Josh and others stop misleading tenants; we will continue in those efforts.”

Hawley disputes those claims, saying that Loubser has never explained how Herongate residents are being “misled,” or reached out to talk with him.

“What I believe he is doing is trying to sow doubt in tenants’ minds about us,” says Hawley. “But we are constantly talking with neighbours and know that absolutely nobody trusts Timbercreek.”

Human rights issue

Loubser did not respond to a request for comment by publication time. In the June 28 letter to residents, he urged them to move out sooner rather than later, as there would be more rentals available in the summer, and to seek independent legal advice.

Timbercreek’s aim is to “to help the area become a premium, active adult-oriented rental community meant to offer resort-style living.”

According to resources provided by Community Legal Education Ontario, residents can refuse to move out if they disagree with the eviction. The landlord can then apply to the Landlord and Tenant Board for an eviction order, and tenants may be able to qualify for “relief from eviction.”

The Herongate mass eviction is more than a local issue of affordable housing and gentrification. UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Leilani Farha considers it to be a human rights violation.

“Forced evictions are considered a gross violation of human rights,” said Farha at a recent meeting with Herongate residents, which was recorded by journalist Neal Rockwell for GroundWire. “There is a responsibility on the part of government to make sure that every alternative to the eviction is explored.”

Revitalization vs. gentrification

Timbercreek Asset Management, the multibillion-dollar real estate giant that owns Timbercreek Communities, owns about 23 hectares of low-income housing, home to some 4,000 residents, in Heron Gate.

Under Timbercreek, the neighbourhood is changing.

The Herongate Tenant Coalition alleges that Timbercreek (and its predecessor Transglobe, which bought the property from Minto in 2007 before selling to Timbercreek in 2013) has purposefully neglected the property and refused to do maintenance work.

In 2016, the company evicted families from 80 townhouses and demolished the buildings, citing structural problems and replacing the units with luxury high-rises.

Timbercreek’s aim is to “to help the area become a premium, active adult-oriented rental community meant to offer resort-style living,” according to Real Estate News EXchange.

Real estate developers refer to such efforts as revitalization. The Herongate Tenant Coalition says it is gentrification.

“Nowhere in their plan does the word ‘affordable’ appear,” Hawley says, referring to Timbercreek’s July 2016 design brief.

For those already living there, with scarce options for affordable family accommodation in Ottawa’s tight rental market, Heron Gate is home. Residents are now taking a stand to prevent displacement, gentrification and the fracturing of the community.

Update, July 24, 2018: The Herongate Tenant Coalition’s estimate of about 570 total residents facing eviction was added for clarification.