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Portrait of a poverty pimp

by Judi McLeod, Editor
August 17, 1999

It's 5:30 a.m., on an overcast Tuesday, Aug. 10. All is quiet in the house at 93 Hart Ave. in Scarborough's Eglinton/Kennedy area. No other media is parked in front of the address, which some claim is "safeguarded like a state secret." At twenty to six, a woman emerges from the bungalow to walk a dog. Just minutes before 6 a.m., a man comes streaking out of the house, jumps into a red Honda parked in the driveway, starts the ignition and races off. The man is John Clarke, head of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), the organizing group behind the recent occupation of Allan Gardens. Hellbent for leather to reach Allan Gardens, Clarke later tells Toronto Free Press that he was responding to a cell telephone call alerting him to the pre-dawn, 90-officer police raid that took OCAP activists by surprise at the park.

At 3 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 7, day one of the Allan Gardens OCAP occupation, a few people are mulling over the goods on display in a yard sale at the driveway of 93 Hart Ave. At the downtown park, Clarke is overseeing the unrolling of new bedding in preparation for the first of three overnight sleepouts at the park. Wearing union t-shirts, his helpers are unfurling the signs of various trade unions, while others mark off the camp area with yellow police tape. People begin lining up for supper, a fish fry.

"You can come back tomorrow morning or any other day. We'll be here until mid-October."
--OCAP's Bob Olsen

According to media releases, OCAP staged the occupation to protest the lack of services for Toronto's homeless.

Police line the periphery of the park. City of Toronto Parks and Recreation staff maintain an almost ghostly presence. A few disgruntled neighbours can be heard grousing from the park's benches. Dog owners are being pulled along by their pooches. When the first plaintive notes of an aboriginal singer float over Allan Gardens, the park takes on the laid-back air of Woodstock.

Toronto Free Press (TFP) columnist, criminal and immigration lawyer Arthur Weinreb, editor Judi McLeod and photographer Brian Thompson are taking a stroll through the park. We notice that no one looks all that hungry in the fish fry lineup. Some queuing up for grub sport expensive sandals and backpacks. We see very few people who could be seriously taken as homeless. When someone quips the "almost like Woodstock" remark, a man who introduces himself as a Toronto Beach resident walking a standard poodle jokes, "make that Bumstock."

On the way back to the office, we circle the park. In front of Seaton House, we see some homeless men sitting out front, and can't help but wonder why they aren't over in the food line-up at the park. The two or three men have an air of despair and we decide that taking their photographs would be exploitive.

8:30 p.m., Monday, Aug. 9 finds McLeod and a couple of private detectives back at the park. TFP is looking for John Clarke. Bob Olsen, who seems to be in charge, says that Clarke has left for the night.

"Give him a break. He did 100 media interviews today," says Olsen when asked when Clarke is expected to return. "You can come back tomorrow morning or any other day. We’ll be here until mid-October."

But before sunrise the next morning, the police move in, and by the time Clarke reaches Allan Gardens, the occupation is over.

"We stood them (the police) off for two nights," said Clarke when we finally caught up with him by telephone.

"I'm not trying to present myself as noble, but for more than 40 hours I was catching only snatches of sleep on the ground," he said in defense of his absence from the park during the police raid.

Clarke said organizers of the park occupation had decided on Monday night to divide into shifts. "It just so happened that it was my turn to get away."

Disagreeing with most media accounts that the Allan Gardens OCAP occupation did nothing to help the homeless, Clarke argued "what we did was enormously important.

"The incredible animosity that we generated reached the level of resistance."

Impervious to media criticism that his group exploits the homeless, he said OCAP had triumphed over "setbacks in the past"; that this event was no different than any other and vowed that OCAP would be meeting later that very day to work out its next strategy.

"We clearly touched a raw nerve because we stand in the way of an agenda driven by the most powerful of interests to redevelop the central part of the city along the lines of New York City."

On average, Clarke, who organized a tent city at the base of Toronto’s CN Tower in 1991, said he found the media treatment of OCAP's occupation of Allan Gardens as "pretty despicable".

Saying that he "generally supported the views of Noam Chomsky" as far as the media is concerned, he said that media outlets like the Globe & Mail, which he said wrote stories indicating that people in Allan Gardens were urinating on the steps of a park building, could be likened "to what used to be called yellow journalism in the 1930s."

Over the telephone, Clarke who sometimes employs the guerrilla tactics of a firebrand ideologue, was polite even though he was aware he was being interviewed by a news publication he considers to be "right wing."

The public has seen and heard hundreds of references to Clarke in the mainline media, but who is he?

Born in London England, on May 16, 1954, John Ronald Clarke came up through the ranks of the unemployed workers union.

With a penchant for picketing the homes of perceived Yuppie enemies, the location of his own digs has been safeguarded. Clarke is the father of a 12-year-old and a 16-month-old son.

"“I'm not myself a homeless person," he says, adding that the house at 93 Hart is a rental.

Clarke says he lives on "about $20,000 a year" from a salary paid by his organization from trade union donations. Although he denies getting money from any other source, he worked as a part-time Loblaws meat cutter in 1995.

He had no comment to make about raising a family on $20,000 a year and indicated he is committed to privacy for his family life. The car in which he raced off to Allan Gardens is registered to Debra Phelps, who lives with him at the Hart Ave. address. There have been no vehicles registered in Clarke's name since 1986, when he drove a 1980 Lada.

Ironically, it is not only trade unions which support OCAP. In 1995, Trillium funded the group which led the charge on the barricades at Queen's Park, resulting in a mini riot, to the tune of $9,500, ostensibly to "conduct a series of consultations across Ontario in order to identify systemic barriers faced by poor people."

When told by TFP that he is defined in some quarters as an "independent Marxist", he answered, with no hesitation, "I am freely and proudly a socialist." When asked if OCAP could be considered a radical Marxist group, he replied: "I think we're forming a very radical alternative to the tea and cucumber sandwich type of those in power who have achieved a big fat nothing for centuries."

If Clarke considers himself as a socialist rather than Marxist, he has lectured at the Marxist Institute and is on the public record for saying that "private property is an obstacle to social justice."

As provincial organizer for OCAP he follows in the shoes of some decided marxists.

Communist David Kidd was a spokesman for the union-funded OCAP in 1993, followed by Aprille Rhomer who once threatened to organize squeegee kids and panhandlers, promising, "...we’ll shut down every tourist attraction in this city..."

Clarke certainly sounded Marxist when OCAP was participating in the Metro Days of Action Protest of 1996. Writing in Socialist Resistance, Clarke predicted: "The Toronto shutdown will take the fight against the Tories to a new level and present a magnificent manifestation of working class power."

Still not all decry the guerrilla tactics of OCAP's passionate idealogue John Clarke. CUPE Ontario's Sid Ryan, who appeared with TFP editor Judi McLeod on Michael Coren Live earlier this month said, "John does go over the wall some times, but he's one of our hardest workers and most effective organizers."

Canada Free Press founding editor Most recent by Judi McLeod is an award-winning journalist with 30 years experience in the print media. Her work has appeared on, Drudge Report,, Glenn Beck. Judi can be reached at:

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