Trial of demonstrator involved in 2021 Halifax housing protest hears from police
Halifax police officers testified Tuesday that a 26-year-old woman pulled off one constable's medical mask and kicked two other officers as city workers removed a shelter for the homeless.
Defence lawyer Asaf Rashid said the case against Natasha Danais is the first of four scheduled trials related to the Aug. 18, 2021, demonstration in front of the former Halifax public library. About two dozen people were arrested during that protest, which saw police pepper-spray some demonstrators. There were also scenes of chaotic pushing, with water bottles hurled toward police.
Danais is facing one charge of obstructing police and three charges of assaulting officers in the trial before provincial court Judge Kelly Serbu.
The protest erupted the day after the election of Premier Tim Houston's Progressive Conservative government, as the issue of low-income housing shortages was heating up in the city. City council had recently adopted a bylaw ordering the removal of tents and sheds that had been popping up around Halifax to shelter homeless people.
Teams of municipal workers had arrived at the scene on Aug. 18, 2021, to dismantle temporary wooden shelters that been erected in front of the former city library.
Video presented in court Tuesday showed police forming a semicircle around the workers to protect them, as housing-rights protesters tried to prevent one of the shelters from being carried on a Bobcat loader to a waiting tractor-trailer. Cries of "hold the line!" and "move back!" could be heard on the video from police, along with chants of "Shame, shame" from the protesters as they pushed back.
Prosecutor Michael Coady called Halifax police Const. Conor Gillam, who had been among the officers trying to fend off the protesters in the park, to describe his arrest of Danais. Gillam testified that he was facing Danais when she pulled off his mask.
"At a point when we stopped moving and held our spot, she had grabbed onto my face mask that I was wearing and threw it off and stomped on it and proceeded to yell at me to 'put my mask back on,'" he told the court. He said Danais fell behind the police line amid the pushing, and at that point he was ordered to arrest her for obstruction.
He said he saw Danais's head bang against a police vehicle as she was being placed inside by two officers but added he couldn't see exactly how that happened.
During cross-examination, Gillam said he could not see Danais on the video grabbing his mask, but the officer said he believes she was the person who pulled it off him.
Later on Tuesday, Const. Chris DeLong testified that Danais kicked him in the thigh after she fell through the police line and landed on her back. He said he had a bruise about 13 centimetres in diameter the next day.
However, Rashid asked DeLong why video presented in court appeared to show him kicking Danais earlier in the protest, while she was on her feet, standing before him. The officer denied he kicked her; he said he was raising his knee upward in self-defence.
"If I had wanted to kick her it would have looked different than that," he told the defence lawyer.
Rashid suggested that video showed DeLong's left hand on Danais's throat as officers pushed the protesters back. The officer replied, "Definitely, I was pushing her back, yes," but DeLong didn't agree he was pushing on her throat.
In afternoon testimony,Const. Brian Palmeter — who had been standing behind the police line during the protest — told the court Danais had kicked him multiple times on his legs as she lay on her back, adding that one of her kicks aggravated an existing knee cartilage injury.
The court also heard testimony from Const. Amy Edwards, who dealt with Danais at the police station lockup. Edwards said she refused Danais's request for a blanket because the policy had been to reserve blankets for detainees who would be staying overnight, adding she thought Danais and other protesters would be released that day.
Edwards said there were delays in allowing the arrested protesters to use the sole telephone available to call a lawyer because police wanted to avoid interactions among the detainees.
Rashid is arguing for a stay of proceedings based on police treatment of his client during and following her arrest, saying she wasn't given proper access to legal advice.
The case is set to continue Wednesday with a Crown witness and one defence witness.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2023.
Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press