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Ottawa Panhandlers Union

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The Ottawa Panhandlers Union was formed in early 2003. It is a shop of the Industrial Workers of the World, Ottawa-Outaouis General Members Board. Andrew Nellis is the lead organizer of the union and its current IWW delegate and spokesperson. All of the panhandlers' union dues are paid for by the Industrial Workers of the World through donations and various organized events.

The Panhandlers union is not a conventional labour union in the sense that its purpose is not to bargain with a third party for a collective contract and higher wages. This misconception has led to a great deal of ridicule including an attack against the group by the Ottawa Citizen which asked if the panhandlers were fighting for -- "wider sidewalks?" The union had a chance to respond to these accusations with their own op-ed piece, "Why Panhandlers Need a Union" which appeared in the newspaper on March 20 2006. The editorial was a collaborative piece written by several members of the IWW. It was credited to panhandler Proshanto Smith.

More recently the Panhandlers Union and its organizer Andrew Nellis were featured in a several page article in the Ottawa City Journal. The newspaper also interviewed panhandlers and the executive director of the Bank Street Business Improvement Area.[11]

The purpose of the union is intended to bring together panhandlers, street artists, buskers and any other street-affected person to lobby city hall. One of the aims was to create a counter-measure against some of the recent legislation which had been passed by Ottawa City Hall and by the Ontario government. [1] The organization was largely a collaborative effort by Andrew Nellis, Jane Scharf and other long time anti-poverty Ottawa activists.[2]

One of the main pieces of anti-panhandler legislature which helped inspired activists to form the Panhandler's Union was the Safe Streets Act. The other pieces of legislation have subsequently been introduced such as the Vending on Highways Law passed by Ottawa City Hall.

The union has continually stressed that its aim is to create an "entrepreneurial spirit" which aims to have panhandlers sell arts and crafts, books, compact discs or other donated material for money which they will use to support themselves.[3]

History of Union events[edit]

The Union has meetings with panhandlers once a month at a local community centre. Additionally, the union holds demonstrations, primarily in the summer when there is a peak in panhandling activity. Since its formation the union has also held an annual May Day Event in Ottawa.

The earliest action the Panhandlers Union participated in was the Homeless Action Strike in the summer of 2004. The strike was organized by Jane Scharf and other poverty activists. Anyone who wished to pitch a tent on City Hall property was welcomed to do so to bring attention to the issue of homelessness. The camp was eventually moved to the property of the Human Rights Monument which is separate from City Hall.

There were negotiations between the homeless, activists and then Mayor Bob Chiarelli but they did not result in any agreement. The mayor then threatened to shut down the camp. Jane Scharf was arrested shortly before the camp was completely shut down in the middle of the night by Ottawa Police.[4]One of the mayor's promises was the creation of a newspaper created and sold by homeless people. The newspaper prospect eventually fell apart under the new mayor and new city council which banned the selling of any goods on the street.[5]


On May 1, 2006, The Panhandlers Union organized a May Day protest to shut down Rideau Street. The action shut down Rideau Street in front of the Rideau Centre for more than one hour and was completely peaceful.[6]

The action targeted the Rideau Centre because of incidents of violence against the homeless by mall security. These incidents of violence included attacks against members of the union. Two of the incidents of the attacks against the homeless resulted in litigation. Rideau Centre eventually settled the suit for an undisclosed amount of money.

The direct action also targeted the Safe Streets Act which the Panhandlers Union has criticized for being Draconian legislature which unfairly targets the poor. It also targeted a by-law passed by Ottawa City Hall which outlawed selling newspapers on street corners [7]. Panhandlers and the homeless in Ottawa had been selling the alternative, Halifax-based Dominion Newspaper. New laws which came into effect on May 1 restricted this action.

On the same day several members of the Panhandlers Union occupied the Ottawa Police station on Elgin Street. The goal of the organizer was to assist people who would otherwise feel intimidated to fill out complaint forms against the police.

Video of the occupation of the Ottawa police station: [12] [13]

A June 1st 2006 protest included a mass panhandle. It protested Ottawa vending on highways by-law. The media picked up quotes by Nellis and the Panhandlers Union for that day's events -- "Ottawa's homeless say they will disrupt business in this city if business insists on disrupting our business".[8]

On July 1st 2006 as a continuation of the events on the first of every month the union organized a "No Justice No Peace" action. This action consisted of Panhandlers Union members and any other party interested in chalking "NJNP" on all the businesses located on Rideau Street. The Rideau Street Business Improvement Area (BIA) was just one group lobbying for the removal of panhandlers and the homeless from in front of their businesses. This action was meant to show that as long as it wasn't "business as usual" for the panhandlers, it would not be business as usual for the business owners. The event was largely successful as many of the "NJNP" chalkings were visible months after the event ended.


Another May Day event took place in 2007. This time the target was the Bank Street Business Improvement Area. The organizers felt the BIA was complicit in targeting the poor and lobbying City Hall for legislation they wished to see pass. A rally was held outside of the BIA offices and anyone was allowed to speak to the issue of panhandling and poverty in Ottawa.

Emotions were high during the protest because of recent comments made by Mayor Larry O'Brien comparing panhandlers to pigeons. O'Brien commented that if people stopped "feeding them" the panhandlers would go away. The response by the union was to egg the offices of the Bank Street BIA. Organizers of the event said this was done because it's the exact behaviour to be expected by pigeons.[9]


On May Day 2008 Nellis was arrested while trying to cut a lock in an underpass (See section: Andrew Nellis Arrest)


The events of May Day 2009 were a disappointment for the OPU. The union and its members attempted to burn Mayor Larry O'Brien in effigy in front of his condo on Rideau Street. The effigy was doused with lighter fluid. When protesters attempted to set it ablaze, the Ottawa Police force swept in, captured the mayor's effigy, and refused to return it. The day ended with a short march to Parliament Hill.

Wikipedia Incident[edit]

The Wikipedia article on the Ottawa Panhandlers Union was deleted in November 2007. This event happened after the article had been sabotaged several times by someone with an IP address inside the city of Ottawa who inserted degrading comments about Nellis "needing a life". When the article was nominated for deletion, someone impersonated panhandler Proshanto Smith and sabotaged the nomination by expressing how he had broken the rules by voting several times to keep the article. Proshanto Smith was homeless at the time and did not have access to a computer. Whomever impersonated Smith knew a great deal about him including the fact that he had Hepatitis.

Andrew Nellis Arrest[edit]

Andrew Nellis was arrested on April 30th 2008, the day before the annual May Day march by the IWW and Ottawa Panhandlers Union. Nellis was allegedly caught by police trying to cut a lock on a gate in the pedestrian underpass close to the Rideau Centre. The gate had been recently put up by the City of Ottawa to prevent homeless people from sitting or sleeping under the bridge.

Nellis was first held at the Elgin Police Station but was transferred to the Innes Road Prison facility on the Friday after his arrest. He stayed with the general population. During his time in jail, Nellis began organizing his fellow inmates and generally caused trouble with the guards and warden.

When Nellis appeared in court on Elgin Street on May 1st 2008 an anarchist group stormed the court and chanted "Andrew Nellis under attack. What do we do? Stand up, fight back!" The group was made up of fellow Wobblies, members of People's Global Action Bloc -Ottawa, and other Ottawa anarchists and activists.

Nellis was released from jail 5 days later. The charges against him by the Crown Attorney have since been dropped.

Laws and the Panhandlers Union[edit]

By-Law No. 2005 - 358:

This is a by-law which was passed by Ottawa city hall which restricts vending on "highways". Critics of the by-law argue that "highway" in this case is a misnomer as the law in this case defines "highway" as "a common and public highway, and includes any bridge, trestle, viaduct, or other structure forming part of the highway and, except as otherwise provided, includes a portion of a highway."

The by-law was passed August 24 2005 without any public consultation. [10]

The by-law prohibits selling of arts and crafts, flowers, street newspapers as well as prohibiting busking and street theatre. Oddly, the selling of newspapers by homeless was one of the agreements made with Ottawa's homeless after the Homeless Action Strike on City Hall. [11] The Homeless Action Strike was a political action by Ottawa's homeless whereby 15 homeless strikers camped out at the Ottawa City Hall for more than 55 days and struck a deal with the mayor for a task force on homelessness and the safe streets act before it was shut down with police violence on August 27, 2004.

The Homeless Action Strike attempted to protest the pending Vending on Highways bylaw on July 1, 2005 with a protest at City Hall. One organizer Jane Scharf was arrested for mischief and trespassing and issued two bylaw infractions within two hours after the protest was set up. She was arrested despite the fact that she was engaged in a peaceful non obstructive protest at City Hall. She was held in jail for 6 hours and all the protest property was confiscated. Upon release she was issued a trespassing ticket and threatened with arrest if she returned to City Hall before the Vending on Highways bylaw was due to be passed at the end of August.

The criminalization of panhandlers under the Safe Streets Act continues including the overzealous application of this act in Ottawa and the Vending on Highways Bylaw still prevails.

Safe Streets Act:

The Safe Streets Act was a law passed by the former Conservative government of Mike Harris in 1999. It applies to all of Ontario. The act aims to stop "aggressive" panhandling but the law is seen by its opponents as vague in what it defines as "aggressive" panhandling. The law states that "aggressive" means "a manner that is likely to cause a reasonable person to be concerned for his or her safety or security." Critics of the law believe this is vague because not all people may feel threatened by the same situations. Some "reasonable" people feel threatened by merely being solicited by a panhandler for spare change while others have no problem with stopping to give a panhandler money. The Panhandlers' Union feels that the Safe Streets Act aims not to curb aggressive panhandling but to eliminate all panhandling whether it is aggressive or passive.

In Ottawa, panhandlers in the Panhandlers Union have been able to respond to the alleged harassment by the Ottawa Police by keeping a copy of the Safe Street Act and showing it to police to prove they are not in violation of the law. Nevertheless, panhandlers find themselves having to pay tickets which they cannot afford.

The act of panhandling does apply to panhandlers but not to local or national charities who campaign at different times of the year for donations. The organizers of the Panhandlers Union have expressed that this is proof that these laws are classist.

It is not unusual for panhandlers in Ottawa to have dozens of tickets because of the Safe Streets Act. The Ticket Defense Program[12] was formed in response; social activists attempt to have fines against panhandlers dropped. The program has been largely successful in the cities where it has been implemented.


Andrew Nellis

Andrew Nellis is the current delegate for the IWW. Andrew was one of the original activists who encouraged the panhandlers to unionize. Nellis himself spent more than one year travelling across Canada while homeless. Nellis has represented the Panhandlers Union in print, on radio and on television. A radio interview with Andrew Nellis on the CHUO program The 5 O'Clock Train: [14] Jane Scharf, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Ottawa in the 2006 municipal election, is a former organizer in the Ottawa Panhandlers Union. Proshanto Smith (Turtle) has played an important role in organizing panhandlers from the street level.

External links[edit]


  2. The Dominion[2]
  3. The Dominion [3]
  4. [4]
  5. Dominion Newspaper [5]
  6. Kill Everything Blog [6]
  7. City of Ottawa [7]
  8. Leaflet from the June 1st protest
  9. Metro News Ottawa [8]
  10. Action Forum [9]
  11. The Dominion: [10]
  12. Ticket Defence Program