Protester challenges very essence of community

Tavis Ford has been there since the beginning. Reporter Gordo Williamson visited him several times to uncover what makes Tavis tick.

Speaking out: An early introduction

Born in South Africa, in 1970, Tavis Ford came to North Vancouver when he was about four years old. In South Africa, Tavis says his grandfather, Leonard Povall, protested apartheid.

As Tavis tells it, the South African government harassed his grandfather mainly through unexpected “knocks on the door in the middle of the night, saying shut your mouth. “

Tavis says his grandfather eventually left South Africa, not because of discrimination, or threats, but to reunite with his family in Canada.

He continued to say that his grandfather then lobbied the Canadian government to pressure South Africa to end apartheid.

Povall died when Tavis was about 30 years old, shortly before Tavis became involved with Greenpeace, an environmental activist group.

After his grandfather died, Tavis visited his childhood home in North Vancouver.

Tavis Ford has been involved with several protest movements in the past, something that apparently runs in his family.

Photo by: Gordo Williamson“I went home and found the same books that I would’ve been reading. I can’t believe it took 30 freak’n years,” says Tavis, wishing he had tapped into his family’s protesting roots while his grandfather was still alive. Tavis had a typical relationship with his grandfather, but didn’t realize the extent of their common interests until it was too late.

A different career path: “Change-making”

Tavis began his activist career in 2006 with Greenpeace, and helped form a local Alberta chapter. His involvement however, didn’t heat up till later in 2011.

It started with protesting against Shell Oil’s involvement in the oilsands. The protesters chained themselves to their vehicles and equipment, shutting down Shell’s operations for 32 hours, says Tavis.

The second “directable action,” as Tavis puts it, was with Syncrude Oil where he was charged and convicted with mischief.

The third was in Fort Saskatchewan, and the latest incident was in Ottawa, where Tavis was arrested again for protesting the Keystone Pipeline.

Now, he’s one of the 20 or so protesters who sleeps at Occupy Calgary camp downtown. According to Tavis, there are about 50 people in total who are regular members of the movement. This includes people who show up, day or night, to lend support to the camp.

While most in the Occupy Calgary movement are in their early to late 20s, Tavis is 40-years-old. Before joining the Occupy camp in mid-October, he says he had just been hired on as an “IT guy” for an environmental think tank, having passed his 90-day probation period.

So how does a guy decide to shack up in a tent for the long haul? What led him to this? To find out, I ask Tavis to back-up about 15 years.

Living in the burbs

When asked about his whether or not he was prepared to endure the Occupy Calgary protest, Tavis says, “I don’t know if I came in ready for this one, and who does?”

Photo by: Gordo WilliamsonTavis came with his common law wife of 13 years to Calgary back in ’96, where they first settled into an apartment to “accumulate stuff” as Tavis puts it. From there, they then bought a house in McKenzie Towne, located in the southeast of the city. They lived there for about 10 years, but he says they never really felt part of the community.

Being as they “never had a SUV, kids, or a Bar-B-Q,” Tavis says he never understood the attraction of owning their home in a nice part of town in a community they hardly knew, and hardly knew them.

“Living in the suburbs I felt isolated and useless,” says Tavis. He and his girlfriend were away from their friends and family from North Vancouver. In 10 years, they ran into their neighbours twice at the mall or the grocery store, Tavis points out.

Tavis adds he and his wife never felt connected with the people around them, and that keeping up with the Jones wasn’t for them. In order to make mortgage payments, Tavis says he worked 15 hours a day as computer store manager, and his wife needed to work two jobs.

The turning point: Priorities change

After he and his wife went their separate ways, Tavis says his relationship with his new girlfriend was affected again by his passion for protesting.

Tavis got involved with Greenpeace, and his involvement soon became priority over his job, his house, and his girlfriend. Eventually, his new career as an activist wore down their relationship.

“My fight wasn’t her fight,” explains Tavis. “My focus wasn’t getting more money or a career, it was on change making and organizing.”

Upon his return from protesting the Keystone Pipeline in Ottawa earlier this year, Tavis says his long-term girlfriend broke up with him. He admits that the “activist lifestyle” was hard on their relationship.

From the dog house to the ‘Purple House’

In November of 2009, Tavis moved from the burbs to the Purple House, a unique and unconventional living situation. Referred to as a “collectivist house” with four other protesters in Sunnyside, the house was modeled after one in Edmonton.

The goal was to have an “external focus”, meaning the members had to interact with the community and live a lifestyle of a protester.

“This is where I came to understand community as an actual thing, not just a word.”

– Tavis Ford, Occupy Calgary protesterThe house became well known in protester circles, and was “above ground” as Tavis calls it, pointing to the Facebook page as evidence of its openness. The house, which he and others called “The Purple Revolution” had become a hub in the protester community.

They offered a couch to protesters passing through town, they held potluck dinners, created community gardens, and networked with other protesters. They had 200 “orbits,” Tavis explains. These orbits were other protesters who where involved with the house in one way or another.

Their reasoning was that if each house could summon the same amount of orbits, their network’s influence would multiply accordingly. To Tavis, this is what the notion of community is all about. He says it’s about a living entity, where those who live in it are in full participation in the community’s actions.

Redefining community

“This is where I came to understand community as an actual thing, not just a word,” says Tavis.

One outreach activity organized by Tavis and others was known as SPARKS, short for spontaneous parks. This is where they would set up a couch, a stereo, and serve food in an abandoned lot or a parking lot, in either Kensington, or along 17th Avenue in the city’s southwest. Each SPARK would last approximately 36  hours, from Saturday morning , to Sunday evening.

The idea was to utilize un-used space, and make it a place where people would spontaneously gather and talk. Beyond that, they wanted to end isolation that they felt everyone might be living though.

It was about “changing energy on the street,” Tavis says. “And people got it, in five minutes!” He added they weren’t there to sell people stuff and admired the way different walks of life came together and socialized. From the drunken people coming out the bar, to passers-by, everyone seemed to get along.

“It’s so simple really — have a couch, share food, music, and talk and look what comes of it.”

Tavis today

It’s already been a month and a half since Occupy Calgary protestors, including Tavis, decided to camp out at Olympic Plaza. In late November, city bylaw officers, along with police, came in the middle of the night to clear out un-occupied tents.

“It reaffirmed our commitment to what we were doing,” says Tavis, pointing out that even though they lost more than 30 tents, the core group of Occupy Calgary will not be deterred from the mission of changing the world.

However, they were affected. “It was also dramatic and saddening to what we’re doing” says Tavis. “They (the officers) were supposed to look after us and protect us, instead, being asked to dismantle it (Olympic Plaza) and for what?”

Although the movement has been criticized for being aimless, and has been looked upon with ridicule, Tavis says he’s pleased there are groups out there who support them.

Tavis says they have received donations of food and blankets from various churches, and unions.

But Tavis admits, over time, the criticism from the wider community has affected the movement’s moral.

Protester Tavis Ford is redefining what community means to him through his involvement with Occupy Calgary.

Photo by: Gordo Williamson“It’s as much just an inner journey as it is an outward one,” says Tavis when speaking about the pressures he endures in Olympic Plaza. “Strength comes from faith, not to get caught up with ego, greed, or vice.”

When asked what would be his breaking point, the point where he packs up his tents and goes home, Tavis refuses to speculate.

As for his IT job, Tavis says his organization has been supportive of his endeavours at Occupy Calgary and have given him a leave of absence.

But he’s not too sure about where he will live.

Recently, the owner of the purple house has sold the Sunnyside home, leaving Tavis and his roommates looking for another place to live. They have until Jan. 31 to find a new place to call home.

The notions of home and community reflect the reality that Tavis sees around him. He felt isolated in McKenzie Towne but his Purple House made him feel alive — there was always something going on, the house was always bustling with the coming and going of fellow activists. With SPARKS, Tavis, along with others, created a living room in a parking lot — people came and formed their own community.

His latest home — the Occupy Calgary site — is another place where people gather to exchange ideas, food and give each other hope.

When asked about his particular role there, Tavis says he helps keep people’s spirits up, by either helping people set up their tents, or going somewhere “to have a good cry together.”

The word community means different thing to different people, but to Tavis, it’s just another word for home.

Correction:

Due to confusion during the interview process, some factual errors occurred in the reporting of this story.

Tavis Ford moved to Calgary with his wife of 13 years. Tavis says the two moved on because their lives “diverged” as he began activism. With Tavis’s latest girlfriend of two years, he says financial instability created relationship problems. The protest at Shell lasted 32 hours, not 42 hours, and no arrests were made. SPARKS lasted 36 hours, not 72.

The Calgary Eclectic Editor and Calgary Journal Online sincerely regret and apologize for these errors.

gwilliamson@cjournal.ca