My conversations with Julian Ichim meandered through his life and philosophy just as we meandered through the streets of downtown Kitchener. At the Duke St. Parking Garage, he talked about friends he lost; at City Hall, he reminisced on his time at St. Mary’s High School, back when it was still located in downtown.
We did not visit Willow River Park, where Ichim helped organize the tent city on Roo’s Island last year. On Apr. 27, tent city residents and supporters rallied against the fences erected on both bridges leading to the island.
As a result of helping pry open one of the fences, Julian Ichim, Sarah Siembida and Wren Wombwell were arrested in early May. They were charged with forcible entry, mischief and assaulting a police officer.
“Throughout this process, we negotiated and worked with the city with the goal of getting everyone into housing. In the winter, when people were freezing, we asked the state to end the tent city by housing everyone in hotels which they refused, hoping that the cold will dwindle our numbers and solve the problem for itself,” Ichim said.
Ichim, in solidarity with his two co-accused and in protest against their charges, started a hunger strike on July 21 at the Vogelsang Green. Ichim pitched a tent near the Between a Rock and a Hard Place homeless memorial. On that first day, after attendees left, Ichim and his tent were removed from the premises.
“I was arrested the first day,” he said. “Five days after that, I spoke to the Crown, and we agreed that I plead guilty to one charge of forcible entry.
I listened to Ichim’s announcement that day with both admiration and confusion. An indefinite hunger strike for the benefit of other people is a drastic step, and a brave one. He recognized he had many comorbidities, and a hunger strike would decimate his health.
“I’m on a shit ton of pain meds. Heart meds—my heart, my stomach’s fucked up from other hunger strikes and from other fucking different shit I’ve done to my body,” Ichim said.
“Funny—most people talk about drug abuse as like, using drugs to escape. I use medication to push my body to do what I need,” he said.
For Ichim, though, it was an act of desperation. He said the body is a weapon of last resort—when there is no other option, when someone is cornered, when there is nothing else left, a person uses their own body to make a point. Hunger strikes are a violent act.
“A hunger strike is an act of violence. You’re basically killing yourself slowly, you’re basically hurting your body,” Ichim said.
“And it’s the last form of protest. And it’s a protest that calls attention to your situation and to the despair of your situation,” he said.
Ichim’s desperation was that he could not have two people ruining their lives for fighting for him.
He also recognized the consequences his co-accused might face. Sarah Siembida is a queer Indigenous artist. People of colour are more likely to have negative interactions with the police and having “assaulting a peace officer” on a criminal record means more police presence if ever one is involved with them.
“The point is, two innocent people, were going to get some serious fucking http://charges…these charges are gonna follow them around for the rest of their life,” Ichim said.
“I didn’t want that on my conscience,” he said.
Eventually, Ichim agreed to plead guilty to forcible entry if the charges against his co-accused were dropped.
Even as he was doing what he believed was the right thing to do, he was afraid. The night before his trial, he was concerned about his health, prison doctors and access to medication. He was hoping for probation at best but was concerned he might end up in prison.
Instead, on Aug. 25, he pled guilty to forcible entry and was given absolute discharge.
“Absolute discharge is almost as good as not guilty,” Ichim said. “That’s fucking amazing.”
I did not understand at first how high the stakes were at every step of the way. From going to prison to the stress his body might endure to deterioration of his health, Ichim was aware of most consequences he might face.
Yet, he chose to put himself at risk to stand by his principles. These include class loyalty and honour.
“I’m pretty happy with the way things turned out I didn’t have to abandon any of my principles,” Ichim said.
Ichim comes from a family of activists. His mother was an economist and a member of the Communist Party in Romania who stood up to leadership when asked to sign off on something she did not believe was right. When she learned that her son had become a political activist, she supported him.
“But the thing with my mom was like, my mom was a real communist” Ichim said.
Others in his family have been activists and there is a history of hunger strikes in his family. Along with his mother, his grandmother, who hid Communist Part members at her house, is someone he counts among his heroes. Other role models are friends or activists—such as Alan Ryan, and Dolours and Marian Price.
Early on in his life, Ichim experimented with various illicit drugs. When his mother saved up for him to visit Cuba, a relative had a serious conversation about self-discipline.
“I started to realize that like, you can’t just say, ‘fuck the police,’ we need to have some sort of order, but the order needs to come from ourselves,” Ichim said.
As part of his degree at the University of Waterloo, which he did not complete, Ichim had the opportunity to work and study in Cuba. Ichim was involved in South American activism, as well as in Ireland.
In Canada, he began his activism as a teenager—he started reading Marx and Lenin in grade nine and eventually began moving more leftist circles.
In the early 2000s, Ichim helped create The Spot, one of the first youth-run drop-in centres in Canada in downtown Kitchener. He also took part in protests at the G20 summit in 2010, after which he faced charges of conspiracy to do property damage and obstruct police which were dropped.
Ichim was instrumental in the Housing Now! tent city on Roos Island and continues to be involved in direct action against the housing crisis. He is a part of the Alan Ryan People’s Community Defence Brigade, which is an activist group helping homeless and low-income folks in the region.
When we held our last interview session for this article, Ichim took me to Sanguen where he intended to test samples of street drugs for xylazine, an animal tranquilizer also known as the “zombie drug”. If the tests, which did not take place that day, had tested positive for xylazine, the plan was to confiscate and destroy drugs from those specific dealers.
In all his interactions with other activists, especially when meeting members of the Irish Republican Army, Ichim was struck by one thing: that everyone was a normal person.
“Just being able to see people, regular people, ordinary people, doing extraordinary things is what really inspired me,” Ichim said.