#Occupy movement hits Canada

The Occupy Wall Street movement has grown to prominence in past weeks, to the degree that most people are at least aware of its existence — if they didn’t witness one of the hundreds of marches or occupations of parks and other public spaces in cities across the world. For something that began over a month ago with the first protestors appearing on the U.S. Constitution Day, Sept. 17, in New York City’s financial district, the movement, as it has come to be classified, has managed to sustain itself under intense criticism that its aims and the numerous issues the participants are rallying around are either ill-defined or ill-informed.

The lack of cohesion around a single issue that has dominated much of reports on the protests doesn’t dissuade supporters or spectators for the most part and in the interests of trying to glean more meaning from a trend that is becoming ever-more present in many cities, The Cord set out to explore the conditions defining Occupy Wall Street and the complex simplicity that seems to be stymieing some of the media’s coverage of the events, especially in Canada.

“I think one of the main challenges is that there’s nothing simple about this movement and journalism always responds best to simple black and white situations and this one is shades of grey,” said Ann Rauhala, a Ryerson University journalism professor who has worked at the CBC and as foreign editor of the Globe and Mail. “That’s hardly an original observation but it is altogether so true.”

“In the Canadian media you can see people following the predictable courses,” she added citing a few less than stellar approaches taken in coverage of and comment on the Canadian protests. “I am often disappointed by our journalistic leaders in this country who so often revert to the easiest, cheapest shot.”

Given that the Toronto gathering on Saturday began across the street from where a police car burned a little over a year ago during the G20 Summit, Rauhala noted that it’s difficult to think about this protest without recalling those events. Though she noted that before the flames and broken glass of last July, those assembled were, with the exception of the rioters, concerned with the same things, she said.

“The main march [at the G20] was many thousands of people who were pretty much people nervous about their futures and aligned with a wide representation of progressive social movements. I think there are a lot of those people represented in the 99 per cent we see now.”

“I can’t help but wonder if there wouldn’t have been more participation in the Occupy group had it not been for the craziness that happened last summer,” she added.

“It’s the system, Man”

Canadian magazine Adbusters bears much of the responsibility for sparking the initial protests in New York with a call in July to “occupy Wall Street” in September, but in retrospect the conditions were already in place, according to observers.

“People are now saying it’s the system overall that’s wrong, not that [it] has screwed things up,” assessed Wilfrid Laurier University communications professor Herbert Pimlott. “I would say that this goes back, in terms of immediate sparks, to the financial collapse and from that you see the reactions of governments that have been imposing austerity, cuts and making the middle classes, not just the working class or the poor, pay for bailouts for big corporations, banks and financial institutions that are supposed to be too big to fail.”

“The greatest service that Occupy Wall
Street has done for the U.S. and
Canada is help breathe some air into
something that we were not talking

—Trish Hennessy, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

Particularly problematic and cited as in part driving the protests is the massive disparity between the wealthiest one per cent of people and everyone else.

“Essentially, the second they started saying ‘we’re the 99 per cent,’ the subtext behind that was that the system isn’t working for the vast majority of us,” Trish Hennessy, director of the Growing Gap Project at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said.

“When in 2007-08 when the whole world economy came crashing down to its knees because of a financial system that was geared in the interests of a very wealthy, concentrated few at the top, at that point I think there was a public expectation that things would change — that the government would start standing up for the people — but it didn’t really happen.”

Instead, Hennessy said, powerful interest groups, in the American political system especially, wanted to return to the same status quo that contributed to the crisis. And that didn’t sit right with many people.

Sober second thought

Tammy Schirle, an economics professor at WLU’s school of business and economics whose fields of research include trends of inequality between Canadians, weighed in with her impression of the situation.

“Since the 1990s, it’s been a story about the middle class,” she said. “By a lot of measures of inequality, if you’re comparing the poorest and the richest, that’s actually improved over time,” she continued. “When you look at the gap between the middle class and the poorest, that has shrunk, the gap between the middle class and the richest has increased.”

“It’s a really a matter that there’s a lot of discontent among that middle class, they don’t like that the poorest are catching up to them. I think that’s a really big thing, their relative position in society has changed and they’re not happy about it.”

She disputed the application of the same 99 per cent group to the Canadian context. “The rallies are using this 99 per cent idea, it’s not about the 99 per cent, it’s about that middle class. That’s what’s driving this general discontent that you see.”

If there is anything to be derived from this particular issue that helped spur the protests and move forward toward a change, she said it would involve raising the marginal tax rates of the highest income bracket. “That’s something that I think is being called for by many people in the United States and Canada,” Schirle said, noting that such a move would have little impact on the labour market.

“That’s a policy that makes sense and seems very feasible and reasonable, politically [though], with current governments I would seriously doubt it.”

Public discourse

So what can we gather from the movement? “The greatest service that Occupy Wall Street has done for the U.S. and Canada is help breathe some air into something that we were not talking about,” Hennessy said.

“In Canada we don’t talk about record-high levels of household debt, Canadian households are in it far more than they’re able to manage if the system goes down — if we have a housing market crash for instance. Things could happen and people know it and are anxious, but at the same time, there’s this middle class insularity that’s going on,” she continued, explaining that many in Canada’s middle class are simply coping and not expecting things to be much better than they are at a given moment.

Pimlott suggested that the protests and occupied parks could be a sign of greater things to come. “This is a spark that has fired peoples’ imaginations. There’s links to other things that are happening and no one is determining all of them because there are so many diverse groups, but I think it’s a clear indication that politics cannot continue as they have been,” he said, noting a few historical examples of social movements from similar beginnings that created profound change over time.

“People have been talking to each other,” he continued. “I think that’s maybe what’s most important, all these groups are coming together and talking to each other, perhaps what we’re seeing is a real democracy, where everybody does have a voice, happening right now at the grassroots.”

Rauhala explained that there might be, in the Canadian context, greater meaning yet to be derived from the protests, like a focus on unemployment among young people. Differences from the American situation factor in as well, she said.

“We have this smug Canadian attitude that we’re different but never really articulate what the difference is and yet there are actual differences not spelled out when a story like this comes along,” she said. “I may be wrong, but our unemployment rates are not the same, our foreclosure rates are not the same, the cartoonish [Wall Street] bad guys are not as readily available, there are reasons why the anger and frustration cannot solidify into a clearer meaning here yet.”

Mike Lakusiak

The Occupy Wall Street protests which began in New York City moved north on Oct. 15, as cities across Canada staged their own demonstrations in support of the movement.

Estimates of over 1,000 people convened at King and Bay in Toronto’s financial district early Saturday morning, some sporting signs, others decked out in costume but all abounding with enthusiasm needed to march toward St. James Park with hopes of a more just society.

The Canadian movement has come under some scrutiny as the disparate motivations of the protesters indicated to some in the media a lack of organization and strategy for concrete action.

Daniel Roth, who helped to organize the event, took a more positive outlook. “Everyone has a message to bring, and that’s why I say this is the potential beginning of a mass movement toward revolutionary change, because this isn’t about one thing or another thing,” he explained.

“It’s about systemic change, and change on every level, and that’s why it makes sense that people are out here for a number of reasons.”

“As an individual you can certainly
contribute, but you come together with
other people and your power and your
voice is a lot stronger.”

—Mary Bissell, CUPE

The protests remained peaceful throughout the day, with police presence minimal and purely observational. Organizers placed crowd marshals among those marching to ensure that it did not give way to rioting.

Toronto Centre MP and Liberal party interim leader Bob Rae was on hand at St. James Park, which falls within his constituency, to listen to the protestors’ grievances. He explained the mass protest as a reflection of the inadequacy of the federal government to address concerns. “Mr. Harper isn’t going to change much and this is a reflection I think of the frustration that people feel right now, that their voices aren’t necessarily being heard,” Rae said.

Some criticism of the Canadian protests has eminated from a belief that the unique structures of the U.S. banking system and economy have created a much more dire situation for citizens than what is experienced here.

Rae responded to this, saying, “Our situation is a little different than the U.S., but there’s no reason to think that there isn’t a similar sense, not only in the U.S. but around the world that the economic tensions, the collapse of some governments’ financial systems clearly is having dramatic effect on peoples’ sense of security and confidence in the economy.”

Counter-protestor Mel Glickman, who was also present at the G-20 protests last July, argued against this justification vehemently.

He said, amid jeers from the passing crowd, “They think that it translates to Canada, which it does not. The Canadian banking system is totally different.”

“These are just envious people who don’t have a plan for their lives, they don’t know what to do with themselves,” Glickman added.

Despite criticism, protestors appear to be in it for the long haul. Tents, first aid services and even a library have popped up in the park where many people are currently camping out.

As of Tuesday, approximately 50 tents were present and Mari Reeve-Newson, one of the media contacts at the park, said things were progressing well.

“I know there was a mishap unfortunately with Ezra [Levant] from The Sun, a lot of people don’t like the way he is reporting I guess,” she said. “There was a little kerfuffle of people not using their passion appropriately and not representing what we’re trying to do here.”

When asked how long he planned to remain, protestor Bryan Batty responded, “Depends on how smart our politicians and our corporate elite are.”

“I still go to school, I still go to work, but then I come back. This is my home,” he said.

Whether the Occupy Toronto movement will generate concrete change will take time to determine, but it is undeniable that the masses of people have been able to capture the city’s attention.

Mary Bissell, who attended as a member of CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees), summarized the day appropriately. “As an individual you can certainly contribute, but you come together with other people and your power and your voice is a lot stronger.”

“It’s more making a statement at this point, and then we’ll see where things go, in terms of where groups are going to go and put their focus … of where they want to change things.”

Lindsay Purchase

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