It felt like old times on Parliament Hill Monday in more ways than one. After a long summer break, MPs were back in the House of Commons. On the lawn outside, there was another reminder of days gone by. Protesters gathered to mark the opening of Parliament but also the one-year anniversary of the Occupy movement.
The demonstrators – a mix of Occupy veterans and public sector union members angry at government job cuts – probably didn’t strike fear in the hearts of government MPs. Despite some fiery speeches and plenty of handmade "Stop Harper" signs, only about 150 people turned out on what was a gorgeous, sunny day. At times, it appeared the protesters were almost outnumbered by police and media representatives.
While the crowd was less than impressive, diehard Occupy supporters refuse to see it as a sign the movement has fizzled out. Trish Mills worked as a volunteer medic at Occupy Toronto and came to Ottawa to mark the movement’s anniversary. To her, Occupy has left a lasting impression.
"Everyone knows what Occupy is, right? It’s pretty hard to go anywhere and say ‘Occupy’ and people don’t have a reaction whether it’s positive or negative."
Still, a year after Occupy sprang up, it’s as hard to measure its impact as it is to nail down just what exactly the movement is all about. The goals of Occupy are – to put it mildly – lofty. One speaker at the Parliament Hill rally called for "economic and environmental justice," the resignation of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a complete restructuring of the Canadian political system to allow for "a more direct form of democracy."
Critics have always accused Occupy of being wildly unfocused. But many Occupy supporters see that as a badge of honour; proof positive of the non-hierarchical, consensus-based nature of the movement. Certainly, there were no apologies for the wide-ranging array of Occupy’s demands at the Ottawa protest.
"Everyone’s got their own universe going on in their head," said Veronica Campbell, another veteran of Occupy Toronto.
"So, it’s kind of like this movement has its own universe going on even if everyone else outside doesn’t see it."
Describing your movement as having its own universe may not be the best way to sell it to voters who tend to be concerned with more day to day issues like taxes, health care and education. Occupy has had no shortage of bohemians and hippies. One smiling man who came from Victoria for the Ottawa rally described the movement as "the evolution of our consciousness."
But supporters insist Occupy is about more than airy-fairy talk. They say since its inception it has made a difference in the political discourse of both the U.S. and Canada. Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, spoke at the rally on Parliament Hill and thanked Occupy members for what he called their "brilliant work."
"You should take credit for the fact that Barack Obama has, in fact, encapsulated your message as the central theme of his campaign," Ryan said. "You have encapsulated the message of corporate greed."
Ryan’s claims can be debated. But there can be no doubt Occupy has generated a lot of talk and discussion about inequality and injustice over the past 12 months.
Where it all leads, of course, is an open question. The sparse crowd of Occupy protesters didn’t exactly shake Parliament Hill. While the crowd outside was demanding radical change, inside the House of Commons MPs were back sparring and sniping at one another like the summer break had never happened.
Even in New York, the birthplace of Occupy, a march to mark the one-year anniversary lacked the fervour and numbers of the original protests. Occupy’s true believers, though, remain hopeful.
"At least we know how to use our voice a little bit better," says Campbell. "Eventually, we’ll be able to tell the right story to wake everybody up."