Occupy campers prepare for winter under city pressures

Occupy movement members across Canada are settling in for the winter as cities grapple with respecting their right to protest while ensuring bylaws and public rights aren't overstepped.

Cities work to balance right to protest with 'everyday rights of citizens'

University graduate Sarah Rotz is battling a cold and sipping hot coffee as she and her fellow Occupy Toronto members prepare to continue their campout at downtown St. James Park through the coming months.

In Calgary on Thursday, videographer and Occupy organizer Chelsea Pratchett said there are no plans to dismantle two camps —at Olympic Plaza and St. Patrick's Island — despite the wet and cold weather, and word that the city's emergency management services want the downtown plaza freed up for permit holders for upcoming events.

Rotz, Pratchett and Occupy protesters across Canada say their messages are getting growing support from fellow citizens, unions and even various politicians, and that they are in it for the long haul.

But their determined positions have left cities grappling with how to respect campers' right to protest while ensuring bylaws, the public's rights and plans for Remembrance Day and other events aren't overstepped.

Canada's Occupy movement went in full force nearly two weeks ago, part of an international Day of Action spawned by the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in New York. Occupy groups around the world are diverse and appear generally leaderless, and while each emphasizes various concerns, they generally are fighting against the gap between the rich and poor.

"We're really well-organized," Rotz, a spokeswoman for Occupy Toronto's 200-plus tent city, said Thursday before yet another march to the Bay Street financial district.

"Our focus now is on creating a safe space for the winter. We are getting generators for the winter [including one solar one] that have been donated, and we are trying to create a safe, inclusive community — the same thing we want represented by our governments.

"We have a number of political issues we are working at addressing, and after our winter planning is in place, we will move forward and detail what our demands are as a movement."

Earlier this week, Occupy Toronto received a boost from Coun. Gord Perks, who put forth a motion, seconded by Coun. Shelley Carroll, that city council endorse "the peaceful protests of the Occupy Toronto movement." The motion has been referred to the executive committee.

Canadian protests non-violent

Margaret Dougherty, a City of Toronto senior communications adviser, told CBC News that although the city hasn’t granted permission to protesters to occupy St. James Park, and there have been a handful of complaints from residents about noise and being able to access the park, the city is trying to "respect the rights of a peaceful protest."

While Toronto and other cities have bylaws that don't allow camping out in parks overnight, "any enforcement of our bylaws do have to be balanced with their [Occupy members'] rights and the rights of everyday citizens," Dougherty said.

The Canadian movement has been largely peaceful, unlike the violence that has plagued cities such as RomeAthens, and, most recently, Oakland, Calif., and Atlanta. Instead, Toronto, Calgary, Halifax, Vancouver and other cities are showing what some have termed "patient resistance."

Tom Sampson, who is in charge of Calgary's emergency management team, has been quoted in the media as saying he wants Olympic Plaza protesters out immediately for people holding permits for events at the plaza, including a Muslim Heritage Day festival this weekend.
Occupy Toronto protesters take their message to the city's financial district on Thursday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

A call to Sampson on Thursday was not returned. But Daorcey Le Bray, communications adviser for Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, told CBC News the city has received "some calls" from people who say they don't like the protest, but the concern is "balancing freedom of speech and the public's right to protest with the public's access to the park."

Pratchett said she is in constant touch with a police officer who acts as liaison between the city and Occupy Calgary, and the officer "has been aware we are not planning on leaving."

As well, Pratchett said, Occupy Calgary has had talks with organizers of the weekend event, "and we’ve agreed to share the space ... and for future events, I'm sure similar compromises can be reached…. we are peacefully accommodating people."

In Halifax, Mayor Peter Kelly hopes some plan can be reached for Occupy protesters to clear the Grand Parade public square before events such as the Nov. 9 Dignity Day Ceremony hosted by the Atlantic Jewish Council and the Nov. 11 Remembrance Day ceremony.

In an interview, Kelly said "the feedback we're getting from the public says they would like to see occupiers leave and enable us to honour the vets at this location as we have from the beginning of time. To date, they [Occupy protesters] have been fully co-operative and peaceful when we've asked them to do things," although there have been "minor skirmishes."

"We have obligations we have committed to and we understand the right to protest, that's what democracy is all about, but the public square isn't just for them to use. It's for everyone else who wants to use it."

Vancouver tents 'all full right now'

Meanwhile, Occupy Nova Scotia (ONS) said in a news release that it is "following the general assembly process of collective decision-making, as developed in the Occupy Wall Street movement," and that it is deciding "the best course of action and will reach a final consensus on this matter ... within coming days."

In Saint John, a city spokeswoman said Occupy protesters at King's Square won't be moved, despite a few complaints and some minor issues like removing hammocks from the bandstand. For Remembrance Day, if the cenotaph is needed for a ceremony or for laying down a wreath, the city will ask the protesters to move aside temporarily, according to one report.

In Winnipeg, campers in roughly a dozen tents remain at Memorial Park in the city's downtown, despite temperatures hovering around 0 C this week.

Blankets, warm clothing and a campfire fuelled by donated firewood are keeping the Occupy Winnipeg protesters warm.

The Manitoba government, which is responsible for Memorial Park, told CBC News it won't be asking people to clear away tents at this time. Winnipeg police said they have not received any complaints about campers so far.

Winnipeg protester D-Anne Kuby said the plan is to stay camped out "until we're satisfied that people have woken up enough that we can see that a change will take place."

In Vancouver, Occupy protesters camping on the lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery are becoming a thorn in the side of the mayoral hopefuls — the NPA's Suzanne Anton, whose motion to end the tent city goes to council on Tuesday, and incumbent mayor and Vision candidate Gregor Robertson, who agrees the protesters will have to leave but has not said when.

Occupy Vancouver night supervisor Cory Seger, however, says the movement continues to grow.

"We always have people coming down looking for a place to sleep who want to be a part of this movement, and we stick them in any tent we can," he says. "They are all full right now."