The Occupy movement: from farce to tragedy and back

A suspected overdose at an Occupy site in Vancouver is just one of many signs the movement needs to end

From farce to tragedy and back

Darryl Dyck/CP

In Saskatoon last week, as temperatures sank below zero, residents of the local Occupy encampment began taking stock. The tiny tent community had dwindled from the 30 who’d set up camp on Oct. 15, part of a wave of occupations mounted in solidarity with lower Manhattan’s Occupy Wall Street, to about a dozen. Many who remained were less activists than they were homeless people. The activists chose to pull up stakes. “I’m not too sure whereabouts I’m going,” a homeless man named Spike said. “I just don’t know.”

So it was across Canada: from Vancouver to Halifax, workaday realities had crept in and soured utopia. At some Occupy sites, such as in London, Ont., the movement had fractured into splinter groups, multiplying the number of encampments. Elsewhere, as in Ottawa, where one group of protesters discovered a blanket soaked in bodily fluids draped over their tent and left, core supporters abandoned the movement over philosophical differences. In most cases, protesters have had to come to terms with an influx of people for whom addiction and mental health issues loom larger than concerns about wealth distribution. In every case, occupiers have tested the resolve of municipalities striving to balance their rights to free speech with long-standing bylaws, safety concerns, and the rights of neighbours to order and good government.

On Saturday, Vancouver’s drug problem infiltrated one of dozens of tents erected outside the Vancouver Art Gallery, where 23-year-old Ashlie Gough of Victoria died, likely of an overdose. She is one of just two Occupy fatalities in North America so far (18-year-old Louis Cameron Rodriguez, a homeless man who called himself “The Poet,” died of causes unknown in Oklahoma City). Mayor Gregor Robertson, in the midst of an election, used the death as the final stroke and ordered the tent city closed (an official later said the city would seek to force the matter with a court injunction). At the same time, Victoria, where authorities had already cut water and electricity to the site, officially ordered protesters out: “The city appreciates you vacating the lawn around the sequoia tree,” read the notice.

In Kamloops, protesters were heartened by the return of a porta-potty the city had removed, but which council subsequently voted to reinstall. “When you’ve gotta go, sometimes you’ve gotta go,” one protester pointed out. Right-leaning blogger Cory Morgan initiated a counter-protest in Calgary, where Mayor Naheed Nenshi had been reluctant to intervene, citing the protesters’ Charter rights. Morgan drove a pickup truck onto a plaza near where two dozen occupiers were camped, and posted deliberately inane placards (one, “Bring back Arrested Development,” referred to a well-loved TV sitcom). Bylaw officers promptly asked him to move, and when he failed to do so handed him a $200 ticket for driving in a park, then towed the truck. Morgan was clearly delighted. “The Charter applies to some and not to others,” he said. “Law-abiding, tax-paying citizens like myself have the law brought in within half an hour of parking here.” Nenshi later oversaw the development of an action plan that would see the occupiers removed.

Three yurts, worth $20,000 and provided largely thanks to union support, sprung up in Toronto’s St. James Park, where organizers aimed for a no-drugs-and-alcohol policy, to varying success. Police arrested a man for threatening people with a guitar and a can of beer, and local restaurateurs complained of lost business. In Ottawa, video surfaced of protesters debating the expulsion of a sexual predator. “He touched my buttocks and my penis area,” says one man holding the “talking stick” as he addresses other protesters. “I have training in reasonable use of force,” says another, wearing a cowboy hat, who claims he helped banish the man. “I feel totally, legally, financially justified in the actions that were taken, and if anyone has anything to say about it I can refer you to my lawyer.”