Occupy movement hits Canada

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A look into the conditions from which the Wall Street actions emerged

Mike Lakusiak, Lindsay Purchase
The Cord (Wilfrid Laurier University)

WATERLOO (CUP) — After just over a month, the Occupy Wall Street movement has grown to the point where most people are at least aware of its existence. If they haven’t witnessed one of the hundreds of marches or occupations of parks and other public spaces in cities across the world, they've certainly heard of it.

For something that began with the first protesters 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.

What are the conditions that define Occupy Wall Street? How can you explain the complex simplicity that seems to be stymieing some of the media’s coverage of the events?

What's black and white and shades of grey?

“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. I am often disappointed by our journalistic leaders in this country who so often revert to the easiest, cheapest shot.”

She cited a few less-than-stellar approaches taken in covering and commenting on the Canadian protests.

Given that the Toronto gathering on Oct. 15 began across the street from where a police car burned a little over a year ago during the G20 Summit, Rauhala noted 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 many of the same thing.

“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,” she said. “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.

“It’s the system, man.”

The 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.”

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,” said Trish Hennessy, director of the Growing Gap Project at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“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 noted, powerful interest groups in the American political system in particular 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. 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 really a matter that there are 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, [but] it’s not about the 99 per cent, it’s about that middle class,” she said. “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 explained 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 people’s imaginations. There [are] 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. 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.”

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