At week’s end, the public gallery was again filled to capacity but it was, for the most part, a younger crowd. The residents and supporters of Occupy London in Victoria Park were there at the invitation of the mayor. Only a few days earlier, Fontana had been on television telling the protestors it was time to pack up and go. A city by-law makes it illegal to put up structures such as the tents in the park unless, of course, it’s a festival with lots of vendors and $6,000 to spend in park rental.
Most by-laws in London are not proactively enforced. The city and the police wait until a complaint is made. But the police had in fact received a complaint, from none other than Ward 5 Councillor Steve Orser, or so he claimed on a local radio station. He and Councillor Paul VanMeerbergen both appeared on the air waves to express their view that the protestors should get out.
Why did Orser lay the complaint? The activity was not occurring on his turf but at Victoria Park in Ward 13. Then, too, Orser prides himself on standing up for the little guy, the person not born with the silver spoon, the working class, those on the wrong end of the growing economic disparity. That sounds a lot more like the 99% than the 1%.
But a complaint had been made and so the protestors were informed that their days in the park were numbered. When the by-law would be enforced and how wasn’t specified. Physical removal of protestors in some other of the 2,000 communities around the world where they are being held have not had happy endings. Violence has erupted and protestors have been arrested and injured.
When faced with the intransigence of the protestors—they weren’t going anywhere—Fontana invited them to air their grievances at his virtual town hall meeting on Wednesday. Once there, it became clear that their concerns didn’t fit well with the preconceived agenda, a vision for downtown London. A tent city was not something that was contemplated in the plans for a new city hall, a beach, a lake, a performing arts centre. Fontana suggested that they come to a special meeting of council on Friday. They agreed and the mayor was able to turn his attention to more pressing matters such as parking downtown for office workers.
They took him at his word. The protestors nearly filled the gallery; their supporters finished the job. A few people were on the council floor to represent the many others in the room. In the gallery, a number of signs urged council to support the peaceful occupation. One large sign read “Sorry for the inconvenience, we are trying to change the world.”
After encountering a heavy police and security presence around and in city hall, I was surprised to note how quiet this group was. Unlike the audience that witnessed the debate on London Hydro, this crew didn’t have to be lectured on its deportment. There were no hisses, boos, cheers or jeers. Instead they used sign language to signal their pleasure and displeasure. And if a speaker went on too long, there were visual reminders to “wind it up.”
The first speaker pointed out that the occupation was receiving support from many in the community, including small businesses. “Many people walk by and salute us,” the delegate claimed. She pointed out that London was the first city to open its council’s doors.
About half of the councillors were present and more arrived as the meeting progressed. Nancy Branscombe asked the speaker to address some of the issues that had been raised with her and Joni Baechler when they had dropped by their encampment earlier in the week.
“Homelessness,” came the response, but the speaker then went on to talk about the movement, "a global movement that can start in the city. London can become the icon of the movement.”
The mayor tried to limit the discussion to specifics that staff could address. Ross Fair, executive director for community services, enumerated the services provided by the city and the initiatives underway. It was not what the delegation had come to discuss.
The second speaker came straight to the point. The issue was the by-law. They had to remain in the park in order to “dialogue 24/7.” They needed the tents for peaceful assembly. There were important matters to discuss. They were the people to feel the effects of “trickle down” economics at a time when corporate accountability was at an all time low. He appealed to council to join the protestors at their general assemblies at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. each day to understand what this was all about.
Next came Patti Dalton, president of the London and District Labour Council, with a message of solidarity recognizing the local, national and global significance of the movement. “This is what public space is for,” she claimed. “City by-laws are not intended to stifle freedom of expression.” She urged council to consider what youth today are facing: 15% unemployment, massive student debt, the replacement of good union jobs with low wage part-time service jobs. She reminded council that 10 years ago a tent city had been established in Campbell Park; it had resulted in the birth of the Unity Project, a transitional shelter which still functions effectively today.
Although only a few delegations had been scheduled, the mayor decided to open it up to 2 minute presentations from the public. A long line of speakers began to form behind the microphones at either side of the gallery. Unfortunately, the mics were not active. No matter, the crowd used the human microphone to amplify the message when needed, repeating in unison the words of the speaker. This came in especially handy when the speaker was a little girl who came to bring the message of “Peace”.
Others were able to fill the room with their own voices. The plight of the mentally ill was deplored as was the practice of the shelters to leave an Ontario Works recipient with only $15 per week to live on. “I can’t even buy a pair of shoes with that,” claimed one.
Another pointed out the practice of placing homeless women in shelters for men. It was tantamount to placing victims with their predators.
A supporter of the movement spoke of the lack of civic engagement because council doesn’t listen in “an authentic manner”. There is no presenting of petitions, recall legislation, referenda.
The mayor asked Joni Baechler to speak to the issue of civic engagement. She was clearly caught off guard. She noted that a meeting was coming forward on November 8 at which a draft policy would be presented. “We as a council want to do a better job,” she offered.
There followed a host of proposals and ideas, from the occupiers and their supporters. The latter included labour activists, social workers, university professors, pensioners, small business persons. They spoke about discrimination, taxation, monetary reform, and environmental sustainability. But the basic message to council was “Please, simply stay out of the way. We want to make our movement move. This is big! This is what we are here in our time to do.”
Ultimately, a full time occupier identified the major cause of social problems: income disparity which is fast-growing in Canada, even faster than in the US. “It’s unsustainable,” he warned. “Societies fail; they can’t progress or innovate.”
Fontana was not able to commit that the protestors would not be forcibly removed, but he did open up a remarkable discussion. Most of the councillors were clearly touched by what they heard and said so. Only Joe Swan, Steve Orser and Sandy White remained silent. Paul VanMeerbergen, Dale Henderson and Denise Brown were absent as was Bill Armstrong who in all likelihood was attending his spouse’s swearing in at Queen’s Park.
For Fontana, this was “a learning moment”. “Can we do better?” he asked. “Absolutely.” He promised a continuing dialogue, to engage with the public and not just at election time. “Our laws are there for a purpose,” he explained. “But sometimes our laws are wrong.”
This was Fontana at his best, listening to the public, not making any promises, but not closing down the possibilities.
The occupation continues.