“Nothing to see here. Nothing to see here.”
Until the last couple days, that had been the mood in Calgary, as the Occupy Wall Street (#ows) movement seemed far from many peoples’ minds. Sure, by now, everyone’s seen the graphs coming out about American inequality that show 1% of that population controlling an exponentially widening wealth gap that — no matter how one graphs it — makes a pretty clear case that a miniature black hole has sucked the lion’s share of money right out of the U.S. economy altogether. All this, while the so-called “job creators” continue to lay off rising numbers and are rewarded with record bonuses for record profits. It’s clearly not sustainable. But that’s there, right? The Federal Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, reassures us that Canada is far better off, having a “very progressive tax system.”
“Nothing to see here. Nothing to see here.” So why are people tenting in downtown Calgary and refusing to leave?
“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” — George Orwell
City residents’ first impulse was to write the Occupy Calgary participants off as “lazy,” “loony” or “looking for a free ride…” because in a relatively productive and flourishing Alberta, the worries seem far away. Well, except that they don’t really seem THAT far away, given that extended health insurance has jumped, mortgages and rents have skyroketed, quality jobs are harder to find, and the wages (which haven’t changed much) don’t go as far as they used to. News reports are talking about grain prices driving the cost of food up yet again, and there’s talk that gas could go over $2 per litre in six months. But it’s not that bad. Not that bad….
“Nothing to see here. Nothing to see here.”
They must be all students, the reasoning goes — tuition keeps skyrocketing, after all. And homeless people. And activists. And the unemployed. And disabled people. And Aboriginal people. The photos and footage sure seems to bear that out.
Which would make sense, because students, the homeless, the unemployed, the disabled and activists who assist disenfranchised people regularly have felt the economic disparity for longer, and with more intensity than many. And for the First Nations, the disparity has been felt the longest by far, being a nation that is still literally colonized by another nation in ways that the public has grown so used to that it’s become blind to it. Of course, they’d be the first. But inequality hasn’t stopped there… and so the collection of people gathering at Occupy Calgary hasn’t stopped there, either.
The temperatures have been dropping. It’s a matter of weeks (or, if we’re unlucky even days) before we plunge into the -30 degree C temperatures that will inevitably have to send everyone for shelter and warmth. Yet as the temperatures have been dropping, the number of tents has been rising. After the October 15th rally, just under 20 tents were set up in Olympic Plaza. Today, it’s closer to 50. Which seems small until you realize that because of an early planning and communication problem, there are two camps.
A park in St. Patrick’s Island is home to the second encampment. It had been set up before the General Assembly had come to any kind of consensus, and the city is trying to present it as the “real” encampment. Still, much of the attention and organizing and activity happens at Olympic Plaza, from participants who find the St. Pats camp too distant from downtown, too invisible, and too easily cut off from the city or arbitrarily shut down with little recourse. Which is not to say either camp is more “right,” but it’s divided the energy. But in the end, the point may be moot. The temperatures have been dropping.
During the day, the plaza is quiet. During the day, the numbers are fewer, some of the campers still having to work. From those who are gathered there, there’s a sense of optimism: a sense that whatever else may happen, the Occupy movement is destined to change things for the better. And folks appear to be doing their best to keep the park clean, respect the surroundings — contrary to the reports of “$40,000 damage” (more on that in a moment) — and occupy peacefully.
But you have to look past “Nothing to see here. Nothing to see here” mantra in order to realize that if there’s this sense of determination among folks, in the face of media ridicule and dropping temperatures, then there must be something to see, after all.
Calgarians Still Hold Hope of Being the 1%
Perhaps weirdly, the Calgary Sun’s Rick Bell had a point that part of the challenge that Occupy Calgary faces is that many of the corporate 1% have offices here, that Calgary has the highest income per capita in Canada, and that for the remaining 99%, there is still a strong temptation for middle-class people to think that they, too, could someday be better off than they are. Or that there is “Nothing to see here. Nothing to see here.” The elusive myth.
Murray Dobbin points out that although Canadians see bank bailouts as an American phenomenon, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation bought out uncertain mortgages to the tune of $70 billion — a tenth of the bailout amount in the U.S., but we also have a tenth of the population.
“Secondly, the Harper government established a fund of $200 billion to backstop the banks — money they could borrow if they needed it. The government had to borrow billions — mostly from the banks! — to do it. It’s euphemistically called the Emergency Financing Framework…”
Why They Won’t Be.
Occupy participants have also not overlooked the fact that among the Harper Conservatives’ top priorities have been corporate tax cuts, market deregulations similar to those that triggered the American crisis, targeting of union funding and spending in the name of transparency (even though unions are not government institutions, and the Harper Conservatives certainly haven’t had the best record on that, themselves), and eliminating a per-vote subsidy that supported political parties based on their percentage of popular vote, rather than leaving parties dependent on mostly corporate funding. This reflects Harper’s history as president of the National Citizens Coalition, when he took a challenge to the Supreme Court of Canada in an effort to strike down spending limits for corporations in Canadian elections. He lost Stephen Harper v. Canada in 2004, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled differently in 2009’s Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission —a ruling which in a few short years has transformed that political landscape into one almost entirely favouring corporate welfare. If unbridled corporate influence, paired with reducing the electorate’s influence, is the agenda of the man who shapes our laws, then there is certainly a need for Canadians to speak up now — before the unnerving struggle felt now becomes “the good old days.”
I don’t know how you fix the amount of economic disparity that exists in America. But in Canada, we can start by averting our path. Immediately.
In a speech to the Council for National Policy, the future Prime Minister said, “Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it,” which was seen as a challenge to Canada’s social and economic equalization programs. And indeed, everything that has facilitated economic disparity — from Ronald Reagan to today — is being echoed in the current government’s positions and policies.
Linda McQuaig at the Toronto Star points out that:
Adding a new marginal tax rate of 60 per cent to those earning over $500,000 a year, and a 70 per cent rate to those earning over $2.5 million a year — rates that would simply restore the progressivity that existed during Canada’s booming postwar decades — would raise almost $8 billion a year, according to Osgoode Hall tax professor Neil Brooks.
Yet this $8 billion interests Flaherty so little that he can’t be bothered to collect it.
“Nothing to see here. Nothing to see here.” Except that the value of our dollar and our influence over the government that is supposed to represent us are dropping. The Occupy Wall Street movement is as much an opposition to oligarchy — even if not in name — as it is to economic disparity.
Not An Easy Pill To Swallow
Some of the Calgary establishment hasn’t been too happy to hear this, either. The periodic pilgrimages of black limousines past Olympic Plaza on the way to Teatro Ristorante, the nervous glances from the affluent passengers who climb out… there is definitely an unease in the air and a contingent that wishes Occupy Calgary would just go away. Supporters along Macleod Trail seem almost clandestine, afraid, with tiny, careful taps of the horn as they pass by. Patrons at the Centre for the Performing Arts have an unnerving view of the camp. If an Occupy action is necessary, then perhaps it is especially so in Calgary.
City officials have been mixed and at times supportive. For all the experiences of police brutality elsewhere, it’s apparent here that at least some of the Calgary Police Service have noted the cuts being forced on public and emergency personnel in the U.S. And Occupy participants, conversely, have been as agreeable as possible on every point except for surrendering Olympic Plaza, even moving aside for a previously scheduled ICNA Muslim Heritage Day event — and ICNA, in respect for that the campers stand for, offered Occupy Calgary a table in return. The City and its diverse inhabitants have never been the “enemy,” and both sides (at this point) seem happy to keep it that way.
But the media hasn’t been so kind. I wrote recently about how media can spin things to be unflattering toward Occupy movements, when I’d compared Ezra Levant’s “17 clips” of Occupy Toronto and claims of “cult mentality” to other footage of his visit and an understanding of the human microphone. Occupy Calgary has been facing some of the strongest media opposition, from both major papers and some stations. After EMS did an inspection of first aid kits and missing items were put on a wants list, the request for condoms was trumpeted to mean that the camp had become some kind of public orgy. Claims were made about public obscenities on signs, and a mention of “Rothschilds” (which most probably didn’t understand the meaning of) on a sign brandished by someone in an Obama mask at the initial rally on October 15th was used to claim that participants were anti-semites. Early Friday morning, the Calgary Fire Department converged on Olympic Plaza after someone reported seeing candles (open flame is prohibited in the park).
The Nebulous $40,000 “and Rising”
And then, there is the $40,000 damage being reported nationwide. Except that everybody who has been going to the square has been completely confused as to where the damage is. Photos of City crews draining the pool and hosing down the concrete for routine pre-winter preparation have been juxtaposed with the articles to create the impression that some major reconstruction is underway. City crewmen, meanwhile, have been among those scratching their heads over talk about damage to the washrooms, which is also barely visible and some attribute to non-camping passers-by.
So far, the “damage” that has been publicly trumpeted is with regard to the sod. It’s said that the sod wasn’t made for camping, and that tent coverage is killing it. Which might be true if the ground were frozen. But in current weather conditions, the warmth and retention of moisture and electrolytes are actually a benefit — which is why golf courses tarp their greens. There is in fact one section of sod that isn’t faring as well, on strips too narrow for tents and largely not used by Occupy people — a section that was also not faring well back when we visited the Plaza in preparation for Calgary Pride, in early September. It’s a heavy-traffic downtown square with regular events, after all. Some of the photos here were taken when the rally began, and some after the reports of “damage” became national headlines. You decide.
Maybe reporters should be asking deeper questions, rather than looking for participants’ flaws while taking tent-counts with “only 30 minutes on the meter.” On Friday, Calgary social workers came out to rally and show their support. Whether or not the media notes (or even sees) it, the movement is growing.
“First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.” — Nicholas Klein, 1918 (a similar quote, attributed to Gandhi, is apparently disputed)
No one is looking for monuments, only reasonable balance. People are starting to ask questions. Should there be a maximum wage? Should a nation’s largest corporation really be able to get away without paying any tax at all? Even if their jobs are complex, are CEOs really worth 343 times as much as the median average of all a company’s employees? Or reap bonuses that are many times over what the average employee makes in a year?
Until now, such questions have been dismissed as fringe poor peoples’ sense of “entitlement” — even as the same corporate and banking entities have taken handouts and are looking to strip union bargaining power. In America, Republicans are using anti-abortion and anti-contraception legislation as a preoccupation to keep jobs bills from passing, while demanding that Medicare and Social Security be sacrificed to pay the deficits generated by a legacy of corporate and top-level tax cuts.
In Canada, the national average salary as of 2010 was $42,000 per year. Canada’s top CEO earned that amount in four days. Canada has the fourth largest level of inequality among its peers already, and that has been rising faster than it has in the U.S. That gap is largest in Alberta.
Is this the Canada we want? Is this the Calgary we want? Or are you simply prepared to accept that New Normal?
Now is the time to change it. And now is the opportunity to speak and be heard.
(Some of these photos are mine, but most were taken by talented partner, for which I am grateful. Crossposted to rabble.ca)