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Occupy Vancouver protesters are seen in their tent city outside the Vancouver Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver, Monday, Oct. 17, 2011. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Occupy Vancouver protesters are seen in their tent city outside the Vancouver Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver, Monday, Oct. 17, 2011. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Robert Matas

Crosscheck: Occupy Vancouver Add to ...

“We are willing to see what a global protest like this might precipitate,” says Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, indicating he has no intention of closing down the Occupy Vancouver encampment in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Despite the aggressive and confrontational rhetoric on posters plastered around the plaza in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Occupy Vancouver appears to be one of the city’s most civilized protests in years.

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More than 50 tents have been set up in the plaza. The tents are mostly on boards and tarps in order to minimize damage to the grounds. Separate bins for recycling are available at the free-food tent.

Meditation sessions have been held in the northwest corner, near the busy intersection of Georgia and Hornby Streets. A changing station for babies is tucked into a quiet back corner. The site has the feel of a traditional folk festival, but without much music.

Reflecting Occupy Vancouver’s laid-back approach, Mayor Gregor Robertson has told the Vancouver Sun that the camp can remain indefinitely, as long as the crowd does not degenerate into violence or threaten public health.

However, Mr. Robertson has been a bit disingenuous by referring to the global protests. The city is not sitting back and just waiting to see what happens in demonstrations around the world.

City staff say fire inspectors have gone through the camp to take out propane tanks, generators and open gas cans. Building inspectors have been on the lookout for issues, checking out whether anything has been erected that poses a danger. The city took steps to ensure the portable toilets on site did not overflow and the garbage bins were emptied.

The city’s advocate for the homeless has been in the camp, prepared to search for more permanent accommodations for anyone in need of housing. Also, a highly visible police presence has sent the message that, unlike the day of the Stanley Cup riots, authorities are ready to pounce at the first sign of Criminal Code offences, city staff say.

The protesters are co-operating with city staff, according to spokesman Jerry Dobrovolny. “It is going quite well so far,” Mr. Dobrovolny, the city’s director of transportation, said in an interview.

But if health or safety are compromised, the city is prepared to turn to various “laws and bylaws” related to trespassing, he said.

City council spent a lot of time earlier this year discussing significant bylaw changes to regulate protests. But the new rules do not apply to the art gallery plaza. The property is public space owned by the provincial government and leased out to the city. The bylaw governs protests only on streets, sidewalks and boulevards, city staff say.

By coincidence, changes to the city’s streets bylaw earlier this year were in response to a protest, similar to Occupy Vancouver, that started at the art gallery. A group of Falun Gong supporters launched a protest against torture in China.

Not too many people anticipated the China protest would persist when it began, Gordon Price, who was on city council at the time, told The Globe and Mail earlier this year. “We thought they would make a statement and, like every other demonstration, the protest would run its course. It was not necessary to be heavy-handed. It would effectively just go away.”

Two months later, the protest moved to the sidewalk outside the Chinese consulate in a residential stretch of Granville Street. It carried on for years. The city finally went to court in 2006 and obtained an injunction to close it down. But the B.C. appeal court subsequently ruled the bylaw governing the sidewalk protest violated Charter protections for free speech. The city responded with North America’s first bylaw to regulate structures erected during a protest.

No one knows how long protesters will remain on the art gallery plaza. The Falun Gong protest stretched over 10 years. The Woodward’s tent-city squat of 2002 lasted three months. Regardless, the fervent activity of city staff suggests that the city is preparing to hold back for now, but is not just waiting to see, as Mr. Robertson said, “what the global protest like this will precipitate.”

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