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Occupy movement leaves mayors hamstrung Add to ...

Once upon a time, getting rid of an illegal encampment of pot-smoking protesters was easy: You called in the cops who hauled them away in paddy wagons. But as civic politicians across North America are discovering, it’s not so easy any more.

The Occupy movement has leaders of varying political leanings flummoxed. Few want to get heavy-handed with a campaign that has tapped into a zeitgeist the way Occupy has. The handful of attempts that have been made to clean out the protest camps have not only backfired, but emboldened the activists. At the same time, not many politicians have made inroads trying to negotiate an end to the occupations.

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Of the many politicians dealing with this problem, few find themselves in the position Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson does – in the run-up to an election. It complicates his life even more. Not surprisingly, his main opponent, Non-Partisan Association mayoralty candidate Suzanne Anton, has successfully exploited some frustration that is building over the city’s Occupy staging area.

In many ways it is unique among similar sites in North America in that it takes up a prime public space in the heart of the city. Consequently, it is a highly visible daily reminder of what Ms. Anton says is Mr. Robertson’s dithering on the matter.

She says she’d tell the occupiers they have a week and, if they don’t leave, she’d have city workers move in and take the tents down. The idea is preposterous, of course. As if city workers, armed with nothing more dangerous than the belts holding up their pants, are going to clear out this protest. Still, her position has allowed Ms. Anton to set herself apart from Mr. Robertson’s more patient, less antagonistic approach.

In that regard, the mayor finds himself in some good company.

In Toronto, several hundred occupiers are ensconced at St. James Park, where outside supporters have brought in generators, porta-potties and mobile kitchens to sustain the camp. Mayor Rob Ford says he’s working on a plan to deal with the group, but at the moment his strategy appears to be similar to Mr. Robertson’s: hope the situation resolves itself.

While Mr. Ford likely has little sympathy for the occupiers, he also knows that any attempt by a right-leaning politician to crush protesters fronting an overarching – and increasingly middle-class – cause like inequality could be disastrous.

In Calgary, Mayor Naheed Nenshi is also practising Mr. Robertson’s non-confrontational approach. A large Occupy faction at the downtown Olympic Plaza is refusing to leave, despite Mr. Nenshi’s pleas to vacate the premises.

Mr. Nenshi is a populist. He knows how bad it would look to many of his supporters if he were to send police in to bust up the camp. He’s hoping time, and the ever-encroaching winter weather, will take care of the situation on its own.

Matters are much the same in Edmonton.

Even in New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the most experienced and successful civic leaders in North America, is struggling with what to do with the original Occupy Wall Street protesters at Zuccotti Park.

Mr. Bloomberg is one of the richest people in the world – someone who would have elite status in Occupy’s so-dubbed “1 per cent” club – which only makes the politics of his situation more problematical. Consequently, a mayor known for his decisiveness has seemed genuinely exasperated by the activists’ refusal to even entertain the notion of leaving.

Mr. Robertson has his own political issues to manage around this issue.

The mayor would certainly qualify for membership in an alliance of Canada’s 1-per-centers, although he lives a simple, unpretentious life. But more importantly, he is the leader of a centre-left political organization, whose members overwhelmingly support the cause that has inspired the Occupy protests.

The mayor’s measured approach wasn’t helped this week by the fact that there was a heroin overdose on the grounds of the Occupy encampment, and that the protesters appear to be growing increasingly more chippy and defiant. A new poll also showed support for the protesters in Greater Vancouver is slipping.

He’s hoping to hang on through the Nov. 19 election.

No one knows for certain where the Occupy movement is going. It seems inconceivable that camps will still be up in the new year. Then again, with most politicians trying to wish the situation away, they could still be standing months from now.

At some point, however, the public’s patience will run out. And generally when that happens, politicians find courage they didn’t have before.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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