In a civic election where the challenge for the challenger seems to be finding an issue that can drive her campaign, the Occupy Vancouver protest may be the one that finally gets Non-Partisan Association mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton some traction.
The protest, which began one week ago, features a tent city that sprang up on the north lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery after the Occupy Vancouver march.
Over the week that the tents have been allowed to remain, the protest has grown, and the protesters have become more entrenched. They have tarped and fortified their temporary shelters against the worsening weather.
There is a kitchen serving free food, a first aid tent, a library of sorts, a movie tent, a communications tent and yoga sessions. They are organized, famously non-hierarchical, and they look like a group that could stick it out for the long haul; easily up to or beyond the Nov. 19 election.
Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson said earlier this week that he has no intention of moving the campers along just now. He says similar camps have sprung up in other cities where demonstrations have also been inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, and so far, the campers here have been well-behaved.
Suzanne Anton says the fact that the city allowed the tents to be pitched in the first place shows a failure of leadership on the part of Mr. Robertson.
Ms. Anton is not demanding that the tents be removed, nor is she against the protest, she says.
But she knows an opportunity when she sees one. And this one is gold.
“Vancouver taxpayers are not an endless source of funds,” Ms. Anton said in a news release that was shot out, typos and all, at 6:30 Thursday morning. “As Mayor and Police Board Chair, Gregor Robertson needs to tell taxpayers what this tent city is costing us. The police chief has said that the extra policing is hurting the police budget.”
And then, typical of such news releases, there are questions that amount to thinly veiled accusations:
“Is the city failing to enforce established city bylaws regarding the construction of structures on public land? How much is it costing taxpayers each day to police and service this site since Saturday? How long is the Mayor prepared to allow this tent city to exist? When will this public space be returned to the public?” asks Ms. Anton.
Ms. Anton doesn’t have any answers. She doesn’t have to; she’s not in charge.
The city estimates the first five days of the protest cost the city more than half a million dollars.
Most of that was spent on crowd control on the weekend of the protest march. A healthy contingent of well-equipped VPD officers remained for days afterward.
You can bet that the police, still smarting from last June’s hockey riot, aren’t taking any chances on this one. Still, police chief Jim Chu is musing publicly about the impact on his budget.
The mayor says it’s costing about $1,000 per day in additional city resources.
So now Mr. Robertson is in a tough spot.
Ms. Anton has made hobby of bashing him on the leadership issue.
And the longer this protest lingers, the more doubt she will no doubt cast on his ability to lead.
Mr. Robertson is left somewhere between supporting the rights of people involved in a semi-popular peaceful protest that is taking place in a thousand cities around the world, and the perception of maintaining public order.
The city has the power to remove the tents, but the mayor can’t afford to appear heavy-handed.
Ms. Anton claims the camp is hurting downtown businesses and hotels. She would like to “wish” the protestors away, but acknowledges the situation is complicated.
Vancouver city councillor Geoff Meggs says deciphering Ms. Anton’s position is next to impossible. He said on Friday, “As of today, she does not want the tents forced down, nor is she opposed to the protest. Instead, her ‘wish’ is that the protesters ‘should move along.’”
She shouldn’t wish too hard. This is a gift – granted, one that comes wrapped in nylon fabric and plastic tarpaulin and smells vaguely like smoke and sweat – but a gift all the same; an issue that has the potential to carry her much further than a downtown streetcar, and reap gains greater than a lawn full of wheat.
In a race where Ms. Anton has tried to define leadership as a key issue, this is a block-sized visual aide; a backdrop for all future news conferences where the mayor’s ability to lead can be questioned.
I wonder if the campers know that.
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver. firstname.lastname@example.org