Delisle Doucet, a homeless man in a wheelchair, joined the Occupy Victoria camp last week. It’s more attractive than sleeping in Beacon Hill Park: “I have more blankets than I know what to do with,” he said, as strong gusts kicked over milk crates and ripped away tarps.
The last few Occupiers were in court on Thursday fighting to remain at Centennial Square, the plaza next to city hall. Back at the camp, Mr. Doucet was bitter: “They want us out because they want to throw a Christmas party.”
He has nailed it. In Victoria you can rage against The Man, but don’t mess with Santa Claus.
When Mayor Dean Fortin sent city lawyers into B.C. Supreme Court seeking to evict the encampment that has dominated a public square adjacent to city hall since mid-October, it was not with a burning desire to clear the ragged lot out before voters head to the municipal polls on Saturday.
Rather, the progressive Mr. Fortin is playing the Grinch to the Occupy Movement because Santa Claus is coming to town. On Nov. 26, 20,000 people are expected to gather for the annual Santa parade.
The mayor would take away the Occupiers’ noisemakers and protest banners and tent kitchens. There is no place for a chaotic network of tents, tarps and scavenged furniture amid the twinkling Christmas lights on the towering Sequoia tree, to be lit that evening. And the soon-to-be-installed outdoor skating rink – a novelty in a city where ice is usually manufactured indoors – is meant to make the square a seasonal gathering point for families.
Mr. Fortin was initially sympathetic to the Occupy movement; he and most of his council voted on Oct. 27 to support it. But a week later, he was sounding the alarm about an increase in criminal activity. “It’s starting to deteriorate,” he warned. The welcome mat was emphatically rolled up when electricity and water supplies were shut off.
Mr. Fortin was elected three years ago with a left-leaning slate. But the Dean Fortin who is seeking a second term as mayor this Saturday is not facing strong opposition from a business-backed candidate this time.
Ken Kelly, general manager of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, is itching to get into Centennial Square to decorate. His organization is shipping the components of the ice rink from Mississauga. In what merchants fear will be a lean Christmas shopping season, Occupy Victoria doesn’t send the desired message – stay downtown and shop!
“Wouldn’t it be the miracle on Centennial Square if they all chose to pack up and leave?” a wistful Mr. Kelly asked. He’s got no complaints with Mr. Fortin’s handling of the encampment, in fact offers high praise for the mayor’s record at working with downtown businesses and police to tackle homelessness and disorder. “I do think that Victoria is a model of co-operation and collaboration of how we have been able to address social issues,” Mr. Kelly said. “People are seeing evidence that there is positive change.”
Mr. Fortin’s strongest critics on Occupy are from the left of the political spectrum. His right-of-centre opponent, Paul Brown, says he would have acted sooner. But Councillor Phillipe Lucas accuses the mayor of being heavy-handed. “I don’t see any justification for the city to step up with this enforcement action,” he said this week.
Mr. Lucas was elected in 2008 as part of “Dean’s team,” but this time he is running as an independent. He’s pleaded with the Occupiers to leave on their own accord “before we see protestors dragged from tents and thrown in the back of paddy wagons.”
By Thursday morning, after a miserable night of wind and rain, the Occupy camp had dwindled to about 20 tents. “This is actually a really difficult thing to do,” said Jason Thompson, one of the remaining protestors, when asked about the decline.
Mr. Thompson, at least, is voting in the municipal election. If current trends hold, most Victoria voters will not bother to cast a ballot on Saturday. They’re pre-occupied with other matters – perhaps Christmas shopping.
Victoria mayoral candidates’ views
Occupy Victoria hasn’t defined the municipal election campaign, observes Michael Prince, a political science professor at the University of Victoria. “This is just one degree separated from a typical Victoria demonstration, it’s not a big stretch for us,” he said. But here’s where the main mayoral candidates stand on the protest camp:
The campers need to clear out very soon, says Dean Fortin: “We need time to clean up all the detritus in the square. It is the centre of the Christmas celebration – the Christmas tree light-up, the skating rink.”
The camp should have been pushed out faster, says Paul Brown: “Camping at Centennial Square has lost public support and is now tainting the important message being sent by those supporting the 99 per cent movement.”
Steve Filipovic says the campers should move on but he wouldn’t force them out: “ I’m all for the movement … [but]their purpose has been done. We should be encouraging the Occupiers to have more broad contact with the community.”