Activists set up a small tent city in St. James Park Saturday evening, preparing to bunk down for the first, uncertain night of the Occupy Toronto demonstration.
The demonstration, which attracted more than 2,000 people, mimics one in New York, where protesters have occupied a park near Wall Street since Sept. 17 to show their frustration with the growing gap between the wealthiest 1 per cent and the everyone else. More took place across Canada, and hundreds of similar protests were held around the world.
As darkness fell in Toronto, about 200 activists broke away from the main group with shouts of "Take it to the streets." They charted a winding course through the city's downtown core, pausing at Dundas Square before returning to St. James Park. At about 7 p.m., police set up a truck equipped with at least two video cameras at the north end of the park. Constable Tony Vella said police use the images to make tactical decisions and as evidence, if needed.
Meanwhile, some activists fretted over a suggestion that police might raid the park overnight or early Sunday morning in search of illegal substances. "Please be careful, be smart, and let's keep this park safe," an organizer told the group during the meeting.
Const. Vella said police had no plans to search the park. Asked if they would remove protesters, he said, "We're judging it periodically."
St. James Park is public property, but it's directly beside a church that bears the same name.
Dean Douglas Stoute, of St. James Cathedral, said protesters are welcome in the park and on church property.
“We don't have concerns,” he said, adding, “Of course, you want everything to be peaceful.”
Newlyweds Kendall Gray and Mark Allen had a larger-than-expected audience waiting when they emerged from the church Saturday afternoon. Protesters backed up to give them space, as cheers and shouts of "Congratulations," erupted from the small crowd near the church exit.
Several politicians dropped by the park, including Trinity-Spadina MP Olivia Chow, city councillor Mike Layton and Toronto Centre MP Bob Rae.
"Spent a couple of hours at St. James Park, good conversations with people who 'want their Canada back,'" Mr. Rae later Tweeted.
The Toronto demonstration, which organizers planned over several weeks, began at the corner of King and Bay Streets at 10 a.m. on Saturday. Organizers say there is no end date, and have told reporters it could last weeks or months.
Three volunteer facilitators led the group through the basics of consensus decision-making on Saturday morning, a system that aims to develop collective agreement without voting.
The group used hand signals to improve communication: twinkling fingers signals agreement while crossed arms means a definite “no.”
They amplified their voices using what organizers call a people's mic. The crowd repeats a speakers' words, broken into small chunks, to ensure everyone can hear.
As the group marched together to St. James Park, police kept their distance. Small groups of neon-clad police officers on bicycles stayed a couple blocks ahead of the march.
Protesters carried a variety of signs, some calling on the government to raise taxes on the rich, keep water public, or nationalize the banks.
Eric Kingsley, a student from Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., said he chose to participate partially because he's against corporate intervention in politics.
He dismissed criticisms that the Occupy protesters don't have a cohesive goal.
“That's actually the best part,” said Mr. Kingsley, who travelled to Toronto Saturday morning with about 20 other students.
“Everyone is coming for different things, but the big important thing is that we're all coming here to express our own discontent in one way or another with the way the world's run,” he said.
On the West Coast, the protest had dwindled to a few hundred people and police reopened streets to traffic by Saturday evening. About a dozen tents were pitched on the lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery.
But earlier in the day, thousands of protesters filled the art gallery lawn. Students and activist groups dominated the crowd, but parents with children could be spotted as well. Protesters held signs saying “We are the 99 per cent,” and “Unholy Trinity: Government, the Fed, Wall Street.”
Not everything worked seamlessly. Some expressed frustration at how the "consensus model" and "human microphone" communication systems was slowing down the protest. Demonstrators spent over an hour discussing a system of communication and finding translators for different languages.
“We've been here for an hour and fifteen minutes, and only reached agreement on how to reach agreement,” yelled one member of the crowd, Andrew Fursman.
A speaker acknowledged the crowd's frustration: “This is democracy in action. It is hard.”
Despite this early hiccup, the power-to-the-people vibe created a positive, peaceful event that spilled into downtown streets. The crowd marched through the city’s financial district, chanting “This is what democracy looks like,” with a brass band playing in the background.