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ANALYSIS

Will they still occupy us tomorrow? Add to ...

In partisan terms, that means the Liberals don't see any value in an alliance with the occupiers as they try to reclaim the middle-class vote lost to the Conservatives, while the NDP is more cautiously engaged in outreach: Any polarization of the Canadian political process, after all, will benefit the NDP at the expense of the Liberal centrists. And unions have been quietly but actively supporting and advising the protesters.

‘The Canadian movement is just a copycat'

The question of whether the Occupy movement really is broadly representative of a deep-seated social unrest is at the heart of its existence, and will determine its future course. For Joseph Heath, a University of Toronto philosophy professor who writes often about political dialogue, the answer to that question is completely different depending on whether you are looking at the U.S. or Canada.

“The U.S. movement is long overdue and quite valuable,” he says. “But the Canadian movement is just a copycat. Income equality is quite different in Canada from the United States, plus the United States had a financial crisis and Canada didn't. Their banks behaved extremely badly and ours didn't. And they have a political system that is broken and blocked up – they have a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in the Senate that can't get their legislation passed.”

The United States elected Barack Obama in a spirit of optimism, and the Occupiers are an obvious response to three years of deflected hopes and ideals. “Whereas in Canada,” Prof. Heath notes, “Canadians just elected a Conservative majority government. So here, the Occupy movement ends up saying things that are vaguely anti-democratic: ‘We're the 99 per cent, just not the ones who voted for the current government.' That's a lot less persuasive than the message in the States.”

Occupy Wall Street makes perfect sense to Prof. Heath: That's where the U.S. financial crisis was incubated, where the undeserved bonuses were paid. But Bay Street is in no way as culpable, he believes. He tells Canadian protesters to make tracks for Fort McMurray, Alta., and lead an occupation of the oil-sands projects instead. “Income inequality in Canada doesn't come from the financial sector,” he says. “The economy has shifted hugely toward resource extraction.”

‘Serious private-sector leaders get it'

Occupy Fort McMurray in winter? That's taking a nomadic movement a little too far, perhaps. But not everyone agrees that the Occupiers have the wrong idea about who to blame and how best to make a better world.

Ed Waitzer is a veteran Bay Streeter, a high-level corporate lawyer who also teaches corporate governance at York University. Instead of being put off by the Occupiers and their anger, he says, “I'd be very disappointed if they don't find a way to continue. I think they've resonated at a profound level with the public disaffection for greed.”

Occupiers have been inclined to say that they're not in the business of making policy prescriptions. The movement is more about process, a way of reviving participatory politics and showing true democracy in action. But Mr. Waitzer is a policy guy, and he is more eager to connect the protesters' distaste for the world they're inheriting with the anxiety he hears from institutional investors about profit-driven myopia in the corporate world and political decision-making based solely on short-term electability.

“Serious private-sector leaders get it,” he says. “They understand that there are systemic problems for which Occupy Wall Street has become a very powerful articulation.”

He says politicians should be more welcoming of the dissent – that the people in the tent cities represent a group of stakeholders who can stiffen the spines of elected leaders who have got caught up in short-term thinking.

As for the Occupiers themselves, however, the Bay Streeter's counsel is to seize the opportunity to move on: “The physical presence in the camps is obviously a declining strategy. So they've got to figure out a virtual presence and build a platform that will expand out and make links with like-minded groups. They should be linking up with activist shareholders and consumer groups and student organizations. Otherwise, we'll have kids now leaving high school who may never have jobs. And the implication that has on social capital should be frightening.”

A movement that won't make this move from process to policy, that lives in the joy of occupation's eternal present, doesn't have much of a future. Ask Umberto Eco: What will happen if the Occupy movement doesn't move into the realm of ideas and politics?

“The other side will win.”

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