A day that opened under a cloud of uncertainty closed with a mood of celebration on an unseasonably warm evening for Occupy Toronto protesters, after a court delayed the city’s plans to evict the demonstration from a downtown park.
Cheers went up from the crowd of hundreds, which was in the midst of a large group meeting, when word of the court’s decision reached St. James Park around 6:30 p.m. Ontario Superior Court Judge D.M. Brown ruled that the standoff between protesters at St. James Park and city officials must remain at a status quo until he can settle a Charter-based challenge being carried out by five of the protesters. The two sides will argue their case on Friday at 10 a.m. Judge Brown said he would come down with a final decision by Saturday at 6 p.m.
The city argued that the Occupy protesters are inconveniencing the public and that a full-scale eviction would not cause “irreparable harm” to their message.
The protesters contend that an eviction based on the Trespass to Property Act would violate their Charter rights of “freedom of conscience, expression, peaceful assembly and association” and that the camp is “integrally linked with the message they wish to convey.”
Some demonstrators, who had spent the day calling for supporters to flood the park and deter police and city officials from removing tents, reversed course, asking that the encampment respect the judge’s wishes that the encampment not grow.
The ruling defused, at least temporarily, what seemed like an inevitable confrontation. Protesters said they had no intention of going anywhere and, before the court order came down, the park was still packed with roughly a hundred tents and several hundred people.
Protesters also plan to march on City Hall Saturday afternoon in a message aimed directly at Mayor Rob Ford.
Despite the dismantling of occupy encampments in other cities, Toronto protesters sounded upbeat Tuesday evening.
“You could kick the people out of this park – they’re going to come back,” said Matthew Webb, a 34-year-old advertising industry employee who has spent much of the past four weeks in the park. “This is a vibrant exercise in democracy and I think it’s proper to discuss it in the courts. The charter supercedes bylaws.”
It remained uncertain what form the movement would take if it loses its tent cities across the continent.
“That’s the big question, right? Does it hibernate during the wintertime, does it come back again better organized and with more money?” said Stuart Inglis, who has been visiting St. James Park regularly. “These are social petri dishes for the 21st century all over the world.”
Demonstrators gathered at a gazebo in the park to play music as the night went on.
It was a far cry from Tuesday morning, when the city handed eviction notices to protesters, demanding that they remove tents immediately and leave the park between the hours of 12:01 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. The notice, signed by city manager Joe Pennachetti, said the occupation is preventing people from using the park, and that protesters have damaged the space and are interfering with winter maintenance.
“Please be advised that if all tents and other structures, equipment and debris are not removed immediately, the City will take the necessary steps to itself remove the tents and other structures,” the notice read.
At a general assembly at the footsteps of St. James’ Cathedral, Bryan, a member of the occupiers’ Eviction Preparedness Committee who wouldn’t give his last name, told the crowd there were several options: stand their ground and be willing to risk arrest; form a human wall around the park “and defend the community that has been established here”; submit in some ways to the eviction; or relocate the protest.
Some tearfully hugged, while others penned legal-assistance numbers on their forearms in case of arrests.
Protesters said they had contacted the city to offer to help winterize the park, but were rebuffed.
Among those at the park was folk singer Gordon Lightfoot, who told reporters he was paying a visit to his teenaged daughter staying in the encampment.
City officials and police, however, remained tight-lipped about their plans to clear out protesters who didn’t comply, but said it could be done peacefully.
“Don’t expect anything going on there at midnight,” said deputy mayor Doug Holyday. “We’d like to handle our situation better than what you saw in some American cities. We don’t want people arrested or hurt and we are taking great pains to avoid that.”
Mr. Holyday, speaking on behalf of the mayor who was “in meetings,” said the trespassing notice would be sufficient to persuade most of the roughly 500 protesters to leave. Any stragglers would be dealt with by court order and, if necessary, police action, he said.
“Bottom line, they have to be out by the end of the month. The pipes and other equipment in that park will become frozen and damaged if we can’t get in there by the end of the month and that will be quite expensive for the city.”
He also shot down any suggestion the protest could move to Nathan Phillips Square.
Twelve left-leaning councillors, meanwhile, issued a letter beseeching Mr. Ford to hold off the eviction until the matter can be debated at council.
Councillors Gord Perks and Shelley Carroll are currently shepherding a motion to offer Occupy Toronto an official endorsement.
“There’s no need to evict them right now, but it’s getting close,” said Councillor Adam Vaughan, who signed the letter. “They have a democratic right to protest. It doesn’t make everybody happy. We should be having a conversation here to determine how best we can protect that park while also protecting the democratic right to protest.”
Police spokesman Tony Vella said officers were at the protest to keep the peace and had no information on whether they would move in to remove demonstrators.
The eviction notice came after about 30 Occupy protesters marched in downtown Toronto on Tuesday in support of demonstrators who were cleared from a New York City park overnight.
Authorities in New York said their action in Zuccotti Park was motivated by a request from the property’s Canadian owner, Brookfield Properties.
The group demonstrated in front of Brookfield’s Bay Street office, near Union Station.
Holding placards that expressed solidarity with New York protesters, a small group peacefully chanted and spoke out against Brookfield under the gaze of police officers and suited passersby.
Bryan said the group wanted to bring public attention to Brookfield for triggering the “terrorist attack by the NYPD.”
With Mr. Ford saying that it is also time for the occupation in his city to end, Bryan said protesters are hoping such move will not unfold in acrimony.
“So far Toronto has been very fair to the Occupy movement. We hope that respect continues.”
After an hour, as the demonstrators marched back to their encampment at St. James Park, two male protesters were arrested following a dispute with police near the corner of King and Yonge streets.
Both men were charged with assaulting a peace officer. One of them, a 58-year-old, was also charged with mischief under $5,000, assault with a weapon and possession of marijuana, police said.