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The Globe and Mail

Time is running out for Occupy Vancouver protesters

Occupy Vancouver protester gather near their tents during their protest at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver October 16, 2011 in Vancouver.

Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail/jeff vinnick The Globe and Mail

Ben Makowski spent most of Monday handing out socks and blankets and an assortment of other supplies to any needy Occupy Vancouver protester who happened by. Mr. Makowski was occupying a family-sized tent that had a sign on it that said "Infrastructure."

The inside looked like a thrift store. There were tables of donated clothes and baskets of everything from used flashlights to lengths of new hose. Beside Mr. Makowski's tent is another serving as a first-aid station. Around the corner, a larger one has become a communications centre.

In just over a week, the protest encampment on the lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery has taken on the feel of a small village. "And now we are in the process of building what really is a parallel society," the 65-year-old Mr. Makowski says.

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Society building isn't easy. Its framework is being created at twice-daily general assembly meetings where the protesters vote on various bills. Right now, most of the legislation centres on developing an agreed-upon process. If every vote needs a consensus to pass, for instance, what constitutes a consensus? (They agreed it would be 90 per cent).

"There are a lot of people here who have different agendas," Mr. Makowski says. "So getting to consensus is not easy. It will take time. But we have lots of time."

In fact, they probably don't.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson says the protesters will soon have to leave, but so far he has not given them a deadline. If he does, it better be far into the future, Mr. Makowski says, because his fellow campers are not going anywhere soon.

Situated in the centre of the city as it is, in full view of thousands of downtown workers and visiting tourists, the Occupy colony is the last thing the mayor needed with an election less than a month away. It has given Mr. Robertson's opponent, Suzanne Anton, the Non-Partisan Association party's mayoral candidate, a potentially divisive issue. She is pressing the mayor to give the protesters a firm deadline, and if they ignore it, well, that's where the police earn their money.

This stand appeals to downtown merchants and conservative-minded citizens from the city's west side – groups among the NPA's traditional base of supporters.

But Mr. Robertson and his Vision Vancouver party have a political base of their own to worry about: social progressives of all ages who share the protesters' concerns on a range of issues. While those voters may not agree with the camp remaining where it is for the long haul, nor would they support members of the Vancouver Police Department moving in waving billy clubs during a dawn raid to clear everyone out.

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At least not tomorrow.

The mayor knows that if that happens, and blood is spilled, it will be on his hands. Just as his political enemies dubbed the events after the seventh game of the Stanley Cup "Robertson's Riot," it isn't a stretch imagining them labelling a nasty clash with police "Robertson's Rampage," or some such catchy attack phrase.

That's politics.

The fact is, a violent confrontation with police is exactly what it may come to.

With each passing day, the protesters become more entrenched. Talking to many of them on Monday, one did not get the sense that they are ready to sit down and negotiate a peaceful end to their occupation. On the contrary, you get the feeling they intend to spend the winter exactly where they are.

The mayor could never allow that to happen. The rains will soon return and it won't be long before the gallery's grounds are a muddy mess – even more so than they already are. There will be public health concerns soon enough.

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There is also legitimate concern about potential damage to the millions of dollars in valuable artwork that is archived right below the encampment. The protesters have been digging trenches to help keep the rain water out of their tents. But a membrane just 40 centimetres below the surface protects the vast collection of paintings and sculptures.

That is not a disaster the mayor wants on his hands.

Back at the protest site, the occupiers seem oblivious to the looming reality of their situation, that their utopian dream may soon be quashed.

Beside Ben Makowski is a photocopy of the camp's daily schedule that runs from 7 a.m. to midnight. It is mostly filled with times for sub-committee meetings.

"We're building something pretty special here," Mr. Makowski says. "I just don't see why anyone would want to wipe out all the hard work we've put in. This isn't about politics."

When it ends, that's all it will be about.

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