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Vancouver set for showdown with occupiers after woman's death

Occupy Vancouver protesters and friends of a young woman who died at the site gather at a makeshift memorial for her at the Vancouver Art Gallery Nov. 6, 2011.

Rafal Gerszak for the Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

The weekend death of a young woman at the Occupy Vancouver tent protest has galvanized determination by city officials to end the 23-day, downtown encampment as quickly as possible.

"Given that we have had a very tragic death, which I think really shook people up, we need to move in an expedited way," city manager Penny Ballem told reporters Sunday, after a day of meetings with other civic managers, including police and fire representatives.

"As long as it's ongoing, this encampment presents a risk to life safety. … [Saturday's]tragedy is something that is not acceptable."

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Ms. Ballem gave no details or deadline for the city's next move, however, other than to say options would be considered "over the coming days."

A more imminent showdown is looming in Victoria against occupants of about 50 tents erected beside City Hall.

Bylaw officers and city police rousted campers from their tents early Sunday morning and handed out letters advising them they have until noon Monday to vacate the area.

Those who refuse will be ticketed, city spokesperson Katie Josephson said. An injunction will be sought, if the protest continues, she added.

At Occupy Vancouver, meanwhile, occupants were defiant against any suggestion they should leave the Vancouver Art Gallery plaza, where scores of tents and other structures have been housing protesters since mid-October.

"We are standing our ground. We are here to make a point," said Jaeme Grosvenor, who has been camping overnight since Day Two of the protest.

At the same time, occupants grieved openly over the on-site death of 23-year old Ashlie Gough of Victoria, who succumbed to what many at the encampment said was a drug overdose, although the exact cause of death has not been determined.

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An impromptu memorial near where she died, marked by a small wooden cross, candles and flowers, was surrounded in the afternoon by friends and site volunteers, who asked people not to take photographs.

"It's a site for grieving," one explained, as people hugged and wept, talking softly among themselves.

Asked how he would like Ms. Gough to be remembered, a friend said: "Just say she was an honest, quiet person with a big heart. No, an enormous heart. That's all we want to say."

Another acquaintance, who identified herself as Kayla, said she knew the victim as "happy, lively, outgoing."

On her Facebook page, Ms. Gough appeared in punk/goth clothing and hairstyle, while listing the School of Hard Knocks as one of her alma maters.

Many protesters said the tragedy was no reason to shut down Occupy Vancouver, arguing that what happened is a city-wide problem, not confined to the Art Gallery encampment.

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Occupy Vancouver first-aid medic Trevor Walpeper, one of those who tried to resuscitate Ms. Gough, said he doesn't think injection drug use at the site is very high, despite the incident. "At night, it's mostly peaceful," he said. "People sleep."

Others said drug and alcohol use is discouraged at the site, but there is no official ban, and it's difficult to know what goes on inside individual tents.

Patricia Daly, the city's chief medical health officer, said there are no "major public health concerns" at Occupy Vancouver, despite Ms. Gough's death and a near fatality from a drug overdose on Thursday.

"The Public Health Act is not meant for these types of occurrences," Dr. Daly said, adding, however, that she agrees the tents should be removed.

"We know it is not a safe environment, and we are concerned about that, but drug-overdose deaths do occur elsewhere in the city, as well."

She said protesters have been following food handling and storing recommendations from public-health inspectors. "We have not seen rat infestation there."

Late Sunday, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson buttressed Ms. Ballem's declaration, saying in a statement: "The Occupy Vancouver protest can continue. The tent encampment, as it stands now, cannot.

"My goal as mayor is to see that the city enables this in a way that prevents the tragic loss of life that we saw [Saturday]"

Both the mayor and Ms. Ballem stressed that the goal is to end the tent protest peacefully, without force. But neither said how that might happen.

Ms. Ballem said a court injunction is one option for the city to pursue. "We haven't reached a decision on that yet … but if we do go to get an injunction, we would like that to be fairly expedited."

With a report from Brennan Clarke in Victoria

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