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Occupy protesters united by frustration, participants say

A protester gets creative at the Occupy Toronto protests on October 15, 2011.

Peter Power/ The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

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.

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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.

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"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.

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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.

The aims of the Occupy Vancouver movement appeared to be different for everyone, but economic equality, climate change and First Nations rights were at the top of the list for many.

For one mother of two, the goal was simply to make a better world for her daughters.

"Things have gotten hard in the past couple years," said Sarah Pond, holding her five-month-old daughter Miranda Breeze.

"I've seen my wages go down and groceries get more expensive," she said. "I want to see economic and gender equality for my girls."

Another protester, Sean O'Flynn-Magee, arrived with only a tarp, a sleeping bag and bread.

A political science graduate from UBC, he said he thought the movement was about a disconnect between "what we were told about the world and what we actually found."

"We are all getting university educations and realizing, 'Oh great, there's a job at Starbucks waiting for me,'" he said.

"I think there's a great deal of discontent in certain parts of society," he said, adding he would remain at the art gallery for "as long as it takes."

Vancouver police estimated 4,000 people took part in the protest. Const. Jana McGuinness said there were no arrests or incidents of note. Police appeared relaxed and chatted in groups at the outskirts of the demonstration.

She said police were keeping an eye on people wearing masks, but they hadn't had any trouble yet.

"It's a very peaceful protest, with a lot of families and children," she said.

Despite the appearance that the event was spontaneous and free-flowing, organizers had informed police of their plans in the days and weeks before the demonstration, she said.

Police knew of march routes beforehand and were able to quickly shut down traffic on many streets.

B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair marched with the crowd, after publicly endorsing the protest earlier this week.

He said Premier Christy Clark should take note of the impressive turnout. Ms. Clark told reporters Thursday that Occupy Vancouver will not gain the same momentum as the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, because Canada does not have the same problems as the United States.

"She should come down and look," Mr. Sinclair said.

"This is the largest demonstration we've had in years. Frankly, we do have problems in British Columbia... We have the highest child poverty rate and the lowest corporate tax rate in Canada."

City councillors Ellen Woodsworth and Geoff Meggs also joined the march. The city has tentatively supported the demonstration, while raising concerns that a small group of people could incite violence.

In Halifax, demonstrators crowded into a park in the city's downtown, setting up tents, waving union banners, hoisting hand-drawn placards and talking politics.

"I'm a fan of capitalism, but it's gotten to the point when it's become abusive capitalism," said call-centre worker Chris Currie, who was protesting in Halifax. "People need to remember that we need to get a little more altruism in our society as opposed to a lot of selfishness."

Mr. Currie, 25, said he had six years of post-secondary education and two university degrees, but was unable to find a job other than a low-paying position he could have gotten before going to school.

"All this financial growth that happens, it's not helping the people," he said. "It's helping a very small number of people and we're just kinda showing that 'Hey, we are the people that it's not helping'."

Police estimated there were about 200 people in the Halifax demonstration, which remained peaceful. It was expected many would remain into the night.

There was a similar scene in Montreal where hundreds gathered at Victoria Square in the city's financial district. The site was dotted with a half-dozen tents and coolers brought by those planning a long occupation.

Several demonstrators cited the Quebec government's refusal to hold an inquiry into corruption in the construction industry as an example of how governments fail to act on the demands of citizens.

Those taking part in the occupations maintained it was irrelevant that Canada has weathered the economic crisis better than the U.S. — as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty have asserted.

Instead, they argued the gap between rich and poor in Canada is growing faster than in the U.S. Among other issues, they decried poverty, tar-sands pollution and exploitation of Aboriginal people.

Mr. Harper called the situation in Canada "very different" from that in the U.S. on Friday, saying there were no bank bailouts in this country.

Other Canadian cities slated to see protests included Calgary, Fredericton, Moncton, N.B.; Guelph, Windsor, Kingston and London in Ontario; Nanaimo, Courtenay, Duncan, Kelowna, Kamloops and Nelson in B.C.; Lethbridge, Alta., Regina and Ottawa.

With files from The Canadian Press

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