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Occupy movement a protest no politician can afford to ignore

Niko Salassidis chants as he streams a live video of the Occupy Toronto protest he is taking part in Toronto, Ont. on October 16, 2011. Peaceful protests began yesterday inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City and protesters have set up camp at Saint James Park near Toronto's financial district.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail/Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

It is occasionally disorganized, its demands unclear and diverse. But one thing that's certain about Occupy – the movement has gone global.

What began in New York as a rallying cry against income inequity – a post-bailout backlash at a recovery that seemed to restore wealth to the happy few and leave many behind – has vaulted from Wall Street to Chicago, London and Rome; and to Toronto, Vancouver and cities across Canada.

Canadian leaders and their peers abroad have been forced to acknowledge the movement, even if they are unsure how the demonstrations will evolve or what exactly demonstrators are asking for.

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Stephen Harper's Conservatives have not condemned the protests, but neither have the New Democrats nor the Liberals wholly endorsed them. No one is ignoring them, though.

Mark Carney raised eyebrows on Friday when he called the main message of Occupy Wall Street an "entirely constructive" expression of frustration about the economy and income inequality – an unexpected take from the Bank of Canada Governor. He was joined on the weekend by his Italian counterpart, Mario Draghi, a former executive at Goldman Sachs who is poised to take over as president of the European Central Bank next month.

"They're angry against the world of finance. I understand them," Mr. Draghi said at a Group of 20 meeting in Paris, while he denounced the violence that rocked Rome.

Politicians remained sensitive to the broader public frustrations they evoke.

NDP leadership front-runner Brian Topp sought to embrace the cries against inequity by promising to tax corporations and the rich more. Liberal Bob Rae preached empathy for frustrations that can't be ignored. And Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has sought to deflect the ire with a smidgen of sympathy, a defence of Canadian difference, and a little fatherly head-shaking. "What are these demonstrations actually about?" he asked rhetorically in a television interview Sunday.

The governing Conservatives have so far chosen to view the protesters' angst as something aimed elsewhere.

The movement that complained that the wealthiest 1 per cent had more than the other 99 per cent is being told there's not as much to see here, north of the border. In Canada, Mr. Flaherty and Mr. Harper have argued, banks weren't bailed out and the social system is fairer.

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"It looks like it started off as some people concerned about large income going to some Wall Street people, a relatively small percentage of people in the United States, and large youth unemployment in the United States. Which is, you know, accurate," Mr. Flaherty said in an interview Sunday with CTV News.

But now, he said, it's blossoming into something different – "and a whole different series of people with various grievances seem to be participating." Finance ministers from the G20, in chats outside their meetings in France, he said, were wondering mostly who and what the protests are now: "What are these demonstrations actually about? Who's participating?"

It's a complaint U.S. pundits made regularly about the Occupy Wall Street protests – that they lack a clear message or demand. Regardless, the demonstrations have spread.

The opposition, without endorsing the protests themselves, portray the Tories as out of touch with the frustrations behind them – and appeal to Occupy sentiments.

Mr. Topp pointed to the protests to argue Ottawa needs to roll back past tax cuts for profitable corporations and high-income individuals.

"The demonstrations are making this point, not just in Canada but all around the world," he said on CTV's Question Period on Sunday. "The trend in the last 20 years was massive, multibillion-dollar expenditures on tax cuts to people who least need the help."

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And Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae, who spoke to some of the protesters in his Toronto Centre riding on Saturday, said the Tories haven't seen beyond the cacophony of causes and some "anti-corporate rants" to see the underlying frustrations with less-secure pensions, the loss of well-paying jobs, and high corporate executive pay that have led many ordinary folks to support them.

"I think Mr. Flaherty is just missing the point," he said.

But he said there remains a question of how the protests will end, or how they might be translated into other forms of politics. "As we all know, it's a lot easier to start a demonstration than it is to bring it to an end."

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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