POLITICS

St. John's, N.L., mayor says Occupy protesters will be removed Wednesday morning

05/15/2012 11:19 EDT | Updated 07/15/2012 05:12 EDT
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Some of the most persistent Occupy protesters in North America tore down a small cluster of tents Tuesday — one was still standing — after the mayor of St. John's, N.L., asked them to leave a seaside park.

Dennis O'Keefe has asked Occupy campers in Harbourside Park to clear out by midnight or city officials will arrive at around 8 a.m. local time Wednesday.

"Our parks people will simply go down to the park and dismantle the material that's there and deliver it to wherever or whomever they want it delivered to," he said in an interview.

"I don't use the term 'evict' because we're not evicting them," O'Keefe said, stressing that protesters can use the popular waterfront meeting place during daylight and evening hours.

"The only thing is, they can't continue to live in the park — any more than I can."

Demonstrators set up tents starting last Oct. 15 as the Occupy movement swept the continent.

While other Occupy camps were shut down by officials in Vancouver, Toronto, Halifax and other cities, St. John's allowed a few diehard protesters to stay all winter.

O'Keefe says he has offered city hall space for Occupy meetings, but it's time to get the park ready for summer events.

He met with Occupy NL leaders on Thursday and said he wouldn't be surprised if they split from about six young men, including some who are transient and homeless, who may wish to stay at the St. John's site.

Ken Canning, 19, has lived in the park since mid-October. He had said in an interview that he has no plans to leave, saying the city's response to Occupy's share-the-wealth call for political change has been to "do nothing."

But by late afternoon Tuesday, Canning had his worldly goods — including sleeping bags, some cookware and a shaving kit — strapped to a knapsack. He still planned to spend the night in the park and he said he wasn't sure how he or other demonstrators would react to city officials in the morning.

O'Keefe said he has gone above and beyond to accommodate the group's "utopian" objectives.

He offered to be part of a symbolic handing back of the park to the city, he said.

"I mean, it could be a launching pad for an even more intense profile for them," he said.

"We have made an offer to them to bring their protest to another level, and I just hope they see it that way."

If a forced clear-out is necessary, "I think that will sour their message rather than reinforce it," O'Keefe said.

Lana Payne, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, said unions have supported the occupiers with everything from financial support to spreading the word about events and meetings.

The Fish, Food and Allied Workers union helped maintain a portable toilet for the campers who also relied on water from an Anglican church along with donations of food, blankets and a propane space heater.

The demonstrators drew electricity for months from an extension cord plugged into a city outlet.

Payne said the decision whether to stay or go must be made by Occupy NL, but the movement's impact is clear.

"I think the most important thing about this is they've created a discussion in our country and in North America," she said. "Now, I think, we will look at every piece of public policy through an inequality kind of lens.

"You don't necessarily have to occupy space to occupy an idea or have an influence on public debate. You can certainly do that in a whole host of ways."