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Why Canadians Should Occupy Vancouver

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On Oct. 15 the #occupywallstreet protests will arrive at cities around the world and in one of the birthplaces of the movement in downtown Vancouver. The Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters inspired the protests that have been going on in New York.

The decentralized nature of the protests has led to some confusion over what people are so angry about and what they hope to accomplish. One of the main themes is the growing gap in wealth between the richest in our society, the top one per cent, and everyone else, the 99 per cent.  One way to look at this gap is simply through compensation paid for work. In these difficult economic times of job cuts and spending cut-backs, many people are asking themselves: when someone is paid a salary, what is it for? What is a reasonable amount of compensation for a job? Does society have any ability or right to demand that compensation needs to be, in some way, fair?

Here's a little perspective. Consider two different organizations: a large Canadian bank and the Canadian Armed Forces. Both have highly paid executives making terribly important decisions which affect the lives and livelihoods of their thousands of employees as well as society at large.

The current chief of the defence staff of the Canadian Armed Forces is Walt Natynczyk. In 2007 his predecessor Rick Hillier was paid $234,900 a year. Meanwhile, Rick Waugh, the CEO of Scotiabank makes around $10 million a year. I don't know his pension deal, but bank CEO pensions are usually counted in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Now, let's consider the entry level workers in those organizations: a bank teller and a private in the Armed Forces. The entry requirements for these jobs are similar: high school education, trustworthiness and passing a security test. A no-hook private in the regular forces starts off making around $31,956 a year. According to Payscale.com, the average hourly rate for bank tellers in Vancouver is $17.88 per hour. With a generous five per cent bonus in a good year, let's say that comes out to around $50,000 a year.

By my calculations, in the armed forces, the ratio of the pay between a bottom and the top is 7.35. The Chief of Defence Staff, who meets with the Prime Minister to decide how many troops to leave in Afghanistan and what risks to our troops are acceptable, makes just 7.35 times more than the private learning to shine his boots properly.

Meanwhile, in the bank, the CEO is making a whopping 200 times more than the entry level teller. To be sure, the CEO's job is hard and stressful and a lot of responsibility is on their shoulders. But the bank teller doesn't have an easy job either, being on their feet all day, dealing with demanding customers and even having to deal with bank robberies from time to time. If Gen. Walt Natynczyk only makes seven times as much as a private, then what is it that a CEO does that is 200 times harder or more essential than what a teller does?

This is is just one of the many things that the people on the streets of New York, and soon a banking district near you, are angry about.  Doesn't that make you angry?  If so, then it's most likely you still won't be protesting on Oct. 15, and that's fine of course.  Protesting isn't for everyone, and it's really not clear these Occupy Everywhere protests will achieve anything other than letting off some steam.  But then again, maybe they can lead to change. Maybe all this discussion about the basic assumptions underlying the social contract between citizens, government and corporations is a good thing in itself.

Political and business leaders don't like taking risks on big changes unless they know they will be rewarded for it.  All this protesting shows that people sure are angry about something. Maybe the most important affect of Occupy Wall Street will be a new political atmosphere that allows those in power to actually make some improvements to society. That should be something all of us would welcome, even if we're not out on the streets this Saturday.

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