10/15/2011 06:46 EDT | Updated 12/15/2011 05:12 EST

Major Canadian Cities Brace For 'Occupation' As Protest Movement Begins Saturday In Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal And More

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TORONTO - Their stories were varied, their demands different, but demonstrators drawn to the streets of Canada on Saturday were united by their desire to decry the financial inequality and corporate greed they thought was eating away at society.

After being inspired by a nearly month-long movement south of the border, the Occupy Canada campaign took off in cities across the country this weekend.


The grassroots protests have Canadians expressing their disenchantment with governments, which they say defend the interests of the elite and not those of the masses — or "the 99 per cent."

"I'm here for more fairness in a system that isn't working right now," said Simon Marcroft, a 40-year-old video editor who travelled to Toronto from neighbouring Mississauga, Ont., to take part in the movement.

"This was something that seemed to be taking it to more of a common, approachable and reasonable level of discussion."

That discussion ranged from better safeguarding of the environment to voicing frustration with local projects. Many, however, chose to home in on their demands for a stronger economy and steady employment.

"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."

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'."

The demonstrators themselves were just as varied as the demands they voiced. Occupations in Halifax, Montreal and Toronto featured a mixed bag of students, seniors, families with young children, union representatives and even some pets.

While some in the crowds covered their faces with masks, the majority sported smiles as they chanted refrains like "We are the 99 per cent."

The Occupy Toronto demonstration, expected to be the country's largest, began Saturday morning in the heart of the city's financial district with protesters packed into a plaza near the headquarters of major banks and the Toronto Stock Exchange.

By mid-day, the group _ which had spilled into the streets and filled a major intersection _ decided to occupy a park in the city's downtown. They began a slow but upbeat march toward St. James Park, which features well-manicured gardens outside St. James Cathedral.

The decision was made after hundreds of people held a general assembly — a meeting where speakers' messages were distributed through the crowd via a human-relay system.

Once at the park, the crowd continued to wave hand-painted signs while some climbed trees and others clambered atop gazebos.

Sid Ryan, the president of the Ontario Federation of Labour who was at the Toronto protest, called the occupation an "organic movement."

He stressed that the gathering was not a labour protest, but said he was excited to see a wide range of people come out and show their support.

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.

Joy Woolfrey, an international development consultant, stood in a stiff wind holding a banner that read 'Women for Peace.' She said she believed people were compelled to come because of deep-seated inequities in the distribution of wealth.

"I'm here because I think the system is broken and I'm delighted that people are speaking up," said the 69-year-old, as children and dogs milled around the crowd.

"I think a lot of it is the whole issue of how unequal the resources and wealth are divided in the world and within our country."

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.

Frederic Carmel, a 25-year-old office administrator in Montreal, said he booked the next week off work and planned to camp out in the square.

"There is enormous inequality in the division of wealth," he said. "It needs to better redistributed."

In Winnipeg, dozens of people came out for the occupation demonstration.

Other Canadian cities slated to see protests included Calgary, Vancouver, 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.

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.

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.

Despite hundreds of arrests, the protests across the U.S. have been largely peaceful, and those involved in planning the Canadian demonstrators are insisting they, too, will be non-violent.

Still, the police and protester violence of the G20 in Toronto in June last year and hockey riot vandalism in Vancouver four months ago cast shadows over the Occupy Canada planning.

The Occupy Wall Street protests have also spread around the world.

In Europe, the movement is joining up with anti-austerity protests that have raged for months across the continent.

Violence broke out Saturday in Rome, where protesters smashed shop windows and torched a car. Black smoke billowed into the air as a small group of violent protesters broke away from the main demonstration. Italian police charged the violent protesters in Rome, firing tear gas and water cannons.

Protesters nicknamed "the indignant" also marched in other European cities.

In Frankfurt, some 5,000 people took to the streets to protest in front of the European Central Bank. Around 4,000 people marched through the streets of Berlin.

Hundreds marched through the Bosnian city of Sarajevo carrying pictures of Che Guevara and old communist flags that read "Death to capitalism, freedom to the people."

Protesters in Sydney, Australia, waved signs such as "You can't eat money" as they demonstrated on Saturday.

About 200 people in Tokyo joined in protest, and Philippine supporters in Manila marched on the U.S. Embassy to express their support. Hundreds of people also joined peaceful protests in Hong Kong and Seoul.

Protesters around the world have said Saturday will be just a start.

They said they plan to maintain their occupations for the longer term, just as those in Zuccotti Park near Wall Street are doing.