10/28/2011 05:16 EDT | Updated 12/28/2011 05:12 EST

Occupy Movement Cannot Be Ignored

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The placid surface of Canadian politics has been disturbed by an unprecedented burst of popular discontent. Over the last week and a half, dozens of cities have emulated the example of New York's Occupy Wall Street movement. Encampments have been set up near financial districts in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and elsewhere; general assemblies are held regularly amidst independent media booths, medical clinics, and kitchens doling out free food. Every day, more tents are pitched, as support widens and plans are hatched for future action.

Government officials and pundits had crowed that the Occupy movement would never spread north; now that it has, they insist it will not grow. "What are they all about?" Finance Minister Jim Flaherty disparagingly told media. Canada had not, like the United States, seen a devastating wave of foreclosures, recklessly criminal trading by investment firms, or a massive public bailout of the banks. No reason for protest in such a 'generous' country, he declared.

Flaherty's response perfectly embodies a defining feature of the age: the utter disconnect between elite charged with governing and those being governed. No reason for protest? The minister should ask the million Canadians who line up monthly for emergency supplements at under-resourced food banks; in 1980, not even a single official Food Bank operated. Or ask the growing numbers of homeless in urban centres, and the multiplying ranks of desperate poor in rural reservations and resource towns. Or middle-class families, shackled with record debts surpassing U.S. levels, working overtime at two or more jobs, simply to maintain the wages they made 30 years ago. These are among the legions that a 'generous' political and economic system has failed abysmally.

Those who believe Canada is not riven with deep inequalities should think again. While Canada doesn't share the extremes of power and privilege in the United States, income inequality in Canada is in fact rising faster. In the last decades, the richest one per cent of Canadians took home a third of all income growth, and pay lower taxation than they have in decades. The top 61 billionaires in Canada own twice as much wealth as the bottom half of the population. It is as if the elite had seceded from the country, deserting with its wealth and any shared recognition of how most live and suffer. Little wonder so many are finding meaning and purpose in the declaration of 99 per cent against the one per cent.

"It's not helpful to make this about class warfare," John Manley, head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE), Canada's most powerful corporate lobby group, retorted in his haughtiest tones. But that is precisely what has transpired in this country and in much of the world: a three-decades long ransacking of the public wealth by the rich. Though it has scarcely merited mention in a media owned by the same self-serving class, this country has undergone a calculated redesign in the interests of big business. Since the 1980s, Conservative and Liberal governments alike have implemented a wish list of Bay Street demands -- deep cuts to social programs, tax breaks for corporations, privatization and deregulation and the attempted commercialization of everything in sight.

Those overseeing this neoliberal revolution have not just assaulted our wages and living standards. They have assaulted our values and expectations. The ideological adulation of self-interest, of the freedom to accumulate as much as possible and to profit enormously without service to the community, has penetrated our common sense and experience of daily life. It has deeply impacted expectations about how much we can allow ourselves to hope: for dignity and mutual respect, and for real democracy and economic security.

But the Occupy movement in Canada, like elsewhere, seems to have unleashed a flowering of expectation and political possibility. The encampments of public spaces, run democratically and non-hierarchically, have made tangibly visible to millions that the neoliberal mantra is bankrupt: there are indeed alternatives in how we treat one another and organize our world. No one is in charge of the occupations, except the anger and hope in every person. If such a movement can make corporate greed and our rigged liberal democracies unacceptable on a much broader scale, it will lay the groundwork to confront the powers of finance and big business and roll back the privileges of the elites. A sea change in expectations, a transformation of values, are not of course demands to be issued. But they are a force to be reckoned with.

The Occupy moment, in a simple but powerful slogan and tactic, has offered up the potential for a Canadian social movement for the 21st century -- vast, inclusive, and integrating consciousness of the inequities within the 99 per cent. It offers a chance for many longer-standing campaigns for economic and social justice -- heroic but usually small, isolated and ignored by the media -- to find a vital unifying battle as well as broader attention. And as more groups throw themselves into the Occupy movement, it will in turn develop in dynamism and diversity and numbers. The entry of more experienced organizers could prevent the fetishizing of a single tactic; already, its turn toward bank occupations is a good sign that it is starting to looking at a strategic course of tactical escalation.

Bold demands should come when the occupy movement grows into its power. This will help it force concessions from government or the financial sector, short-term victories that could feed the movement's morale as it hunkers down to face the encroaching, frigid Canadian winter.