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Hundreds gathered on Stephen Avenue Oct. 15 for the Occupy Calgary movement.
Michael Grondin/the Gauntlet

World-wide movement comes to Calgary

#occupyyyc stirs up controversy in the city

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This past weekend over 1,500 cities around the world weren't just lived in, they were 'occupied' in solidarity to the ongoing Occupy New York and Occupy Wall Street protests in America.

"The idea was put out there about cities organizing their own occupy demonstrations, movements or protests on the day of October 15 as a global start date," said James Jesso, a protester involved with the Occupy Calgary movement.

The Calgary extension of the protest started at 1 p.m. outside of Bankers Hall downtown. In response, Bankers Hall closed its doors to the public. Businesses in TD Square followed suit, locking doors onto 8th Ave S.W., where the protesters were gathering.

Despite the apprehension, the Occupy rally was without incident.

The protests have received criticism that they lack a cohesive message.

Jesso disagrees.

"If you just listen to what people have to say, the cohesive message is expressed subjectively in the words of everybody who's speaking up," Jesso responded.

Paul Stortz, a history professor at the University of Calgary who teaches a course on activism and protests said, "It's to make people who are running the economic system aware that they have to be accountable to a great number of people who are integral to the running of the economic system in the first place."

Stortz believes that the international nature of the Occupy movement is part of the reason for the confusion.

"The growing complexity and immediacy of these protests is really starkly different from history. History is a lot more localized, smaller and often times more focused," Stortz said. "It's a globalized grievance and when you have a globalized grievance you get a multiplicity of agendas. Some conflict, some are complimentary."

Stortz also said that the wide variety of demographics of the protesters is historically interesting.

"What's going on now I think is multicultural," said Stortz.

All ages came out to the rally on Saturday. Seniors, university students and parents with children all occupied the downtown core.

Within Occupy Calgary there are two different camps. One is currently camping at St. Patrick's Island and the other is camped at Olympic Plaza. While both camps support one another, they are approaching the Occupy protest from different perspectives.

Protesters first set up on St. Patrick's Island. Calgary activist Paul Hughes personally approached the Calgary Police Service about setting up the camp which appears to be focusing on homelessness and poverty issues.

"The premise behind that was to make sure that there was a place where we could feed and house people that were going to be involved in the Occupy movement," said Hughes.

Those who are camped at St. Patrick's Island have also been working on initiatives to be implemented in Calgary.

The first proposed initiative is a micro-home ownership project where participants would build their own individual small scale homes using reclaimed building materials on unoccupied land by the ring road. The second is a one-stop shop that would have employee-owned businesses and government agencies under one roof. The third is combining transit passes with identification and having six-month transit passes available.

"We've reached out to a number of different organizations," said Hughes.

"These people are resilient and it is a dignity-sucking environment and there's no reason for that," he said regarding members of Calgary's homeless population.

Hughes's group disseminates information via Twitter and a Facebook community page.

The other Occupy group that is camped in Olympic Plaza wanted to occupy a more public space in order to make their causes more visible and engage people in a discourse.

"My personal thoughts are that the idea of invading an already established homeless tent city in an island off the furthest east side of downtown over an hour's walk to anywhere of significance is less than constructive to creating change," said Jesso.

The Olympic Occupy group emphasizes the role of individuals within the group. The organization has no clear leader, a successful decision depends on the consensus of the entire group. Individuals separate into work groups in order to facilitate specific tasks such as obtaining food, providing first aid and corresponding with the city.

A large part of the effort is to start conversation.

"We don't do enough discussion in general society about things that are important. I love sports but there's more coverage for sports than there is for things that matter," said Chris McMillian, one of the Occupy protesters.

"What we're doing here and around the world is we're starting that discourse. We're starting a discussion to find out what grievances people have and what solutions they want to propose."

Stortz emphasized the individual aspect of the debate.

"This is a clear example to me of the rise of liberal empowerment, or in other words, of individual empowerment, of people getting together and expressing not only collectively, but individually," said Stortz. "They're doing something as an individual which is just as important as a group to express some kind of protest or some kind of grievance."

While these methods are unorthodox, the groups claim they have been successful.

"There's a lot of confidence that things will continue to grow organically," said Jesso.

The group at Olympic Plaza communicates mainly via their website occupycalgary.ca and the Facebook event 'Occupy Calgary Launch Day.'

Occupy also made an appearance on campus on Wednesday.

"I think it's a really awesome movement. It's really cool that it's happening globally and it's picked up all over the world," said Julian Dorschg, a development studies student at the University of Calgary who was watching the protest.

Not all bystanders agreed. Some yelled at the protesters to "get a job" and to "fuck off."

That did not dissuade the Occupy protesters who were hoping to start a discourse here on campus.

"We want to get people involved and we decided the university is a good place. People here have problems and we want things to get talked about," said McMillian.

"Considering that there's a lot of elites in Calgary, to have a big movement like this in Calgary is pretty profound," said Dorschg.

At the time of publication there were approximately 32 tents at Olympic Plaza and 25 tents up at St. Patrick Island. Both protests are on-going. The St. Patrick's Island camp has been given permission to camp until the end of the month. The Olympic Plaza camp site was originally given permission by the city to camp until October 17 and that has been extended indefinitely. The Olympic Plaza group is also planning further protests at the Petro Canada building with speakers and live music from local artists.

Stortz is not surprised that these protests are taking place.

"There has been this percolating sense of economic unfairness for the last several years because of the economic situation. I think people are getting fed up," said Stortz. "If you won't listen to a whisper, you'll listen to a scream."

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