UPDATE @ 9:00 pm: The Vancouver Sun is reporting this evening that Mayor Gregor Robertson has declared the tents and other structures can stay on the front lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery indefinitely. Here is a link to the Jeff Lee story to be published in the newspaper on Tuesday.
It was a beautiful sunny day in Edmonton on Saturday morning as I boarded the plane to head back home to Vancouver. At precisely 10am my Airbus 300 flew directly above the Vancouver Art Gallery on its way to the airport in Richmond. Although it was difficult to make out the finer details, I could definitely tell that Occupy Vancouver was underway.
Let me first say that I support the right of people to protest in Canada. I am also sympathetic to what I thought was the core message of the Occupy Wall Street protestors - namely that the 0.1% of our population are making exorbitant salaries and paying disproportionately less tax, while the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow wider.
Unfortunately, what I saw yesterday on the front lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery was far from what we all anticipated. At times it was merely a gathering of disparate groups and individuals who have concerns about one issue or another.
Don't like the war in Iraq? Participate in Occupy Vancouver. Don't like pasteurized milk? Participate in Occupy Vancouver. Don't like genetically modified food? You get the picture. Needless to say, the core message was lost amongst competing voices that all wanted to make the six o'clock news.
As an urban affairs columnist, what's most interesting to me is how silent Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision team have been regarding the Occupy Vancouver movement. Despite numerous efforts via Twitter over the last several days, not a single Vision Vancouver operative would confirm they endorse the Occupy Vancouver encampment. There has been complete radio silence.
Contrast that to the NPA and COPE who have both been very open regarding their seemingly opposing positions. Based on her comments, I suspect the NPA's Suzanne Anton is supportive of the right to protest, but not in the breaking of city by-laws or in the setting up of a permanent camping facility.
First and foremost, we want people to be safe. We don’t want this protest to turn into a long term disruption. It impacts peoples’ lives, it stops people from coming downtown and it hurts the economy. So what is the Mayor’s position on this demonstration. Where is Gregor on this?
The Mayor's coalition partner COPE has also been very open about their public support. Several of their candidates were seen in the crowd supporting Occupy Vancouver. I think Globe and Mail reporter Rod Mickelburgh summed it up best when he tweeted:
Mayor Mike Harcourt used to address large peace marches...so far, no sign of Mayor Robertson at #occupyvancouver #citycaucus #spy
I doubt you will see Mayor Gregor anywhere near the protest until well after the election – yes, it could last that long. The last thing Gregor wants on the eve of an election is to be associated with a law-breaking event that could go sideways at a moment's notice. You can chalk that up to the Mayor's mishandling of Robertson's Riot.
After a few weeks of tents, bongos, dancing, meditation and overflowing porta-potties on the front lawn of the Art Gallery, I suspect the general public might get a tad frustrated that City Hall is not enforcing its own by-laws.
Which brings me to a key issue regarding City Hall and the Occupy Vancouver encampment. Why are City officials treating them differently than Falun Gong? Why are they being treated differently than 2010 anti-Olympic protestors?
In the case of both groups the Mayor did everything he could to ensure by-laws relating to overnight encampments were rigidly enforced. If you were thinking of setting up a tent city in Vancouver prior to the Olympics...think again.
Mayor Robertson introduced what some left-wing activists refer to as the "anti-protest bylaw". It essentially prohibits camping in public spaces. According to the left-wing blog the Mainlander:
The bylaw states that any “structure, object, or substance” – including tents – placed on public space without permission of the City Engineer can receive a minimum $1,000 fine.
Yet despite passing this bylaw and enforcing it for both Falun Gong and anti-Olympic protestors, the City now appears ready to lend a blind eye to all the tents popping up in front of the Art Gallery. Amazingly, the City of Vancouver even went so far as to send out this tweet on Saturday evening:
#occupyvancouver rumour you will be kicked out at 10pm false, but pls allow others nearby to sleep tonight by lowering PA volume!
I must admit I did a double take when I read that tweet written by some anonymous bureaucrat at City Hall. Then again, Mayor Gregor used to regularly attend and support "Critical Mass" anti-car protests before he took office. So maybe his staff are just reading the tea leaves?
In addition, it was also reported by the media that there were a lot of traffic jams downtown due to protestors taking over the streets. Here is what the city's street by-laws say about that type of activity:
CROWDS OR GROUPS OBSTRUCTING TRAFFIC
No person shall form part of a group of persons congregated on a street in such a manner as to obstruct the free passage of pedestrians or vehicles, except with the written permission of the Council.
(2) No person shall do anything which will attract the attention of persons and cause them to congregate in a group upon any street in such manner as to obstruct the free passage of pedestrians or vehicles, or in such manner that the persons so congregated might themselves be in danger of injury from traffic, except with the written permission of the Council.
(3) Subsections (1) and (2) of this section shall not apply to religious street meetings permissions for which has been given in writing by the City Engineer.
It would appear the Occupy Vancouver encampment is breaking numerous sections of the Street and Traffic by-law. Yet the City appears either unwilling or unable to do anything about it.
I can only imagine what the good folks running the Art Gallery must be thinking right about now as they face the prospect of campers outside their front door for months. Only a few weeks ago it was reported that attendance was way down and the arts facility was bleeding cash. The current protest will do little to help their bottom-line.
That's precisely why I asked Vision councillor Heather Deal (self-proclaimed Arts Minister in Vancouver) whether she supported protest at the Art Gallery. However, to date she has failed to respond to my tweet. Truth be told, Deal never responds to any of my tweets.
If the protestors don't want to lose public support in the coming weeks, they would be smart to pack up their tents and keep to the daily vigils. At a minimum, if they want to continue breaking city by-laws, they should at least do so on the grounds of City Hall where they won't impact local businesses and one of our premiere arts facilities. The added benefit is they would have an organic community garden close by if they were to get the munchies in the late evening!
Sometimes in an election campaign that has no issues...an issue comes out of the blue and captures the media attention. Time will tell whether Gregor's silence regarding Occupy Vancouver and his staff's encouragement of the overnight camping was the strategic thing to do. Something tells me it won't be.
- Post by Daniel