Sunday, 6 November 2011


A few days again our local paper published a cartoon. It showed a Canadian military veteran speaking to a member of the Occupy Halifax Movement and saying, "When I was your age I was occupying Europe." It would appear that the Occupy Halifax folk and the Canadian Legion have worked out a solution to the use of the Grand Parade - no thanks to our mayor who tried to politicize the exercise. The parties managed to solve it themselves.

A little geography for those unfamiliar with Halifax. In the middle of the downtown stands the Grand Parade. This is a roughly two block long and a block wide plaza. At one end is Halifax's historic city hall and at the other, the even more historic St Paul's Anglican Church. In between there are some green spaces, some lovely gardens, the city cenotaph and a memorial to police officers. Because of its location it is used for a variety of events of many different sorts. But the presence of the cenotaph makes it particularly significant this time of year. it is also the place where, on November 9th, a Holocaust Remembrance event occurs.

But that geographic and emotional centrality made it the logical place for the Occupy Halifax movement to set up camp - which they have done. The Occupy movement leaves me with conflicting feelings. On the one hand, the somewhat eclectic range of concerns makes it difficult to get a handle on the movement and some of the folk involved are easy to dismiss as unemployed and lazy attention seekers. Reporters seem to enjoy making fun of them by asking for 30 second answers to complex problems. On the other hand, the Occupy Movement, world wide, seems to be an indictment of our current ways of doing politics and economics and social engagement. If we look at Canada we see frighteningly low rates of engagement in politics by the majority of Canadians - and it gets worse the younger the group we examine. We don't vote, we don't go to all-candidates meetings, we don't join political parties, we turn the whole process off. Perhaps it is the complexity of society, perhaps it's the difficulty of seeing real change, maybe it's the conviction that the system is effectively static and real reform is impossible. But if a measure of the health of the system is engagement - ours is clearly ailing.

The Occupy folk have been compared to the character from the movie Network, throwing open his window and saying, "I'm mad as hell and I won't take it any more." I'm not sure they represent 99% of the population, but at least they're out there trying to make a difference. The problem is trying to fit a new way into an old pattern - new wine into old wine skins as someone once said. We expect "protesters" to have a single issue or at least be able to gather their different concerns into a clear slogan that fits a sound bite. The system expects a platform or a set of demands. The system expects those protesting to fit within the existing parameters. That can lead to huge and important social change. But what do we do with a movement which says, in effect, "The system is broken and we don't have a solution. But no one's talking about it and until we do we're bandaging the Titanic." What do we do with a movement that doesn't have identified hierarchies and doesn't decide by winner take all votes but by consensus?

So, the Occupy Halifax folk annoy some of the good citizens for different reasons. They inspire others. They made a good (quite savvy) decision to move off Grand Parade for the Holocaust Memorial and Remembrance Day. That will avoid a lot of antagonism. They promise to be back. I hope they are and I hope they can pull the rest of us into engaging their out-of-the-box way of doing things. because the box they're opposed to is pretty broken.

It may well be that the Occupy folks -around the globe - are correct. Perhaps "the system" was built (or at least has evolved) this way. To a point where competing and opposing interests can challenge one another at great length and considerable heat and some (sometimes substantial) changes can occur. But in the end, the system doesn't change. Barack Obama, for instance, seems to have shifted from his post-partisan stance to a quite partisan politician. There is no "we", in the public square, there is only us and them. I can still remember the first time a politician in Canada said that the role of government was not to govern for the good of all or for the protection of the most vulnerable but to adjudicate between competing interests. Somehow I became a member of an interest group, a stakeholder - no longer a citizen. That creates a very different kind of politics and certainly one that plays into the fashion in which political life in Canada is conducted. I think we're all poorer for it. I hope the Occupy folks can at least point the way towards another style of discourse. I'm not optimistic though.

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