banner photo:

"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope


Banner photo
Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Occupy Ottawa - at this rate, the revolution is going to take awhile

I was in Ottawa on the weekend to attend a concert at the downtown National Arts Centre, so on Saturday afternoon while I was waiting to hobnob with the bourgeoisie I wandered down the block to Confederation Park where the "99%" are camped out to Occupy Ottawa. From what I saw, the revolution is going to be a tough sell.

Confederation Park is located within sight of the Parliament Buildings at the corner of Laurier and Elgin, about a block from the War Memorial and the National Arts Centre. It covers about a city block and fronts onto two of Ottawa's busiest streets. The protesters have set up a tent city on the lawn in one corner of the park.

Ottawa is of course the national capital and is the fourth largest urban area in Canada after Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Including the surrounding suburbs, it has a population approaching 1 150 000 people. You'd think that here at the nexus of the government/urban/military/industrial complex the Occupy Wall Street movement would find a seething cauldron of revolutionary fervor ripe for upheaval, but apparently the message isn't resonating with Ottawa residents; I counted less than a hundred people in the park at 1:00 pm on a beautiful fall day, and most of the ones I talked to were from out of town.

The tent city has maybe 50 tents set up around a forlorn and muddy common area that serves as sort of a main office. Here's a panoramic shot taken from Elgin St:








There's a little soup kitchen with a few people standing around chatting about revolution:
















The residents mill about, hanging up wet bedding and making announcements using their weird call-and-response "human microphone". While I was there I heard someone yell "Mic check" and everyone responded "MIC CHECK". The first person yelled "Is there anyone here from the security committee?" and everyone standing around chanted "IS THERE ANYONE HERE FROM THE SECURITY COMMITTEE?" even though no one in the camp was further than 20 yards from the person asking the question.

































Everyone seems bored and waiting for something to happen. People skateboard and throw frisbees around. There's a permanent smell of pot smoke in the air.




































The usual angry signs are scattered around the park, but it seems a little forced. The messages are mixed to say the least - this sign outlines the broad spectrum of their grievances, which just about covers everything:
















There were several confusing signs referring to the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act which was passed by the US Congress - not sure what that has to do with Ottawa or the Canadian banking system, but the movement is a big tent, apparently.





















I must say, for a group that according to the breathless reporting of the media is about to march on the manor houses with torches and pitchforks, it's the most unthreatening crowd I've ever been in. I've felt more on edge during high school basketball games. They have meetings all the time and there are tons of committees and healthy snacks; they even recycle their garbage. It's like a meeting of an elementary school PTA.









































People are friendly and love to talk; I chatted for a while with these two young men, one from Vancouver via Montreal, and the other from Toronto. The guy on the left smoked pot during the entire conversation while his two pet rats clambered over him; both of them were eager to explain why they were there.
















The guy with the pipe said he had come up from Occupy Montreal because "there were too many rules" in the Montreal camp. Apparently Occupy Ottawa is a lot more libertarian. The guy in black told me he had come from Toronto where he "ran a transportation company" which also has a branch in Ottawa. I asked him who's running the company while he's camped out in Confederation Park: he responded that he "has employees" and that he runs the company from his smart phone, and he really should be home doing invoices. Sounds pretty bourgeois to me.

When I asked them how it was going in the camp, they both said things were generally fine, but they were having problems with homeless people. "They come in at night and eat our food, and a lot of them are drunk" said Pipe Guy. Transportation Guy nodded and said "I support the homeless, but a lot of them are taking advantage. Sometimes they create problems - like one of them assaulted a woman the other day." When I asked him what they do when this kind of thing happens in the camp, he said "we call the police".

Transportation Guy seemed a little frustrated by the lack of focus; "No one's in charge here", he complained. "Isn't that kind of the point?" I politely prodded. "Well, when there are no leaders, nothing gets done" he responded. There you have it - the only thing this anarchist movement needs is leaders.


















I asked how long they were preparing to camp in the park; "as long as it takes" was the reply. When I asked if they had ever spent a winter in Ottawa, they said that they were preparing to insulate their tents, and that they would build igloos once the snow was deep enough. "When change comes and the system crashes, we want people to have a place where they can come when it happens." Transportation Guy said that he figured the police would kick them out by Winterlude, the winter carnival that happens in Ottawa in February, since they usually put the ice sculptures in the park. They were negotiating with the local Algonquin natives for permission to camp since "they basically own all the land around here anyway". If the police kick them out for Winterlude, they're planning to move to Parliament Hill.

Later that afternoon we were walking through the Byward Market. Capitalism seems alive and well there - the place was thronged with people buying stuff and enjoying the weather in the sidewalk cafes. Business seems to be good; a far cry from the sad atmosphere up at Confederation Park.

















In the middle of our stroll, we crossed paths with Ottawa's Hallowe'en Zombie Walk. Hundreds of people dressed as zombies were lurching down Dalhousie Street moaning "brains". There was even an appearance by the late Colonel Gaddafi. The zombies outnumbered the protesters at least ten to one, proving that in the historic contest between anarchy and the market, the market usually wins.


























































Later that night on the way back from the concert, we heard music coming from Confederation Park. It was Open Mic Night at Occupy Ottawa, and a kid not much older than twenty was singing half-heartedly to a crowd of about fifty people, while bourgeois corporate types like me watched on in amusement. He was singing Bob Dylan's "The times they are a'changin' " and Neil Young's "After the gold rush" while clouds of pot smoke drifted through the park. That's the image I'll remember of Occupy Ottawa - kids too young to remember the actual sixties trying in vain to recreate them while members of the generation that lived through them look on bemusedly on their way to and from their jobs. This movement is based on hot air, nostalgia and ennui - they'll be out of the park by the time the snow falls.

6 comments:

Thucydides said...

During the first week, a totally clueless CTV reporter commented that the movement was "spontanious" and "leaderless" despite standing in front of a huge CUPE banner.

I'm sure CUPE and the other fellow travellers will be more than happy to bus in spontanious demonstrators to bolster the leaderless crowd, we have already seen the SEIU do the same for the OWS "protests" in the US, why mess with a proven program?

hunter said...

Excellent pictures and commentary, too bad the media are pushing this non-movement, giving them way more air time than they deserve.

I love your picture of the old farm house, is it one of yours? It's stunning.

Eric said...

Thanks, Hunter.

The picture is one of mine - the house is in Hastings County in Eastern Ontario.

Joanne (True Blue) said...

Great photo-essay! I think you caught a slice of life there. Well done.

Frances said...

Minor detail - think Calgary is actually ahead of Ottawa with respect to population now.

Eric said...

Thanks, Joanne - you're very kind.