Occupy Protest Demands Discussion
The good times are over. Or, maybe, just about to begin.
There’s a unique sentiment in the Occupy tent camps in Toronto and Ottawa, and likely in Canada’s other major cities: a palpable frustration turned to action and hope for change.
That people are taking to the streets and living under tarps strung between trees is testimony to their disappointment, but the fact that protests have remained peaceful and unified largely in calling for dialogue about income inequality shows tempers are in check and reason still prevails.
Though some criticize members of the Occupy movement for their relative lack of economic insight and policy comprehension, these protesters should not be dismissed, argues Brenda Lafleur, program director with the Conference Board of Canada, a leading think tank for Canada’s business class.
The conference board has taken a good hard look at income inequality and come up with some broad warnings—one being the fact that income inequality can hurt the economy if wealth pools too deeply among too few.
It can also lead to social unrest when people think the game is rigged and hard work won’t translate into economic opportunity. Then people start to disengage and lose faith in the system with low voter turnout being one of the symptoms.
In the end, Canada could end up going in the wrong direction, she warned.
Rise of the Uber Rich
While income levels for the richest 1 percent skyrocketed, with out-of-control executive pay and bonuses mainly to blame, the majority of Canadians saw little improvement, said Lafleur.
“You see in these protests, people are saying ‘We are part of the 99 percent.’ … The data supports what these protests are saying.”
The conference board notes research from Harvard economist Richard Freeman on its website detailing that over the last two decades, about 80 percent of American families experienced income stagnation, while the most wealthy saw their income soar.
Canada hasn’t seen an income gap as large in the United States but the board notes that the gap is growing faster here compared to there.
According to Armine Yalnizyan, a senior economist for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a third of all income gains from 1997 to 2007 went to the richest 1 percent of Canadian tax filers. Over a period of similar prosperity in the 1960s, the top 1 percent only took 8 percent of income gains.
Even Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has voiced concern.
“Income distribution is important and there is a concern that a very, very small group of people have very large incomes and that others do not have those same opportunities,” he recently told reporters.
Protests a Warning
Though Canada’s protests have been subdued and shrinking compared to the smoke- and tear-gas-clouded demonstrations in Greece, Lafleur warns that Canada could be creeping toward a tipping point.
“When it hits a point where people are feeling no matter what they do they are not going to be able to get ahead like this top one percent, it becomes a problem.”
While the Occupy protests have been a mishmash of different groups and people with different grievances and solutions, participants have been very conscious of the image they project and the careful balance they need to hold between raising a fuss and garnering public sympathy.
In Toronto and Ottawa, participants have been using a human microphone system, where one person speaks and then the crowd repeats it so that everyone can hear. Much of the talk has been about the need for discussion, the search for consensus, and how to take the movement forward.
There are as many solutions as there are people, with some more realistic than others.
In Ottawa, NDP MP Pat Martin has been tossing around the idea of a windfall tax that would apply to corporate bonuses and inheritances.
Many groups in Canada, including the CCPA, would like to see corporate taxes raised and a tax system that more aggressively taxes the wealthiest income earners.
The conference board hasn’t taken a position on personal taxes but is against raising corporate tax, arguing it would deter the foreign investment upon which Canada’s prosperity was largely built.
For protesters like Kyle Bailey, who took leave from his minimum-wage baking job in Orangeville to camp out in St. James Park in downtown Toronto “for as long as it takes,” there needs to be a tangible improvement in the quality of life.
“I’m here because every day we’re paying interest and we’re not paying our debt, and every day our debt is getting larger, and every day inflation is getting worse. Every day the price of gas is going up, and when the price of gas goes up, everything goes up but our wage always stays the same,” he said.
“So I feel like they are decreasing the value of our money right in front of us and we have to do something to reform the monetary system as soon as possible.”
Bailey said he believed Canada’s wealthiest people pay little to no taxes, a point Lafleur and the Canada Revenue Agency stats dispute.
He admitted his policy ideas and understanding could be incorrect, but the fact that many Canadians are struggling was indisputable
“We’re not disagreeing that there are jobs, but they’re not good-paying jobs. You can’t live off of these jobs, you can’t really have a life. We want to level the playing field.”
“We need some change, peaceful change, less corporate greed. We need to fix our debt problem ASAP, before it gets to the point America is at. That’s why we’re here talking and being very nice to each other while we bring up our opinions.”
Morgan Quintony stumbled on the protest camp in Toronto by accident while walking his dog. He works four jobs to survive in the city.
“There needs to be an equilibrium between the rich and the poor, instead of the drastic gap,” he said. “The closer we are to each other, the more common ground we have. The more distance there is between us, the harder we have to fight to become more like the other.”
In Ottawa, Maja Villarroel, a teacher, was trying to spend as much time as possible at the Occupy camp in Confederation Park, she said. She chuckled about descriptions of the protesters as “patchouli-laced economic idiots,” but said people should understand that people were protesting for different reasons.
She was there for her children, she said, and their future. “So they can drink fresh water and breathe clean air and live comfortably. It’s not much to ask.”
“We are all here because the status quo is not working for us. We can’t go on like this.”
The economic roots of the protest are varied, from wages that have flatlined while housing costs explode, to students borrowing $30,000 for degrees only to find the job market slim. In some fields, entire professions have delayed retirement to cope with fallout from the global downturn, making it difficult for new entrants to find work.
The issue has gained traction, but no new policies have been proposed as a direct response to the protest, nor has the movement coalesced around a specific demand. Coming days will reveal its staying power, though even if it fades, Lafleur said it should not be ignored.
“I don’t think that the desire to look at this issue and have a further conversation should not just depend on the number of people on the street,” she said
“We should have that conversation because it is the right thing to do.”