Inspired by a wave of anti-Wall Street protests in the United States, thousands of people gathered downtown Saturday to voice frustration about what protesters have called corporate greed and the imbalance of wealth in Canada.
The largely peaceful Occupy Toronto demonstration began at King and Bay streets around 10 a.m. Protesters, some with their children, then settled in St. James Park, at King and Church. Many plan to stick it out for the long-haul, with dozens setting up camp and sleeping outside overnight.
Around 7:30 p.m., some demonstrators marched away from the park and headed towards Yonge Street. About 200 people carrying signs took over Yonge-Dundas Square, while others continued south toward Adelaide Street. The protesters then returned to the park.
Two people were arrested at the Commerce Court building, near King and Bay streets, around 5:30 p.m. on Saturday. One person was charged with trespassing and the other was charged with failure to comply – but police wouldn’t say with what. Police said Saturday night they will not be issuing tickets to people who decide to sleep at St James Park.
Organizers said this demonstration will last for an undetermined amount of time, as has been the case with mass occupations in New York and other cities.
“It’s important not to sit this one out,” protester Vandad Kardar said. “Change in the world needs to come sooner or later and by that I mean more equality.”
“There’s a ton of different issues right across the board,” he said. “This isn’t an organization with one platform, this is literally a chance for anyone who has anything that they want to voice to come out and voice it.”
There were nearly as many messages as there were protesters, which came as no surprise to NDP MP Olivia Chow.
“Whether you’re a student graduating with huge debt, or a mom that has to work two jobs and still can’t pay for childcare, or a person who just got laid off even though you have a lot of degrees, there are a lot of different concerns that all come together.
“Is our government really representing us? Is the government really helping this country a better and fairer place to be? 99 per cent of people say they’ve been left behind,” Chow said.
Toronto police had high praise for the demonstrators, saying they had been peaceful and communicative.
“From a policing side, it’s been a good day,” Toronto police Insp. Howie Page told CityNews.
“They’ve been lawful, they’ve been peaceful, they told us where they were going to go…they were more than willing to work with us and facilitate what we were asking,” Page added.
Page said that while police are “keeping their guard up” for Black Block protesters, it has been a lawful demonstration.
A team of volunteers providing food to activists is prepared to serve between 1,000 and 2,000 vegetarian meals a day and has supplies to last for a few days. A food tent has been erected near St. James Cathedral to distribute meals that are being delivered to the park.
Organizers set up designated trash sites and port-a-potties were also brought to the park.
Designated sleeping and medic sites have also been established.
“I think [demonstrators] have been pretty accommodating and I think there’s a lot of people that are curious, but it’s not disruptive,” RCMP officer Paul Stevens said near St. James Park.
Organizers expected at least 2,000 people to show up for the event. Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae was one of them. He showed up at St. James Park around noon.
“There’s huge insecurity out there right now and a lot of frustration that banks get bailed out very quickly but others don’t get bailed out so quickly,” he told CityNews.
NDP MP Peggy Nash also turned out for the event.
While it’s hard to escape comparisons to the G20 summit protests in the summer of 2010, demonstrators have repeatedly insisted their protest will be non-violent.
There have been reports on Twitter of a few protesters sporting black clothing with black bandannas concealing their faces. The event has been a peaceful one and there is a heavy police and security presence in the area as a precaution.
“This is a really exciting movement, we haven’t seen this type of thing since the 60s,” Joel Duff of the Ontario Federation of Labour told CityNews Saturday morning.
“Our governments are collaborating with the corporate sector to make sure that they download the fiscal crisis onto the backs of working people and while corporations make record profits. We just think that’s fundamentally unfair.”
Other union leaders attended the event.
“Any group of people that raises the reality of the growing inequalities in our communities is something we need to support,” CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn said.
While the economic situation in Canada is different from that in the U.S., unions and other activists have said job security is one of the main reasons why they’re participating in the Occupy event.
Protests also happened in more than a dozen cities across the country Saturday, including Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Montreal and Halifax.
View ‘Occupy’ demonstrations across Canada in a larger map
Demonstrations also continued around the world, including protests across the United States, Australia, Germany, Japan, and in Italy, where violence erupted during an Occupy event in Rome.
Police in the Italian capital used tear gas and water cannons against protesters Saturday after cars were torched, windows smashed and bottles and rocks were hurled at cops.
The original protest in Manhattan began on Sept. 17. Protesters there have been camping out at Zuccotti park near Wall Street. They evaded eviction Friday but are being asked to observe park rules.
With files from Saphia Khambalia and The Associated Press