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A Dispatch From Occupy Ottawa

by Owen Sheppard

Occupy Ottawa is encamped at Confederation park.
Occupy Ottawa is encamped at Confederation park.
The food tent.
The food tent.
Occupy Toronto Media tent
Occupy Toronto Media tent

Occupy Ottawa is a hive of activity as I arrive at Confederation Park on the chilly grey evening of October 30th. Activists and passersby alike warm themselves carving pumpkins, playing giant chess, and converting donated freight palettes into flooring material for winterized tents. Despite near-freezing temperatures, the occupation’s tent city appears to have grown by about 50% since my first visit a week earlier, notwithstanding reports of decreasing participation at GAs and meetings.

“When you step back and you take a deep breath and you see what we’re doing, it’s so inspiring,” exclaims Lisa, a volunteer at the food table, which has been inundated with donations. The Food Committee feeds not only the occupation, but also many homeless people who come to the park to avoid under-funded and often repressive shelters. Tom, a volunteer at the information tent, ballparks the homeless population of Occupy Ottawa at around 25%. Courtney, a medic, noted that many feel the camp is the safest place they have ever stayed.

Other successes include creative infrastructure and provisioning solutions, such as a proposal to use hay bales for winter insulation, collecting rainwater from large tarpaulins, and accessing drinking water from a sympathetic church. The Oct. 26th rally against Novotel’s union-busting manoeuvres also helped connect the movement to broader social struggles. And in general, the public seems to regard the occupation favourably.

“People who stop and talk have mostly been friendly or interested and sympathetic,” Tom observed.

Yet alongside these accomplishments come challenges familiar from the Toronto experience. Disparate politics and values, and a seeming inability to build shared social, economic, and political analyses, have left the camp susceptible to factionalism and domineering personalities. In an extreme case, a Maoist group recently withdrew from the occupation following dangerous harassment over lack of consultation about the location of their information tent.

But perhaps most serious, several participants--mostly White, middle-class students--expressed a belief in “natural leaders” who have emerged from the ostensibly non-hierarchical movement. Whoever these leaders are, they refuse to acknowledge any special role within the occupation. Instead there is an insistence on the absolute, individual equality of each participant in the decision-making process.

I question if this equality is possible amid concerns over pervasive sexism, racism, and even isolated fascism within the movement, both in Ottawa and at large. And appeals to “love, peace, and community” are simply not sufficient to address these systemic social barriers to participation.

As Tom explains, some concrete measures have been taken to identify and dismantle these power dynamics. “The General Assembly passed an anti-oppression statement saying … sexism, racism, classism, all these things are not welcome,” he said. “And that helped a lot of people who don’t have much of an analysis around those issues to start to name … oppressive dynamics and to act on them.”

Jeremy, a member of the media committee, also suggested establishing weekly Skype conversations with Occupy Toronto and other occupations. Aimed at sharing our experiences, such a dialogue could encourage a more social, less individualistic approach to resolving movement issues of privilege and oppression.

Leaving Occupy Ottawa, I have as many questions as when I arrived. But the echoes of splitting freight palettes in the cool night air make one thing clear: those questions, and all those raised by the movement, are not going away easily.

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