2011 Hero: Occupy Toronto
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2011 Hero: Occupy Toronto

Nominated for: establishing a beachhead of resistance during an age of austerity.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have influenced the city over the past 12 months. From December 12–23, the candidates for Mightiest and Meanest—and new this year, a reader’s write-in option! From December 26–29 you’ll be able to vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year, and we’ll reveal the results December 30.

On October 15, 2011, what started as a month-long occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York City moved to Toronto and elsewhere in Canada, and there were more than a few Torontonians with misgivings about the whole thing.

To an extent, it’s understandable. For one, it all felt a little copycat at first, as if local movements were trying to ride the coattails of another, more prominent demonstration grabbing headlines south of the border. For another: well, it had been a pretty terrible year-plus by that point for local progressives, and imagining what good an occupied park could do was almost laughable. With the status quo being what it is, not just municipally but also federally, what, really, would be the point of holding down St. James Park until the police came knocking?

But when we showed up at St. James Park that first weekend, the scene itself suggested more than arbitrary squatting. This wasn’t a demonstration; it was more of an intentional community, the organic result of solidarity having taken a more substantive form. A refrain since the start of the Occupy movement has been that those participating have no concrete issue around which to galvanize, no single message to influence the public. Yet the presence of the encampment as an actual community—organized as such, largely self-contained, and manifest as an alternative to the austerity-era machinery of society beyond the park—was statement enough.

A couple of weeks later, Stephen Lewis and Michele Landsberg were the keynote speakers at this year’s David Lewis Lecture. It was a spirited, sometimes humourous discussion at the Bloor Street United Church, with Lewis and Landsberg addressing the challenges facing Canadian progressives. Recalling the revolutionary events that have paralleled her career, Landsberg drew a comparison between the women’s movement and what she had seen herself at St. James Park. “They have a demand all right,” Landsberg asserted, sometimes struggling to keep her voice even. “An end to the inequality and the hopelessness that capitalism has foisted.”

Lewis agreed. “I’m sure that this movement is highly significant,” he said, praising how the Occupy movement, and particularly its local extension, had changed the conversation. Now, he said, politicians and bankers are forced to talk about inequality. “We will not recognize the Canada that exists in 2020,” he said, exhorting progressives to do what he suggested Occupy has done: “Grit your teeth and go after these neanderthals and philistines.”

Ultimately, the true heroism of Occupy Toronto as an adjunct of a global movement may not be known for some time. But what’s evident today, more than how muddy and swamp-like St. James Park was until recently, is that Toronto and many other communities around the world are under the heel of governments intent on punishing the public, forcing us to clean up a mess we didn’t make. Occupy Toronto may have annoyed a lot of neighbours with its first volley of direct action, but in the long run that annoyance has forced a critically vital discussion about social justice into the mainstream.

And if nothing else, Occupy Toronto has created an infrastructure for resistance at a time when resistance is as necessary as breathing. If it takes a few occupied parks to get people talking, so be it.

See also:

Occupy Toronto as Villain