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Legal issues face #Occupy across Canada

Photo by Ira Lamjca

Walking through Confederation Park in downtown Ottawa, there is a thin layer of white snow on the ground, a few bare trees covered with snow, and hardly any trace of the existence of Occupy protesters – nor of the fact that they had been camping there for over five weeks.

On Wednesday, a handful of protesters gathered to protest the evictions in front of the National Capital Commission in the downtown area of the city, holding signs and chanting as police barricaded the doors to the building.

Occupy Ottawa protesters were evicted early Wednesday morning, as police arrested protesters who refused to leave the park. The eviction notice was given to protesters on Monday by the NCC, shortly after Superior Court Justice David Brown ruled to uphold the eviction of Occupy Toronto.

Evictions have occurred in many major cities over the past week, as Occupy movements in Victoria, Halifax, and Regina were also evicted. In Calgary, Occupy protesters have been given eviction orders, which protesters are trying to delay by attempting to acquire a court injunction. In Edmonton protesters have said that they will defy eviction orders and continue to occupy.

Waking up from a dream

Kevin Donaghy, one of the protesters arrested during the eviction of Occupy Ottawa, said that he was woken up from sleeping in his tent, looked outside and saw that the protesters were outnumbered by police officers.

“There were eight of us,” said Donaghy, “we were outnumbered about 50 to one.”

It seemed like a dream: waking up, snow falling for the first time, and all these police officers ... started coming towards us, demolishing our tents.”

Donaghy said he and a few other people chained themselves together from inside the tent they were sleeping in, and locked the tent with padlocks. He said police cut through the tent from the top, while they were sitting on the ground, “as snow started falling.”

After that, Donaghy said he linked arms and legs with another protester, and the police separated them.

I’m not going to just roll over when someone – when the police, the City of Ottawa, when the NCC – takes away my Charter of Rights and Freedoms, my right to peaceful assembly, my right to protest, freedom of speech.”

The reasonable limits of free speech

But Vincent Kazmierski, a Legal Studies Professor at Carleton University, said that there are “reasonable limits” to the rights guaranteed in the Charter.

Kazmierski said that part of those limitations include the right of the public and of the government to also use the space in a way that “recognizes their freedoms, and their right to have a peaceful enjoyment of public property.”

What is different about Confedaration Park – which Occupy Ottawa has chosen as their site – is that it is federal territory, not municipal, and it is within the federal government’s jurisdiction.

The park is owned by the NCC, a Crown corporation responsible for putting on a yearly winter spectacle called Winterlude, where a range of activities take place – including skating on the Rideau Canal, entering in ice sculpture competitions and playing in winter games like obstacle courses. The NCC claims that eviction notices were issued to Occupy Ottawa in order to prepare the park for Winterlude, which is coming up in February 2012.

Donaghy said that Occupy Ottawa had been trying to compromise with the NCC, and that the protesters did many of the things that the NCC asked of them.

We’ve bent over backwards during the last five and a half weeks trying to please the NCC,” said Donaghy, adding that the protesters have done “everything that they asked us to do ... because we felt like we wanted to cooperate with them.”

 The price of civil society

Josh Greenberg, a Communication Studies professor whose area of research also includes social movements, said it’s no coincidence that the eviction notices are happening at a time when public support for the movement is eroding.

The evictions pose two types challenges for the protesters, said Greenberg, symbolic challenges, and logistics challenges.

The concept of Occupy was about taking over and reclaiming public space,” said Greenberg, “and the eviction notices have led to an end to that process, unless activists occupy a different public space, which means they will go through this all over again.”

He added that symbolically, the eviction notices means that protesters are no longer able to occupy this public space.

Logistically,” Greenberg said, “the challenge is how do they coordinate and organize themselves.” Greenberg said that certain characteristics of the Occupy movement, such as the human microphone, cannot occur unless the occupiers are together in the same spot.

Carissima Mathen, Professor of Law at the University of Ottawa, points out that the protesters are not banned from the park, but their time there is limited until about midnight, and they can no longer erect tents or other structures.

The Charter's rights and freedoms are protected only to the extent of such "reasonable limits" as are imposed by law,” says Mathen. “No right or freedom is absolute - that is the price of a civilized society.”

But Greenberg said that the tents are about “reclaiming ownership of the space, which they believe belongs to the public.”

Donaghy said that Occupy Ottawa will try to regroup and discuss what to do next.

There’s a momentum now that’s being build,” said Donaghy, “and there’s no way that one eviction, two evictions, matter how many times they evict us, we’re going to continue to grow, we’re going to continue to build, we’re going to continue to grow stronger and stronger.”

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