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In defence of Occupy

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A week after thousands of Canadians joined in solidarity actions with the Occupy movement, Occupy camps have taken firm root in cities across the country. To us, they are an affirmation that our futures do not have to be economically insecure, politically dysfunctional, or environmentally chaotic. They're an affirmation that we don't have to accept the growing inequality in Canadian society.

The response to the Occupy movement has shown the profound disconnect between some parts of Canada's political and media establishment and the lived reality of the vast majority of Canadians. Jim Flaherty, our finance minister, led the charge in dismissing the Occupy movement's relevance to Canada. He praised Canada's progressive tax system, social programming, and banking regulations, citing them as reasons Canadians should not bother with the Occupy movement.

Flaherty's argument -- and, by extension, the argument of much of the political and media establishment -- boils down to this: Canadians shouldn't care about Occupy, because Americans suffer worse economic inequality and corporate dominance than we do.

Ironically, the fact that a Conservative finance minister feels pressed to defend Canada's relative progressiveness (instead of championing the ideas that his party actually believes in) is a sign of Occupy's strength, not its weakness. Flaherty's argument also misses the fact that Occupy is, in large part, a locally rooted worldwide solidarity movement to challenge the global dominance of corporate and financial interests. That's why Occupy spread to 900 cities around the world within a month of the first tent peg going into the ground in New York.

One week in, Flaherty's dismissal of the Occupy movement's relevance to Canada is being challenged -- on streets, around dinner tables, and in countless social-media conversations -- by Canadians who are too savvy to be fooled by an obvious attempt to distract us from taking a hard look at ourselves and our leaders. Now that the Occupy movement has come back to Canada (it was, after all, Vancouver's Adbusters who called for the occupation of Wall Street in the first place), we have an opportunity to face uncomfortable truths about the path our country has been following for over 30 years.

Occupy's central message about the growing inequality of economic and political power resonates with the experience of more and more Canadians. We have watched the gap between the rich and the poor widen considerably within a single generation: In 1976, the richest 10 per cent of Canadians took home 31 times more income than the poorest. Now, that 10 per cent takes home 82 times more income. That upward redistribution of wealth has real consequences. Today, the bottom 80 per cent are working much harder for a constantly shrinking slice of the national income, and millions of children live in poverty.

Canadians value equality. If you want to see some of the energy that is fuelling Occupy, try asking a Canadian how he or she feels about the fact that income inequality is actually rising faster here in Canada than it is in the United States.

Within that context, Occupy invites us to look at our society with fresh eyes. By replacing "the rich and the poor" with the "one per cent and the 99 per cent," Occupy is laying the foundation for a paradigm shift in our social movements and our political possibilities. The facts tell an incredible story. Since the late 1970s, innovations like factory automation and digital communication have made our economy vastly more productive. After controlling for inflation, we've made our annual national income a trillion dollars larger than it was in 1981. So, what happened to our household incomes? Astoundingly, the actual income of the median Canadian household has barely budged in that time. Occupy is asking us to really take a moment and think about what that means.

The stark reality is that a tiny percentage of Canadians have captured a completely disproportionate amount of this new wealth. As our society has become wealthier and wealthier, most Canadians are just trying to hold the line by working harder and taking on more debt. How can that gap between economic growth and household prosperity be truly justified?

The inequality crisis extends beyond household finances. Canada's youth have grown up in a world where -- despite a growing economy -- we are told to just get used to fiscal austerity and the scaling back of social services. We are told that there is no money to eliminate poverty, to create a thriving and inclusive middle class, or to rise to the existential threat of global warming. We are being told to meekly submit to lower pay, worse jobs, and greater insecurity.

Canadians are asking: What happened to us? Citizens, young and old, only tolerate this situation because they feel like they have no better options. The disconnect between the one per cent and the 99 per cent has become so familiar that it takes a movement like Occupy to make us realize how strange it really is.

It is time to make the familiar strange, and the unfamiliar possible. This movement is a beginning. The Occupy camps, as they experiment with the trials and tribulations of more participatory democracy, are working to show us that something that seems impossible today -- a truly better world -- is possible if we can find new ways to work together. It took decades to get us into this mess -- let's be patient with the Occupy movement as it tries to help us find a way out.

This article originally appeared in The Mark News.

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