Archive for October, 2011

Time and the Occupy Movement

At 7pm every day, Occupy Vancouver holds their Daily General Meeting on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery. There is a marquee-like covering from Canadian Tire, a full sound system and mircophone, a number of computers and a mixing desk. In one corner, a member of the media committee Livestreams the proceedings onto the Occupy Vancouver website.

The most striking thing about the Occupy Vancouver movement, in comparison to so many protest movements I’ve seen in Australia, is the sheer level of organisation that has been achieved so far. Rather than the group of idealistic hippies and angry Socialists I was expecting, there is an impressive and surprising level of coherence and direction to this movement. I can’t comment very far on the Occupy Movements elsewhere because I haven’t seen them, but from what I’ve read, procedural organisation despite the circumstances seems to be a common feature, despite what the critics have been saying.

The meetings adhere to an agenda and are minuted. They follow procedures that have been implemented by consensus and are unforgiving to those participating out of process. The people involved are, for the most part, intelligent and articulate, passionate but succinct. There are working groups and committees covering everything from media to infrastructure to security: issues are worked through in the appropriate group, responsibilities distributed, and proposals devised and taken to the GM to be voted on. As everything is based on consensus, with over 90% of the group needing to agree to a proposal before it is passed, the meetings usually pretty arduous – comically so at times – and frustration is common. What critics seem to forget, however, is that this is not unusual.

Political process takes time, whether carried out by middle-aged politicians in parliament houses, or by people living in tents in front of art galleries. The Occupy Movement has arisen out of a common feeling that something is very seriously broken. It appears to lack specifics because it’s going to take a while to figure out how to fix it. In the meantime, I for one am glad someone’s finally stood up to point out the obvious.

Fortunately for Occupy Vancouver, being Candians, everyone is being remarkably reasonable about it all. The police don’t intervene much, the movement itself has remained peaceful for the most part, and participants have been responsible and considerate as they can be. So far, unlike Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson hasn’t yet ordered anyone forcibly removed, though he has wondered out loud when they might finish up and move along. With elections coming along, and conservative challenger Suzanne Anton using the removal of the protestors as a major election platform, this may soon change, but for now everyone’s been allowed to stay. As a result, Occupy Vancouver has been granted the time and space to develop a level of coherence and organisation, something both Sydney and Melbourne were denied.

During the October 15th marches that kicked it all off, I remember thinking very clearly to myself that this is important. What’s going on here, this stretch of people ahead and behind me, similar masses of people doing the same thing all over the world: this is important. It’s going to take a while, and it’s hard to tell how much of an impact people in tents will have, but it’s certainly reassuring that someone’s finally admitted we have a problem too big to be fixed by carbon credits, recycled toilet paper and whinging about politicians in the pub. At the very least, it’s a faster way to a solution than sitting by and watching it all burn down.

Saturday Night at Occupy Vancouver

On my way to Saturday night Occupy Vancouver, after my last Writers Festival session, I stop for pizza on Granville Street. The cops and the clubbers are out in force and the street is blocked off to traffic, as it seems to be every weekend. I’m unlocking my bike, pizza slice in hand, when a guy hanging around out front glances at me. He’s young-ish, mid-20s maybe, scruffy and wearing black – a leather jacket or a hoodie or both, I don’t quite remember. He looks again, longer this time, and circles around, trying to be inconspicuous.

“You’re gorgeous ‘ey,” he says finally, sheepishly but direct. I don’t know how to react so I give him a deadpan sort of expression and finish unlocking my bike, then ride up Granville towards the protest.

Occupy Vancouver is strange this late at night. The feeling is still jubilant but disparately so, closed in a way. I try several times to start conversations but all finish quickly, in solitary sort of silences. I feel like I’ve come too late to a party, when everyone’s done socialising, drinking and discussing, and are waiting around for other people to start going home so they don’t have to be the first.

A group play drums by the Food Not Bombs tent and a few people dance. One guy, in a plastic Roman helmet, facepaint and colourful robes shakes anything he can get his hands on that will make rattling noises. He moves like he’s been dancing so long he’s forgotten how to walk without a beat. Elsewhere, people gather on steps and ledges in quiet groups and gaze out at the cars and the street lights and the buildings.

I’m suprised by how much it’s grown in a week. I came down for the march on the 15th, and there were enough people circling the main streets to shut down the downtown area for most of the day. There were slogans and banners and cardboard signs and everyone seemed as amazed as me at the sheer number of us, stretching forward and back in both directions so far no-one could remember where it ended or began. People had come down from all over British Columbia – I marched alongside a group from Kelowna at one point, about a 5 hour drive away.

There were quite a few tents on that first night, but in the space of a week the number has at least doubled, to probably well over a hundred. In addition to the residential tents, I find an info booth and a tent handing out warm clothes. There’s a food tent, a tea tent, a media tent; even a library. I make myself a cup of tea in the appropriate tent and meet a guy called Tarek, who tells me to call him James because Tarek is too hard to remember. He wanders off.

Over near the drummers, a few people are busy constructing a large dome out of thin metal poles. They’ve just finished stretching a tarp over the top of one side when I walk over. I offer to help but a woman in facepaint and a pirate costume tells me they’ve already finished. She explains to me that it’s going to be a healing tent, with massage and reiki, and that the world is so wrong, the energy is wrong and people are greedy and the disabled are just misunderstood telepaths, that we were all telepathic once, that’s how we are truely meant to communicate, how we used to communicate before we were suppressed and lost the ability, that we’ve become closed to our true nature and ignorant and the disabled are a sign of that and that’s what’s so wrong with the world, that’s where we went wrong.

I light a cigarette and go sit on the steps of the art gallery by some other smokers, hoping my theory about cigarettes winning friends and conversations with strangers will hold true. They’re talking about something sensitive and I interrupt and it’s awkward right away. I decide it’s best to go quiet. Eventually they change the subject to something about banks. This is a topic I can ask about, so I do. They tell me that earlier in the day, a bunch of people went across the road to the banks to close their accounts and have a dance party. Not surprisingly, the police got involved.

“The Mic Check thing worked really well though, hey?” one girl said.

From what I’ve experienced, Mic Check is the human mic system popularised in the original Occupy Wall Street movement in New York. It’s a sort of human microphone, where a person shouts “Mic Check” to signify they want to speak. All the people around them repeat the phrase, then the person speaking speaks in short sentences, with the crowd around them repeating what they say so that everyone can hear. Essentially, the crowd itself becomes the amplification system.

“The crowd was able to talk to the police and work everything out,” the girl continued. “It was really good.”

Over at the info booth a guy tells me there are General Meetings at 1pm and 7pm every day. I go in to ask what Work Groups are, hoping they were some sort of volunteering system that would allow me to get further involved and find out more about this thing. They aren’t, but there are these GMs at 1pm and 7pm every day and I should come, the guy says. I nod and tell him I’ll see him tomorrow.

The Other Australia

There was a storm here the other day. Just a little one, really, but it pushed over enough trees and slowed enough traffic to make the news, whereon the journalists went around interviewing people about their inconveniences.
“Well, it’s the weather,” one guy pointed out. “You can’t control the weather.” It was raining on the Vancouver street behind him and he was dressed appropriately.
Another guy, who had been waiting patiently for the ferries to start up again, was happily doing his crosswords and catching up on his reading. “Yah, well. Bin here about four hours now,” he said cheerfully. “Just waiting for the ferry to go.”

Australians, in contrast, while pretty easy going themselves, probably would have at least found someone to blame. Probably Labor.

Outside of a few particular idiosyncrasies and funny little incidents such as this, however, I’m finding that Australia and Canada, and Australians and Canadians, are pretty much the same thing, with a few minor variations on the theme.

Both countries are huge but largely uninhabitable, with much of their bulk taken up by vast, difficult landscapes – one hot and waterless, the other iced over. During the more extreme seasons, while Australia is reaching 50 degrees Celsius in some places, Canada is reaching the same number in the negative.

Both have a lot more space that population. What population there is tends to inhabit the more liveable edges, with all that space hovering just over their shoulders. And it’s this space and this wilderness and these extremes that have, for the most part, defined and toughened inhabitants of both countries: their stereotypes have been shaped by it, their sense of space and significance based on it, so many of their films and music and books devised to reflect it. Distance is normal. They think nothing of spending whole days in the car, and regularly subject their vehicles and their dogs to long and arduous road trips across barely changing landscapes, those of one watching for kangaroos, the other for deer.

Both countries are new, white, middle class, comfortable places, comparatively unburdened by history. They keep mostly to themselves, and are generally misunderstood or ignored or both by the rest of the world, unless they’re being made fun of. Both tend to be favoured by tourists who like their holidays comfortable and their language English and who leave thinking, ‘Well wasn’t that a pleasant, beautiful, odd little country.’

Both keep their politics harmless and their economies stable. They both exist in bubbles inflated by generous resource booms, which have kept them reasonably impervious to external global crises. Their dollar values hover at around the same level. They both have their various, comparatively mild social problems – their homeless and immigration conundrums, their occasional crime and aging populations, the delayed consequences of their colonial pasts – but for the most part are comfortable and wealthy and unconcerned. Socially, all that mining, oil and, in Canada’s case, lumber, have bred high concentrations of under-educated rich, who buy jetskis and boats and big cars and TVs bigger than their walls to watch sport on. They build massive modern fishbowls with views of water and bump drunkenly and uncomfortably against the small clusters of cultural elite/poor students, who are meanwhile doing their best to keep to themselves and their quiet events, while attempting to maybe drag a little more grant money from the government.

Instead of dead possums or roos on the side of the road, Canada as dead raccoons. Instead of hot summers, there’s cold winters. Instead of P Plates, new drivers drive around on N (for Novice) Plates. Instead of the ABC, they have the CBC; instead of TFNs they have SINs; instead of your RSA, it’s your SIR. Instead of toilet, it’s washroom. Instead of Aussie Rules and rugby and cricket, it’s hockey, baseball and football. Different name, same basic idea.

Spending time in a culture so similar to my own, though, I’ve started noticing nuances of Australian culture I missed travelling around places that were deeply different. One of which is the way in which Australians are friendly.

The people of both Australia and Canada are known for their open, easy-to-get-along-with demeanour: they’ll make eye contact with strangers and will most likely smile back, particularly outside of the big cities; their busdrivers will probably help you with directions; you could probably strike up banter with most shop clerks; and if you break down on the side of the road, chances are someone will give you a hand to the best of their abilities. It’s generally easy to make friends in both countries, depending of course on where you are. However, while Canadians are friendly and earnest, Australians are friendly and cheeky. Canadians are friendly without an agenda. I think this is where the main difference lies.

To generalise wildly, Canadians are nice as a way of being, as a matter of course, as a way of existing. They’re nice like they don’t understand why anyone would want to be any other way. In contrast, there’s usually something underneath an Australian’s friendliness – be it playful or more sinister than that. It’s not the same blank friendliness that seems to be so prevalent in Canada, or in British Columbia at least. On the other hand, this can also make Australian interactions more interesting, lend them more depth and complexity.

Regardless, it’s interesting to find very familiar aspects of my own culture reflected in another on the other side of the world, often in opposite contexts. And reassuringly, I come from not one, but two unique, stunningly beautiful, friendly and very silly countries.

Victoria, BC

I was born in a small city at the bottom tip of a very large island off the coast of Vancouver. The island cradles the angle of the BC coastline and shelters Vancouver neatly from the North Pacific, its upper tip pointing North-West and stretching half-way to Alaska. The bottom tip points South-East towards Seattle, pressing down into the US border.

This is the tip that Victoria occupies. Head in most directions and you’ll hit water: rough, rocky beaches and points cluttered with driftwood and seaweed and dead or dying jellyfish. The water is dark and troubled, or flat and white-silver, or sometimes blue, depending on the weather. When it’s silver, everything just floats in it, like objects without a background, the Port Angeles Mountains across the water hovering above everything like they’re seated in the sky. When it’s blue it’s so bright your forehead hurts from squinting, and the day echoes with the honks of Canada geese and the screeches of seagulls. Little one-man sailboats drift between the little islands. When it’s dark, you go dark too.

Victoria is a said to be a town for the newly wed or the nearly dead, and there are indeed plenty of young families, and legions of elderly. Kids who grow up here tend to move off the island to make their careers, then come back when they’re ready to settle and breed. But there’s a university here and uni students make up much of the demographic, populating the cafes and the bars, and the festivals, gigs and events when they happen. Students tend go to gravitate towards U Vic when Vancouver seems too big and overwhelming, and Victoria, in comparison, seems just the right size.

The only way off is by ferry or seaplane. I take a ferry to get there, overwhelmed by big Vancouver, craving warm company. It departs from a town just South of Vancouver and arrives at another just North of Victoria. There are buses for the gaps. The lady I’m staying with insists I take a coach that plugs those gaps: leaves right from Vancouver, rides the ferry and drops you off in central Victoria. Though it’s simpler this way, it’s also more expensive, but I have learnt the hazards of disagreeing with her, so I fall to supplication and wait for escape.

The harbour the ferry leaves from is silver. Not white-silver – just pure, flat silver, with the boats, the buoys, the port, the ships and the docks forming little interruptions in the vastness of it. Seals chase red salmon, which leap whole from the water. On deck, it is appropriately quiet, any sound sliding in thick and barely noticed. The whole world is silver. I go below to eat and sit close to a window I can see it from.

It turns green through the pass. The gap between Vancouver Island and the mainland is crowded by a complicated mess of islands crowded with pinetrees, which the ferry weaves through, narrowly skirting the U.S. Border. Little houses occasionally pepper gaps in the trees, with little docks jutting out from the edges. I have a cigarette with my coffee in a designated smoking area and start to feel OK again.

It’s funny what I remember from taking this trip as a child. I remember the ferry but not the view. I remember how small and pathetic the kids’ area was. I remember the vending machines and the texture of the metal floor, the big steps at the doorways, the way the car deck treated sound. I remember the contrast between the bare metal and concrete down on the car deck – a crudeness it seemed passengers weren’t supposed to be a part of – and the soft seats and carpeting of the upper passenger decks. Later, on a Victorian beach, I will remember very clearly the smell of damp driftwood and salt, and it will wrench me all the way back there, to being a kid in Canada on the coast with my family – the beach cold and grey and complex with stones, instead of blue, clear and hot like I would later grow accustomed to.

I become fascinated by the docking process and very nearly miss my coach off the ferry, banging on the door just as the driver is starting up the engine. We motor off the ferry and down a highway, and eventually into the quiet little city of Victoria. The buildings are low and unfamiliar, I don’t know any of the street names. I find my way onto a city bus, then into Oak Bay, then to the street of the old friends of my mothers, who are expecting me. There is a small supermarket by the bus stop and a pedestrian crossing. Jeanne finds me at the mouth of the street and hugs me and helps me with my bags and everything’s just fine. We go inside and start cooking. Outside, what’s left of the day fades and after it does, and after food, we go for a walk around the neighbourhood and I look for clues that support the notion that I was born here; that this is where I’m from.

Into the Fire

Hello? You are Zoe? Yes, hello. Yes, nice to talk to you. You father call us this morning very early. So, will you come and stay with us. You would like maybe this? Yes, so you stay here. Ok, I spoke with your dad. So, you come. I will be home because I wait for the plumber. The house is very dirty though, so do not mind the mess.  I have no time for cleaning. So busy! All summer I working on apartments, cleaning and fixing and everything.

So we are next suburb from Vancouver. You can catch bus easily I think. The number 135, it comes very near to our house… where you are? Your dad said was backpackers. Where is backpackers? Ok, Granville. Where on Granville you are? You have cross-street? Davies. Ok, you get number 10, I think. Yes, so I think the number 10, it goes to Cooty Loop, so you get off the bus and you catch 135. It goes up Hastings to SFU, the university. You know Hastings? Yes well, it goes up there and then you get off at Granville. Oh, not Granville, no, that is where you are. No. You get off the 135, it goes right near to our house, and you get off there and you find  public phone and you call this number. I can come and get you. We are maybe 2 minutes  from there, so it is easy. You have cell phone? No, ok, you find public phone and you call me and I come and pick you up. Or you catch number 10, catch to Loop, to Cooty Loop, and you find public phone and I will pick you from there. Maybe it is easier for you to catch taxi. It is not expensive, I don’t know how much, maybe 15, 20 dollars? Yes, it is better you catch taxi. The address is 1-9-3-5, yes? 1-9-3-5. And it is College Street. So, will you catch bus or will you take a taxi. I think it is better for cab. Yes, you catch cab. Is easier. I wait for the plumber, so I will see you at home. Tell the driver College St. No, the suburb it is Barnaby but it is not important. The taxi driver, he will know our street. Ok. Ok. Good. Goodbye. You come soon then. I have to go to apartments, I am very busy. But you come. So long you do not mind the dirty house. It is so much mess but I have no time to clean, so you must ignore. Ok? Ok. Good, so I see you soon. Ok. Goodbye.

* * *

Hello! Zoe! Yes, I remember you! You the same. Your hair is darker but you the same. You do not remember me, no? It is long time ago. Yes, so you have your bags. So we go inside. How much is taxi? Ok, so not so much. Good, so we go inside. Yes, so you meet Boris. Is very nice dog, very nice dog. I love him. So you have met my baby. And this is Donald, he does work for me. I give him very hard job today, but he is good worker. He does very good work for me. Donald, this is Zoe. Oh, is broken? OK, later I will go to Home Depot and I get you new shovel to break.

So, Zoe, we go inside. It is very much mess, please, I will clean. We have very nice guest room – here, you see – but I have furnished appartment and new tenents they want unfurnished, so I had to bring all the stuff and I dump it in here. So you cannot sleep in this room. We go down here. So you put your bags here, and you have two choices. You can sleep here, in this room – I take mattress and I drag it here and you can sleep. Or, there is also suite. It is mess too, but you come up, so up the stairs. This was very nice suite but I change it. Oh, John was very angry when I start renovations and he came home and saw what I did to this, but later I will fix – make into very nice suite. Maybe in winter, when I cannot do other work, I will finish here. In summer, you must do painting and work outside while it is not raining. In winter, cannot do anything! I spend whole summer working, is so much work. Whole summer. I start work 8 o’clock and I keep working until 11 o’clock, sometimes I finish at midnight.

So here is the other room. You see that sofa it is fold-away, so you sleep there. Yes, is better, I think too. We just move the junk. So much mess here. We have so many things, I must give some away but I have no time to go through, maybe when it is winter. I will take these outside, into other room. And yes. How long you stay? You stay as long as you like here, it is no problem. No that, it should stay put. No, we move here… and. So you go to Victoria next? Very beautiful place, very beautiful. OK. Good. So you see what two women can do when they set their mind to something? Good, yes, so you bring your bags here and this you sleep. You want sleep now? From flying, you are tired? No, ok, so I will make some lunch. No, no, you don’t have to go to shops. No. Don’t be silly. I make you food. Come come, we go down to the kitchen.

Bites? From bug? You show me, just show your back. Oh, those are very bad, your bites! Is bedbugs? Oh, bedbugs. Oh, bedbugs are very bad. Very bad. Once you have, is impossible to get rid. What did you do with clothes? We will have to wash all of your clothes. Yes – all clothes. It takes just one – just one bedbug and they breed. They are very bad when they breed. Once you get, never get rid of bedbugs. I am very scared of this, very scared. You get from hostel? Where did you stay? No, main street hostels, it is very bad down there. Cheap, yes cheap, but look at what happens. We will wash all of your clothes, and then I have tenant, he is pest controller, he will spray your bags. You should take outside. Go, you take your bags out out side, out here. Ok, now we go to the kitchen.

Bedbugs, bedbugs. They are very bad, huh. Very bad. Such a welcome to Canada! I appreciate it that you tell us though. Then we can do something. Ah, dishes everywhere. So dirty. Ok, so I make you sandwich. You would like sandwich. And for Donald too. There is Turkey. Most people, it is summer, too hot for turkey. But we have turkey. So, here, you try this. Is onion in balsamic. Good, yes? Yes, it is very good. So, I will get bread and turkey. Ah, where is plumber!

So, your father, he calls me. It’s very early, I think 7 or 6 in the morning. I liked your father very much, very much. Your parents, they threw very crazy parties. We dress up and we have food… Very crazy, your father. One party, we have to bring food and a same drink to go with it, and then everyone has different drink with the food. So I made traditional Polish food and I bring Polish vodka, you know. Someone they make Irish food and everyone they must have beer. So by the end you have so many different drink! You should not have so many different drinks like this! Afterwards – I didn’t speak too much Egnlish then – afterwards, I curl up in the hallway and wait for finish. Ok, here is sandwich for Don, I will take out.

So, Don, he knows about bedbugs. Very bad, bedbugs. Very bad. He was in a tent in bushes, before he come to work for me, he lives there, and here he has bedbugs he said. He was homelss, so he knows very much about these things. Very hard to get rid of them. So, your clothes. We must wash all of your clothes. No no, all of your clothes. Because it takes just one. Just one bedbug and then they breed very fast. I am so afraid of this, these bedbugs. Just we wait for the plumber, and then we go and speak to my tenent, and he will spray your bag. Ok, so here is your sandwich. You want cranberry? Ok. Don was a drug addict, but he goes clean and he comes and works for me then. Much better for him now, yes.

So the weather, it is nice tomorrow but then it will go bad after. Oh look, is winter already! Maybe now I  can do the work inside. Maybe the house will be clean, is so messy. You must not tell you father how messy the house! We have people they come for dinner, but we have not for so long with such a mess. Maybe is better you go tomorrow to Victoria. You should have nice weather for the ferry. To see the view. But you come back to Vancouver and front suite I will clean out and you stay there. When do you come back? Ok, so you will stay here with us. You come back to Vancouver and you live with us.