VICTORIA – Occupy protesters saw their ranks dwindle in Victoria following an eviction deadline Saturday while demonstrators in Toronto vowed to carry on if they lose a legal battle to save their camp.
Only a handful of tents remained in Victoria’s Centennial Square by mid-morning and police said most of the protesters chose to obey a court order forcing them to pack up by 7 a.m. local time.
Police said the protesters left peacefully, adding the city would seek permission from the court next week to kick out any stragglers.
“We knew that there would be some resistance to the court order and we knew there would be another phase to this,” said Insp. Andrew Lacon.
“We’re not here today looking for confrontation, we’re just looking to see how many people are abiding by the spirit of the court order.”
In Toronto, protesters marched on city hall while they wait to find out if the city will have similar clout to clear its camp.
The court is expected to rule Monday morning on whether the group can stay in St. James Park, near the country’s financial hub.
Demonstrators with Occupy Toronto said on Saturday that the movement will live on even if the camp is dismantled.
“I think this movement is much more than the park, so hopefully we won’t lose the park, but if we do lose the park, we’ll keep right on going,” said Jenny Isaacs, 23, who has spent several days and a few nights in the tent village.
The Occupy movement has been decrying corporate greed and aims to highlight the concentration of the world’s wealth in the hands of very few. It began in Manhattan with Occupy Wall Street and crossed the border into Canada on Oct. 15, when encampments were set up in cities across the country.
After more than a month of tents in parks and squares, many cities have begun dismantling the encampments citing broken bylaws and security risks.
Occupy camps in Halifax, Regina and Saskatoon have been taken down while protesters in Calgary, Toronto, Victoria and Vancouver are dealing with eviction notices.
In Occupy Victoria’s case, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Terence Schultes said Friday that freedom-of-speech arguments just weren’t strong enough to trump the city’s enforcement of its bylaws.
Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin said he was pleased with the ruling because the tone of the protest had shifted from its original purpose.
“A criminal element (has) come in that it’s really almost hijacked,” he said. “Those rising concerns of safety and public health really created a situation where it’s not compatible for other community events.”
Meanwhile, protesters in Vancouver also received an order to pack up Friday night, with a deadline of 2 p.m. Monday. Police have been granted power to enforce that order.
B.C. Supreme Court judge Anne MacKenzie agreed with city lawyers who argued the protesters camped outside the Vancouver Art Gallery are trespassing on city land.
Lawyers for the protesters had argued the camp should stay because its tents were integral to free speech and assembly. But MacKenzie said that argument was outside the scope of her hearing.
“I find the city has established a clear breach of its bylaws,” MacKenzie said. “I find the city would have irrevocable harm if they were refused.”
The protests themselves can continue, but those taking part can’t continue to camp on the site.
In Toronto, lawyers for the Occupy movement in the city have made similar free-speech arguments in Ontario Superior Court, calling the encampment in a downtown park “an exercise of conscience.”
Like Victoria and Vancouver, the City of Toronto says the protesters are trespassing, violating bylaws and infringing the rights of other park users.
Justice David Brown will issue his ruling on the matter Monday morning, but has taken issue with the protesters’ use of the term “eviction.”
He said bylaws need to be followed and pointed out that the park was still available for political expression, but that could be accomplished without tents and during the day.