Occupy Vancouver Has Long History

Posted by Daniel on Nov 29, 2011 - 6 comments

The Occupiers have packed up their tents but before they disappear from memory it is worth recalling that street protest, and its repression, have a long history in Vancouver, beginning back in the pre-World War One era when early Occupiers also tried to put economic inequality on the public agenda.

The first round of what became known as the Free Speech fights occurred in the spring of 1909. Public outdoor meetings were much more common in those days before radio and television but when the meetings were held by socialists and members of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) the authorities took a special interest. On April 4, 1909, Vancouver police dispersed a gathering of these "revolutionists" on Carrall Street, ostensibly to clear the sidewalks for pedestrians. Six of the orators were charged and one went to jail, which only increased the ire of the labour movement who sponsored a series of further protests in support of free speech. Finally the police were told to withdraw, charges were dropped and for the time being the sidewalks belonged to the militants.

Round two began in January 1912 on the eve of a mayoralty election when one of the candidates, James Findlay, took a hard stand against layabouts and agitators occupying the streets. (Sound familiar?) Findlay won the election and his new council passed a bylaw banning outdoor meetings. "The gang of thugs and thieves who have made life a burden here for weeks should be run out of town without delay," advised the Province newspaper.

The IWW and its supporters began holding meetings in defiance of the ban, some of which attracted as many as 10,000 people. At one meeting, at Oppenheimer Park, police attacked the crowd with whips and clubs and arrested more than two dozen people. Little wonder the police became known as "Findlay's Cossacks".

Subsequently protestors got around the ban by taking to boats off Stanley Park and speaking to the crowd through a megaphone. After more arrests, and more protests, politicians and labour leaders brokered a peace and once again street meetings were held without police interference.

Some commentators have painted our modern Occupiers simply as copycats, jumping on a protest bandwagon that originated in the US. But actually Occupy Vancouver, and Victoria, can claim a long local lineage of taking protest to the streets.