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occupy a whimper or a bang

This February, a USA Today headline trumpeted, "Occupy movement fading out in a whimper.

This February, a USA Today headline trumpeted, “Occupy movement fading out in a whimper.” Following a theme that had become popular in the press, the conservative daily’s editorialist declared that the “Occupiers lacked identifiable leaders and clear goals (and) presented bewildering messages to the public.”

There was some justice in this. Occupiers themselves were keen to point out that they sailed a rudderless, uncaptained ship. Born in response to a challenge in the Canadian magazine Adbusters, Occupy Wall Street was all about the growing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a shrinking number of the uber-rich. Everybody in the movement was calling for an end to this inequity, but nobody seemed to be articulating how this might be achieved.

Here in Whitehorse the movement got off to a different sort of start. A highly focused camp sprang up on the lawn of the territorial government building, with the dual purpose of drawing attention to government inaction on a local housing crisis and creating a temporary solution to that crisis for those who chose to join. Occupy protesters attached themselves to the camp, but the public responded much more to the concrete demand for housing than to the vague call for the world to become a more equal place.

Income inequality is among the great issues facing the world today. In his 2004 Massey Lectures, A Short History of Progress, archeologist and novelist Ronald Wright pointed out that even then (the gap has widened considerably in the ensuing years) the wealth gap between the rich and poor was astronomically greater than that between the wealthiest pharaoh and the slave building his tomb.

When people assemble to protest a war, or a blatant act of colonial violence, or some draconian legislation, their demands are clear enough. Get out of Afghanistan, stop the Israeli settlements, kill Bill C-38. When they protest the nature of society, they can point to no one thing that will solve the problem. It’s hard to get traction on a movement whose aims are subtle and complex, and it was this lack of a clear battle cry among Occupiers that drew the most fire from critics. It’s all very well to declare, “We are the 99 per cent,” but what do you want to do about it?

Similar criticisms are leveled against the student protest movement in Quebec. Sure, they started out with a very specific demand to roll back tuition hikes, but it quickly became clear that the students are expressing a much wider sense that society is moving in the wrong direction, that important progressive ideas such as universal access to post-secondary education are being abandoned in a vast conservative backlash.

A poll conducted for the National Post and released this week suggests that these protests may deserve more credit than they’ve been getting. The poll found that if a federal election were held today the socialist NDP would form government for the first time in history. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair scored an approval rating of +10, as compared to -26 for Conservative PM Stephen Harper.

In the same poll over 75 per cent of respondents agreed that Canada suffers from an income gap where, to quote the Post, “the rich are getting too rich and the poor are getting too poor.” According to pollster Lorne Bozinoff, “A lot of what we see and hear about these days is the one per cent versus the 99 per cent, and this poll is a perfect reflection of that.”

What happened to make the Occupiers’ message a driving force in Canadian public opinion, and what role does it play in Mulcair’s runaway popularity? Have the voters taken to scouring over policy statements, and found the solution to inequality in the NDP’s platform? Probably not. Addressing the income gap is going to be a long, complex problem, hardy susceptible to the kind of sound-bite coverage most Canadians rely on.

But there is one simple picture that people can see all too clearly, and it may be driving what the Post calls “a distinct tilt to the left” in Canada. It’s called corporate tax cuts. In the year 2000, the Canadian corporate tax rate was 28 per cent. By 2010 a succession of Liberal and Conservative governments had reduced that to 18 per cent. If there was any truth to the claim that these cuts were necessary to keep Canadian businesses competitive, that goal had been reached.

Since then, the Conservatives have reduced the corporate tax rate to 16.5 per cent in 2011, and 15 per cent in 2012. This gift to the wealthy came at a cost of billions, now being cut from social programs, environmental watchdogs, food inspectors, national parks, archives, and science. The voters may not have time to delve into subtleties, but they know a ripoff when they see one.

While it’s doubtful most Canadians know exactly what Mulcair would do to narrow the income gap, we can all see with ease what Harper is doing to widen it. What’s new is that this year, more than ever before, people are paying attention. And it looks like we may have the Occupy movement to thank for that.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.