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Occupy Canada protests decry corporate greed, financial inequality

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TORONTO - Their stories were varied, their demands different, but demonstrators drawn to the streets of Canada on Saturday were united by their desire to decry the financial inequality and corporate greed they think is eating away at society.

After being inspired by a nearly month-long movement south of the border, the Occupy Canada campaign took off in cities across the country this weekend.

Saturday's protests were peaceful, a marked contrast to the riots that stemmed from last year's G20 demonstrations in Toronto and the aftermath in Vancouver when the NHL's Canucks lost the Stanley Cup final last June.

The grassroots protests had Canadians expressing their disenchantment with the corporate system which they said favours a small but vastly wealthy elite and disregards the masses — or "the 99 per cent."

"I'm here for more fairness in a system that isn't working right now," said Simon Marcroft, a 40-year-old video editor who travelled to Toronto from neighbouring Mississauga, Ont., to take part in the movement.

"This was something that seemed to be taking it to more of a common, approachable and reasonable level of discussion."

That discussion ranged from better safeguarding of the environment to voicing frustration with local projects. Many, however, chose to focus on their demands for a stronger economy and steady employment.

"I'm a fan of capitalism, but it's gotten to the point when it's become abusive capitalism," said call-centre worker Chris Currie, 25, who was protesting in Halifax. "People need to remember that we need to get a little more altruism in our society as opposed to a lot of selfishness."

The demonstrators themselves were just as varied as the demands they voiced. Occupations in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver featured a mixed bag of youth, seniors, activists, families with young children, union representatives and even some pets.

While some in the crowds covered their faces with masks, the majority sported smiles as they chanted refrains like "We are the 99 per cent." Police were present at all the occupations, but the movements remained peaceful Saturday.

Just being able to express themselves in public was a big draw for some.

"I like the fact that anybody who's got concerns about what's going on now has a voice in the Occupy movement and they can come on out and voice those concerns," said Karen Loch, a 41-year-old stay-at-home mom who travelled from Pickering Ont., to attend Toronto's protest.

"To say that we're isolated, that we're fine because we're in Canada, is lunacy."

The Occupy Toronto demonstration, which was expected to be the country's largest, began Saturday morning in the heart of the city's financial district with protesters packed into a plaza near the headquarters of major banks and the Toronto Stock Exchange.

By mid-day, the group decided to occupy a park a few blocks away. Once at the park, the crowd continued to wave hand-painted signs while some climbed trees and others clambered atop gazebos.

Sid Ryan, the president of the Ontario Federation of Labour who was at the Toronto protest, called the occupation an "organic movement."

"It's got the ingredients. Can they all mix it up enough and bake that pie to make it a real political protest remains to be seen," he said.

By late Saturday the numbers in the park had clearly diminished, but at least two dozen tents were set up as dozens were apparently set to spend the night in the mild, partly cloudy autumn conditions. The mood resembled a summer camp with people quietly singing or talking.

A tent city was also sent up by protesters in Edmonton late Saturday.

In Halifax, demonstrators crowded into a park in the city's downtown, setting up tents, waving union banners, hoisting hand-drawn placards and talking politics.

Joy Woolfrey, an international development consultant, stood in a stiff wind holding a banner that read 'Women for Peace.' She said she believed people were compelled to come because of deep-seated inequities in the distribution of wealth.

"I'm here because I think the system is broken and I'm delighted that people are speaking up," said the 69-year-old, as children and dogs milled around the crowd.

There was a similar scene in Montreal where hundreds gathered at Victoria Square in the city's financial district. The site was dotted with a dozen tents and coolers brought by those planning a long occupation.

Frederic Carmel, a 25-year-old office administrator in Montreal, said he booked the next week off work and planned to camp out in the square.

"There is enormous inequality in the division of wealth," he said. "It needs to better redistributed."

On the west coast, protesters in Vancouver packed a one-block square behind the city's art gallery and seemed to have the largest turnout in the country, with numbers that were in the thousands.

"It's the most participatory crowd I've seen in 30 years. It's quite exciting," said 50-year-old Tony Vanon, who added that there was appeal in the leaderless movement because no one group or person was controlling the event.

In Winnipeg, dozens of people came out for an occupation demonstration outside the Manitoba Legislature where interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel was meeting with Premier Greg Selinger.

Several hundred people turned out to the rally in Calgary, including Adam Phillips, 26, who brought his six-month-old son Sylas.

"He's the one who's going to be in this world, and it shouldn't be run by the one per cent. It's his future," said Phillips, bouncing Sylas in his arms.

Chad McKinley, 33, had his children in mind, too, when he decided to come to the Calgary event. He said he and his wife have had a tough time making ends meet even though they have two jobs — and he considers himself better off than many others.

"This is not the generation our parents grew up in. This is not how things happened 40 years ago," he said, holding up a sign that read, "I am: employed, mortgaged, in debt, a family man, not a bum!"

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called the situation in Canada "very different" from that in the U.S., pointing out there were no bank bailouts in this country, which had angered so many south of the border.

During an appearance in Dawson Creek, B.C. on Saturday, he tried to portray his government as in tune with the mood of Canadians.

"The focus of Canadians is the same as the focus of their government, and that is we all know we're living in a global economy, where the recovery is extremely fragile," Harper said at the opening of a new facility at Northern Lights College.

"We know we're doing relatively well because we're focused on jobs and growth and on the needs of working Canadians families."

Many taking part in the Occupy Canada movement however said the gap between the rich and poor in Canada is growing faster than in the U.S.

But at least one analyst argued that Canadians were in a far better situation, financially and socially, than many other countries.

"I'm not at all disputing their legitimacy or their sincerity, at the same time... their problems are not as deep or the issues don't generate the same kind of passion as in the United States," said Ian Lee, a Carleton University business professor who has been following the Occupy movement ever since it began in New York in mid-September.

"I just don't sense the same sense of deep-rooted anger and frustration and fear that I see in the United States and for that matter in Southern Europe."

While Lee said he was glad the demonstrators could express themselves in a respectful environment, he noted the movement hadn't yet translated its broad-reaching demands into specific policy changes.

The volatility of the global economic markets and a wave of discontent voiced through social media have sparked Occupy Wall Street protest around the world. In Europe, the movement is joining up with anti-austerity protests that have raged for months across the continent.

Violence broke out Saturday in Rome, where protesters smashed shop windows and torched a car. Protesters nicknamed "the indignant" also marched in other European cities.

Protesters around the world have said that Saturday will be just a start.

They said they plan to maintain their occupations for the longer term, just as those in Zuccotti Park near Wall Street are doing.

— with files from Alison Auld in Halifax, Ben Shingler in Montreal, Paola Loriggio in Toronto, Keven Drews in Vancouver and Lauren Krugel in Calgary

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