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In Vancouver, Occupy protests have become a major election issue

An overview of the Occupy Vancouver tent city from the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery on OCt. 26, 2011.

Brett Beadle/brett beadle The Globe and Mail

Head to an Occupy protest anywhere around the world and you'll spot the similarities – signs rail against corporate greed, tents make up de facto communities, general assemblies debate the order of the day.

The lingering protests have spawned different reactions from authorities. Police in Oakland this week fired tear gas and beanbag rounds to clear an encampment.

While police in the California city made dozens of arrests, none have been made up the coast at Occupy Vancouver. Police have not moved in on protesters stationed outside the Vancouver Art Gallery, a fact to which some of the B.C. city's residents have objected.

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Voters across the province will head to the ballot box Nov. 19 for municipal elections. While other B.C. cities – such as Victoria and Prince George – have had Occupy protests of their own, Vancouver appears to be the only city in Canada in which it's become a major election issue. Those who joined the protest to change the world might well change who occupies the mayor's seat.

"I think everybody would have been shocked and amazed if no political candidate [tried]to use the Occupy movement to their own advantage," said protester David Beattie, who has called Vancouver home for more than 20 years.

Occupy Vancouver has been operating since Oct. 15. Early on Wednesday, as most of the occupiers in dozens of tents slept, a lone activist walked through the grounds picking up trash. Such is the meticulous effort on the part of protesters to avoid bylaw infractions that might prompt a forceful removal from the square.

The art gallery is supplying protesters with water. Health officials check to make sure cooking conditions are sanitary and safe.

When the tent city was initially erected, Mayor Gregor Robertson didn't speak against it. But Mr. Robertson, who is nearing the end of his first term, has taken a more forceful approach of late. He's told the occupiers that while they're welcome to protest, the tent city has to go.

Exactly when remains unclear.

"My solution is that we're patient and that we work toward a sensible resolution," Mr. Robertson said on Wednesday. "At this point, it's not clear exactly how long that will take and what form that will take."

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He said the city is exploring its legal options. Staff have not recommended an injunction.

Mr. Robertson's wait-and-see approach has prompted heavy criticism from his mayoralty rival, city councillor Suzanne Anton. If elected mayor, Ms. Anton said she'd take the tent city down in one week.

Mr. Robertson said that would be irresponsible, and characterized it as a "pipe dream."

"Really, if you look at what's happening in cities that have delivered ultimatums and moved in with police, it's created a lot of violence and chaos," he said. "Councillor Anton seems to be ignoring what's happening in other cities. I'm watching that very closely and I'm talking with other mayors about the current situation and what is and isn't working. ... We need it to end, but we're not going to go in there with a heavy hand, as councillor Anton is suggesting."

The mayor said he does not believe his approach will hurt him at the ballot box. Ms. Anton, who has struggled to gain traction in the race, has said she expects it to become a major campaign issue.

Constable Lindsey Houghton, spokesman for the Vancouver Police Department, said the force's position hasn't changed since the protest started. Officers are there to ensure a safe environment for lawful demonstration. If the city obtains a court order to remove the protesters, the police force must follow it.

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Ms. Anton said she believes city staff could talk protesters into leaving the site peacefully. Some of those at the art gallery on Wednesday disagreed.

Brendan Baudat said he would certainly protest against any attempt to clear the camp.

"I would do everything in my power not to leave," he said.

Howard Ross said he would leave peacefully if asked, but that he doesn't think that's what Vancouverites want.

"We are supported by people from all walks of life and all neighbourhoods. This goes beyond one candidate versus another," he said. "It is about bringing true democracy back into our political discourse."

Ms. Anton smiled when asked if the protesters she seeks to remove could actually vault her into office.

"Politics is full of ironies," she said.

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Based in Vancouver, Sunny has been with The Globe and Mail since November, 2010. More

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