The Spirit of Occupy Toronto

23 October, 2011
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Last Saturday (15th Oct.) the Occupy movement that has swept the industrialized world set down in Toronto. Anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 people converged on King and Bay, in the heart of Toronto’s financial district, to protest corporate greed and its handmaiden, compliant governments. The organizers of Occupy Toronto knew the faithful couldn’t establish a staging area and campsite in the financial district, an essentially privately owned dreary asphalt and concrete canyon. Instead they pushed on and established their base in the lovely, and public, St. James Park. They could not have chosen a better site.

Tis neither St. James Park’s location nor its public status that makes it so appropriate as Occupy Toronto’s campsite, tis its history. The park lies just east of St. James Cathedral, a beautiful Gothic Anglican church which has existed in some form as a church since 1807. St. James Park was a onetime cemetery of early York but even though those bodies were moved in 1850 the park is still home to the great Cholera pits of 19th century Toronto. Tis estimated that more than 5,000 bodies are still buried beneath the grassy slopes at its north end.

At the centre of the park is a statue of Robert Fleming Gourlay, a political reformer who emigrated to York from Scotland in 1817. Gourlay believed in open protest and petitioning as legal constitutional means of achieving reform. He was banished from York in 1819 after he stood up in Parliament and (to paraphrase) said, “Gentlemen I ask you, before you pass this particular bill ask yourselves, is it good for the people?” Parliament responded by saying, “What the hell do the people have to do with it?” Gourlay was sent packing to New York State and was not allowed to return to York until 1839, after his banishment was rescinded. He came back to Toronto in 1856 but after failing to be elected to Parliament in 1858 he returned to Scotland.

The actions of the Occupy Toronto demonstrators perfectly mirror Gourlay’s form of political activism. Gourlay believed in the validity of open protest, the Occupy Toronto demonstrators are engaged in open protest. Gourlay used pamphlets to get his message out, the social media of the 19th century, while our current demonstrators use twitter, facebook and youtube to do the same.

Goulay’s statue, erected in the summer of 2004, stands purposefully facing St James Cathedral, the burial place of his non-reformist enemy, Bishop John Strachan who after his death in 1867 was interned underneath the cathedral. Gourlay’s bust watches over his enemy, much like the current residents of St. James Park campsite who watch over Toronto’s towers of financial and political power. I suspect Gourlay’s spirit looks fondly upon the Occupy Toronto campsite.

Research: Angelina Pieros

Sources: CBC, CityTV, CTV, “Robert Fleming Gourlay” by Roger Hunziker, “T.O. Revisited: the Cathedral Church of St. James” by Bruce Bell

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