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Populist protests
Oct 21, 2011

 

Capitalism as a villain, as portrayed by the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, which expanded to Canada, including Winnipeg, carries on a populist tradition in North America that occasionally arises to vent pent-up frustrations among citizens of being have-nots among a handful of haves.
It was the U.S. financial crisis that spawned the American occupation, which has been sustained for weeks. Understandably, those who have lost their homes and now have little expectation of being able to share in the “American Dream” are despondent. In such a high-unemployment nation, students are also crying out that they have no prospect of becoming gainfully employed.
Who to blame?
The most visible and easiest target is Wall Street, where the bankers and institutions reside that brought the U.S. financial system to its knees. While the moneyed-class has rebounded — thanks to government bail-outs — the middle-class has not, and that makes for a lot of angry people. In Wall Street, it’s again business as usual, but outside its borders, the effects of the Great Recession are painfully ongoing with no signs of a let-up.
The Great Recesssion that has struck so deeply in the U.S., and many European nations, has created a disillusionment among its citizens that has not been seen since the Great Depression, and that has led to protests and riots across the Atlantic and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S.
While there may be a mixed-bag of reasons for people taking to the streets, the common theme is anger at seeing their own situations virtually being ignored while a handful of alleged “fat cats” prosper. The gap between the wealthiest and Middle America has widened appreciably since the Great Recession began. It had been stretching before the recession, but it has become even more obvious since 2008 when the sub-prime mortgage crisis sent the American economy into a tail-spin that has yet to recover from.
In Canada, the pain is less intense as the nation’s well-regulated bankers weathered the international storm without needing a hand-out from the federal government. While the recession did affect manufacturing jobs, especially those dependent on the American market, Canadians overall are faring much better than others beyond its borders. Capitalism is alive and well in a nation that Americans branded in the past as  a haven for “pinko socialists.”
It’s indeed a strange world when the alleged “pinko socialists” are the guardians of one of the few remaining bastions of a healthy free-market economy. What Middle America failed to realize, when lapping up the Wall Street-promoted propaganda, was that social programs are reliant upon the wealth of a nation’s citizens and their ability to pay taxes, so Canada has always welcomed individual entrepreneurship and capitalism. When aiding the “Canadian Dream,” our governments were more cautionary, and were always alert to the need to keep citizens protected from the worst excesses posed by unbridled capitalism, something that was not done across the border.
Other nations of the same ilk as Canada, such as Sweden, Australia and New Zealand, are also doing quite well.
How well the nation continues to thrive while so many are in financial peril remains a matter of speculation. But for the moment, Canada is an oasis in a desert of despair.
If the world’s woes cross Canada’s border, how will the people react?
History does provide an example that is quite similar to the Occupy Wall Street movement. At the height of the Great Depression in the 1930s (that economic meltdown did effect Canada in the same disastrous way as the rest of the world), a “Farmers’  Army” marched on Winnipeg to protest their economic plight.
The farmers left Arborg on Tuesday, October 11, 1932, and as they trekked through the countryside, the Farmers’ Army’s numbers swelled. The first group of 250 arrived at Main Street on Friday, October 24, At the head of the parade were two cyclists and men carrying a banner reading, “Fight for Hunger.” A 200-strong contingent from the Beausejour area followed. On Sunday, the first of a number of proposed mass rallies to “Fight Against Hunger” was held at Market Square. 
Next, the Farmers’ Army marched on the legislature, where Premier John Bracken agreed to meet delegates, who presented the case for the Farmers’ Army. As the delegates met with the premier, speakers harangued the crowd and their cheers could be heard in legislative building. Speakers told the crowd there was a need for solidarity between workers and farmers to fight against the “‘parasitic capitalist’ class who were referred to as being the cause of the Great Depression and hard times (Free Press, October 18, 1932).”
John Osach, 20, and William Ostryzinick, 18, asked the premier to allow the sons of farmers to settle on the hundreds of acres of land seized for non-payment of taxes. They could not purchase the land, the two men said, because they could not get work to earn the initial down payment. Bracken replied that such lands were seized by municipalities, so he had no control over what was done with the land, although he did express the opinion that municipalities would benefit over the long-term by letting such lands “go for practically nothing.”
When the premier questioned Harry Rudko, a delegate who was also a member of the RM of Bifrost council, as to whether the municipality would permit settlement on lands seized without payment, Rudko replied in the negative.
“You see,” commented Bracken, “you do not agree among yourselves on the demands you are making.”
Others asked the premier for a guaranteed annual income, free clothes and books for their children attending school, but Bracken said the province was also in dire straits and could not ask for further loans to provide additional services.
Arborg district farmer Michael Krylchuk, a father of four, told Bracken that he was being evicted from his farm for non-payment of interest on a $350 bank loan.
While Bracken was described as patiently listening to the delegates’ demands, he tested their patience by offering nothing and questioning the depth of the farmers’ plight. Bracken also informed the party that he would have no further dealings with them.
History does have a tendency to repeat itself. And as was the case with the Farmers’ Army in 1932, it’s doubtful the frustrations expressed by the Occupy movement will make much of an impression on those in government and definitely less of an impression on the financial institutions on Wall Street.