TORONTO (Reuters) - A Canadian judge upheld an order to evict protesters camped in a downtown Toronto park on Monday, giving the Occupy Toronto movement until midnight to vacate the park it has held for more than a month.
Ontario Superior Court Judge David Brown ruled the eviction order - issued by the city last Tuesday and challenged in court by the protesters - did not violate the demonstrators’ freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
At midafternoon, protesters got more bad news when they learned their eviction would be backed by the church that co-owns the park with the city.
Protesters first set up shop in Toronto’s St. James Park on October 15, following the lead of Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York’s Zuccotti Park.
The Zuccotti Park protesters were forcibly evicted last week and it was unclear whether their Toronto compatriots would suffer the same fate.
A few hundred protesters remained in the park at midafternoon, but the number of tents had clearly declined in the past week.
The protest has drawn criticism for the toll it has taken on the park and surrounding neighborhood, and after five weeks the space is indeed showing signs of fatigue, with patches of bare ground where grass was once abundant, and pieces of cardboard and other refuse scattered among the fallen leaves.
Organizers had held out hope that St. James Cathedral, which sits next to the park and is co-title holder of the space along with the city of Toronto, would provide sanctuary for protesters evicted by the city.
But around 2:30 p.m. (1930 GMT), a small crowd of police and city by-law enforcement officers entered the park and affixed eviction notices printed on the church’s letterhead to tents and other structures.
A throng of media and protesters followed the police closely as they distributed notices, while others chanted protest slogans.
Four men hammered together wooden pallets to build a makeshift barricade in front of the structure that’s been serving as the library at the encampment.
Sakura Saunders, a volunteer facilitator, said she expected police would soon enforce the eviction order. “I just worry about chaos and people being hurt,” she said.
The court ruling upheld city of Toronto bylaws prohibiting tents and shelters in parks and stating that parks must be vacated between midnight and 5:30 a.m. (1030 GMT).
In his written decision, Brown said the protesters’ decision to take over the park without first consulting local residents was not in line with protections under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“The protesters now say, in effect, that the Charter did not require them to ask; that the Charter sanctions their unilateral occupation of the park,” he wrote.
“With the greatest of respect to the applicants and the protesters, they are mistaken.”
In a press conference shortly after the decision, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford said he had asked protesters to leave the park peacefully and “as soon as possible”.
Toronto is Canada’s largest city and the home of the country’s financial industry, which has put the spotlight on the St. James Park protest. But similar demonstrations have sprung up in other cities.
In Vancouver, Occupy protesters were busy taking down tents and dismantling structures ahead of a 2 p.m. (2200 GMT) Monday deadline to vacate their encampment at the city’s art gallery, according to the Globe and Mail newspaper.
Reporting by Cameron French; editing by Peter Galloway