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'Poverty Olympics' Ridicule Games

by Denise Ryan

A merry band of poverty activists danced down East Hastings Street Sunday to question the rationale behind the city and provincial governments' financial commitment to the Olympic Games.

Demonstrators march through the downtown eastside during the 2009 Poverty Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., Canada on Sunday Feb. 8, 2009. The Vancouver Poverty Olympics are organized by community groups who oppose the 2010 Winter Games which will take place in Vancouver and say public money would be better spent on ending poverty and homelessness. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darryl Dyck) The second annual "Poverty Olympics" was a lighthearted event aimed at raising awareness about the serious issues of poverty and homelessness that affect Downtown Eastside residents, said Wendy Pederson of the Carnegie Community Action Project.

The event started with a mock Olympic torch parade that wound its way from East Hastings to the Japanese Language School auditorium on Alexander Street. About 500 community members and activists showed up for the event, which poked fun at the Olympics.

The healthy turnout was "amazing" said Pederson, and members of the crowd, many dressed in costumes, were in a festive mood.

James McLean, 81, a Downtown Eastside resident, dressed as Gregor Robertson, complete with faux-kilt and mayoral staff. "I see extreme wealth and extreme poverty," said McLean. "The government needs to apply intelligence, integrity and discipline to the problems we have down here."

Coast Salish singer and songwriter Sara Good performed an emotional first nations invocation and welcomed everyone to the "opening ceremonies," which included a satirical rendition of O Canada and the lighting of a giant torch sculpture.

After the three Poverty Olympics mascots -- Itchy the Bedbug, Chewy the Rat and Creepy the Cockroach -- were introduced, Pederson gave a short speech touching on some familiar themes.

"The cost of a ticket for the [2010 Games] Opening Ceremony is $1,182," said Pederson. "A single person on welfare gets just $610 a month." Pederson called on governments to "make poverty and homelessness a priority," rather than spending "billions" on the Olympic Games.

A series of skits followed, including a hilarious takeoff on curling called "Sweeping Poverty Aside," by the group Streams of Justice. "Team Vanoc" was pitted against "Team Poverty," with the odds heavily favouring Team Vanoc.

Sharon Burns, who was part of the opening ceremonies choir and danced in the closing ceremonies finale, is a Carnegie Centre volunteer who has lived on the Downtown Eastside most of her life.

"The Olympic Games are for rich business people, developers and people with money. We need to get the information out there about the real needs we have in this province," she said.

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