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A Tale of Two Vancouvers
The rational, principled resistance of activists protesting against the Winter Olympics chimes with Canadian public opinion
The Winter Olympics begin today, with the opening ceremony at Vancouver's BC Place. While the games have lured some of the world's most accomplished athletes to Canada to compete for the gold, they've also roused a groundswell of anti-Olympic dissent.
Five-ring flag-waving Olympic boosters will tell you these anti-Olympic protesters are a grumpy gaggle of naysayers intent on spoiling other people's fun. Even worse, as Am Johal of the Vancouver-based Impact on Community Coalition told me, "If you start criticising the Olympics, you're portrayed as a sort of Trotskyist on the fringes of society." But for those willing to listen, many anti-Olympic activists are actually advancing rational, principled resistance that chimes with Canadian public opinion in many ways.
Olympic enthusiasts are correct that hosting the Games has jumpstarted some valuable infrastructure projects, the Canada Line being a shining example. But that doesn't mean we should turn a blind eye to rights that are squashed as the Olympic gravy-train rolls into town. Nor should we deny the social debris that is sure to remain in its wake when Olympic bigwigs pack up and head to London.
Although the Olympic charter supports "promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity" the International Olympic Committee (IOC) opted to hold the games on unceded indigenous land. As such, the spectre of dispossession haunts the Olympics, with numerous First Nations land claims yet to be resolved. Eighty of the 203 aboriginal bands in British Columbia have refused to partake in the games, which is remarkable in light of the pro-Olympic propaganda that has filled the social ether. When you hear protesters chanting the maxim "No Olympics on Stolen Native Land," they're not doing it for their health. You can ignore the history of indigenous oppression - and many people do - but that doesn't meant it's irrelevant.
Anti-Olympic activists are also rankled by the ever-ballooning economic costs of hosting the games, from less than $1bn to more than $6bn. The financial meltdown of 2008 couldn't have come at a worse time for Olympic organisers, but they've also been plagued by the incessant low-balling of costs.
The Olympics are yet another painful example of a public-private partnership gone awry. Taxpayers have been surreptitiously soaked by private developers who've created a real-deal budget-buster for the city. Were it not for an emergency infusion of taxpayer money to cover cost overruns, the Olympic Village would be half built. The closer we get to the Olympics, the more people agree with Johal that "The Olympics are a corporate franchise that you buy with public money."
Fundamental day-to-day needs are being sacrificed on the altar of Olympic glory while nearly half of Canadians in a recent survey felt the country's current economic conditions are "poor" or "very poor." The shimmering glow from the Olympic rings above the Vancouver harbor only illuminates the contradiction that 800 teachers recently received notification they may be laid off next year because of budget cuts. The homeless population in Vancouver has more than doubled since the Olympic bidding process began.
Speaking of money trouble, the security budget for the Olympics has skyrocketed from $175m to about $1bn. For the residents of Vancouver, this hefty price tag translates to the militarisation of public space. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada reported the installation of nearly 1,000 surveillance cameras in Vancouver. The Canadian government has formed the Vancouver Integrated Security Unit comprised of thousands of police and military officers.
And this is only what we're aware of. David Eby, the Executive Director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association told me, "I'm really worried about what we don't know. I'm worried about the weapons we don't know about that the police may have purchased, the tactics we don't know about that they want to use on activists." These are not the irrational howls of a paranoiac, but the levelheaded concerns of someone with on-the-ground experience.
From the Olympic bidding process onward, the "legacy" of the Olympics has been hotly debated. In a recent boilerplate op-ed for the Vancouver Sun, IOC president Jacques Rogge unambitiously asserted the legacy of the games will be sports venues and an Olympic Village-turned-apartment-complex.
Anti-Olympics activists have much higher hopes. Thanks to the conversations that have occurred within the anti-Olympic movement, Johal said the real legacy of the games may well be "elevated democracy" and a "sustained conversation" about what matters to the people of Canada.
With that in mind, in the coming weeks when we see dissidents in the media, rather than engage in name-calling, we might thank them for jumpstarting democracy.
After all, Canadian prime minster Stephen Harper has prorogued parliament - suspending lawmaking for the duration of the games - so can we really blame activists for wanting to prorogue the Olympics?