Waiting for the Circus to Leave: 2010 Vancouver Civics Lesson

Just about everyone I know in Vancouver, can’t wait for the 2010 Olympics to be over in Vancouver. There has been such a saturation of the airways and opportunity cost associated with hosting these Games, that many of us can’t wait to talk about other more pressing issues in the city. The period in Vancouver has been rattled by the imposition of state institutions on the rights of the citizenry and on free speech rights in general — for example, home and workplace visits of social activists, the detaining of American journalist Amy Goodman at the border, the use of undercover police to infiltrate activist networks and a general chilling effect on dissent in the city. Recently, the Chief of the Victoria Police Department bragged to a private audience that protestors going to Victoria had rented a bus driven by an undercover police officer.

We are imagining a kind of sanitized, Canadian version of a McCarthyist witch hunt happening: “Are you now, or have you ever been, a 2010 Olympics critic?”

But why aren’t people angry? Why aren’t people in the streets? Why is this situation so normalized?

The state of exception that has been created by the Olympic circus could not be conceivable except for the unfortunate qualities of our society that it reflects — a series of relationships and systematic interactions which normalizes the practice of limiting the rights of certain citizens arbitrarily. The tools of public relations and corporate communications have covered up the practices of publicly funded government institutions like the Integrated Security Unit and VANOC with words like ‘balance,’ ‘sustainability’, ‘ brand protection’ and the need for ‘security.’ The citizenry is in slumber — most people are deactivated spectators unable to intervene or exert pressure on the endless web of political and bureaucratic systems of inertia that have been created by the Olympic machine. A culture of governmentality has, unfortunately, taken over.

In the process of organizing something as large as the 2010 Olympics, it certainly provides a kind of snapshot of a country’s political culture and its society. Below are some early observations, diagnoses and characteristics that have been identified about Vancouver’s political and social culture over the Olympic years by friends, acquaintances and researchers, informally over beer and coffee in random conversations in the city over the past eight years:

1) An Underdevelopment of the Public Sphere

For some reason, we can’t seem to have considered and complex debates on public policy matters without devolving in to ideological boilerplate, partisan bickering or without framing critics as frothy-mouthed neo-Marxist traitors to the country. Increasingly, it appears that there are fewer and fewer spaces to have these critical discussions. The media, political parties, academic institutions, art and cultural institutions and civil society have all failed the public in developing a space where ideas can be contested, where debates can be shaped and where dialogue can happen in a rigorous way.

The 2010 Olympics, particularly, have led to a contamination of the public sphere to such a degree, that it isn’t possible to have a rational conversation about them until they are over. In contemporary Vancouver, the Olympics have become the opium of the masses and have distorted the central role of many institutions in society which are meant to act as critical safeguards for society.

2) The Epidemic of Politeness

As outsiders visit Vancouver and see the stark contrasts of a downtown filled with condominiums and intense poverty mere blocks away, they become angry. They don’t understand why people are not on the streets clamouring for change. This culture of politeness does more harm than good. It masks the urgency of a situation that is costing lives. We should fear this culture of politeness and the damage that it causes.

3) The Deference to Public Institutions

Canada does not have a questioning culture — even in Britain and United States, the heaviest influences in historic political development of Canada, there are more considered debates on public policy. Canada is a colonial country that basically has no history of revolutions. Sadly, the people only rise up during intense hockey games. The development of a liberal democratic order of government has largely been contracted out to an elite class of politicians and bureaucrats without very much participation from Canadian citizens. When those same institutions do not keep up with contemporary norms, trying to change them is an arduous task.

In most places around the world, the phenomenon of police investigating police wouldn’t even be considered, but we are still having that debate today in British Columbia.

Canada has signed on to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In a country where we should be talking about the right to adequate housing for everyone, we are still having debates in the Supreme Court about the right of citizens to sleep outside.

4) Parochialism

Tied in to the deference of public institutions, is the series of relationships that define decision-making processes in the City of Vancouver. The culture of parochialism that has infected the city amongst its various partisan interests has led to a de facto seniority system in the processes of political will formation. Civil society is largely dead in the city, nor is there an economy that could resurrect it as an independent watchdog of society. The myriad funding relationships needed to build robust institutions has meant that organizations which traditionally played this role, have largely become appendages of the government, the health board or other institutions. When those closest to the ground are no longer in a position to speak out, we are all diminished — the public sphere becomes restricted, voices of dissent wither, conversations that need to happen don’t occur. The life of the city is no longer a public conversation in the public domain.

5) The Rise of Central Communications and Lack of Public Engagement by Political Parties

Post-war political communications has spread like a terrible disease that by end of the 20th century, content has become a casualty. The rise of central communications, polling and positioning on issues has resulted in marketing campaigns to capture market share in the independent, undecided areas of the political map, largely in the center of the political spectrum. This has unfortunately driven out those looking for more substantive policy reforms and has resulted in a lower voter turnout at every level of government elections. Party discipline and caucus solidarity also take away those who colour political life with independent directions and new ideas. By cultivating a culture of spin and media grandstanding, politics is no longer viewed as a place of big ideas, interesting discussions or a place of rigorous debate. It is viewed by the vast majority of the public as an overmanaged stageshow operated by communications hacks.

Politics as a profession is viewed as terribly as being a lawyer or a journalist.

6) Academic Disengagement from the Issues of the Time

In Vancouver particularly, academic institutions like SFU and UBC have been profoundly disappointing in engaging with the public on the issues of our time. Particularly striking is the fact that the geographic separation of the institutions from the City with UBC in Point Grey and SFU on Burnaby Mountain, it is particularly noticeable. Despite a presence downtown at UBC Robson Square and SFU Harbour Centre, both institutions have not harnessed their capacity in bringing reasoned debate, dialogue and research in to the public realm.

While homelessness has more than doubled in the city since the Olympic bid process began, very few academics have waded in to the debate with analysis nor have they played the kind of substantive role they should have with civil society organizations in the city.

7) Economic Development as the Highest Value of Society, More Important Than Other Values Like Human Rights

As the city’s engineering department takes the belongings of homeless people and moves them along every morning, it is difficult not to look at the systems and practices of everyday life which have become codified and normalized. The assumptions that are built in to these practices are as complex as the intent is to be practical. A human rights audit needs to be done of city practices because it says something about the kind of society we unfortunately are — that the need for economic development has a higher value than human rights. The planning for security, the city’s bylaw package for the Olympics and the police ticketing of Downtown Eastside residents in the lead up to the Olympics are only some of the examples of this form of poverty cleansing that happens below the radar.

8) The Need for Democratic Reform

The City of Vancouver has no election spending limits. Right now, it’s the best democracy money can buy. That tends to mean developers. Successive political parties have promised change and nothing has happened. Until citizens rise up and demand democratic reform, we will be left with the illegitimate, corrupt and unsustainable system we have today.

9) The Proliferation of Inoperative Forms of Political Engagement

Vancouver has a great reputation as a place of progressive politics. This is where Greenpeace started, where the Downtown Eastside Residents Association fought for community assets in the 70’s and 80’s and the fight for a safe injection site was successfully waged.

Vancouver has increasingly become a place of political posturing, hipster disengagement and a fetishizing of spirituality that borders on flakiness. The substance behind the politics has eroded and real progressive gains have been limited. Though there is a place for yoga, meditation and doggie biscuit bakeries, there is still work left to be done on the ground.

10) An Illogical Fracturing of Social, Environmental and Labour Movements

At a time when climate change is putting civilization at risk, when homelessness is doubling and there is mass unemployment, one would think it would be rational for these movements to work together and set differences aside. Unfortunately, these movements are as fractured as ever.

The 2010 Olympics have been treated with kid gloves by the labour movement. Civil society has felt betrayed by the silence and underfunding by the labour movement. The climate change movement has not been inclusive in their processes and methods of organizing.

Without real sustained work to break down these divisions, all three will continue to suffer setbacks in the coming years.

Am Johal is a Vancouver based writer and social activist. He can be reached at: am_johal@yahoo.ca. Read other articles by Am, or visit Am's website.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Rehmat said on December 31st, 2009 at 9:12am #

    According to Israeli FM – Canada is the most loyal friend of Israel. Prime Minister Stephen Harper claimed a few month ago: “Critism of Israel is old-fashioned anti-Semitism…..”

    Recently, with the help of Zionists within Harper’s government – Jewish Lobby groups have achieved a number of PR results in the favor of the Zionist regime in the occupied Palestine – ranging from the banning of British MP George Galloway’s visit to Canada, choking freedom of information, Toronto International Film Festival, exhibition of the stolen Dead Sea Scrolls at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), ignoring the plight of Palestinian-Canadian citizens visiting Israel, denouncing Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez being an ‘anti-Semite’ for his close ties with Islamic Iran, to name a few.

    Canada is the only country in the world, which not only allows Jewish groups funding the illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestine – but also constructed a huge park on the stolen land – Canada Park.

    A Jew blogger, Eric Walberg, posted an article titled Israel in Canada: Promised lands, on October 18, 2009 – which notes the various events of Zionist Mafia’s grip over Canadian government:

    The “other Israel” in Canada

  2. anthony innes said on December 31st, 2009 at 7:38pm #

    Am Johal raises very pertinent issues .Sadly way too late to shape in anyway the trajectory of social drift.
    UBC ,SFU and were never intended to promote questioning,only apparatchics for the existing neo colonial exploitation of the Pacific North West.It is over 40 years ago that I watched the Delta go from some of Canada’s finest farmland to tract houses and horizontal slums like Surrey.
    Western Separatists have come and gone and the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) agenda rolls on unopposed bit controlled MSM.
    The world through the WWW has come to learn what a few former well read “conspiracy nuts” understood .The corruption that is collapsing the financial under pinnings of a ecocidal distribution system emmanates from the Basil base of this cartel.
    Am Johal has not understood that this is not “Illogical” because the BIS cartel modus operandi is to sow dissension and exploit the chaos .The forces of an obsessive psychpathology driven by power, wealth and status fixations are legion and its something we no longer have the luxury of denial to confront.This is instutional in its complexity and it is only by personal experience and education that people will walk out,taking their energy with them and move on.

  3. John Hatch said on January 1st, 2010 at 2:09pm #

    The fact that thoughtful, non-violent Olympic dissent might bring a visit from intimidating, thuggish plainclothes Mounties is indicative of a very bad use of expensive resources, or Canada is headed further down the fascist path than many may have known (remember APEC?).

    Thinking (but not wishfully) that I myself might receive an unofficial, official visit, I armed myself with tea and cookies, and waited, but to no avail.

    I subversively had published a print and online article politely suggesting that, amongst other things, since BC continues to suffer the highest rate of child poverty in Canada, perhaps solving that should be a higher priority than a luge run or a skating oval, or a billion + on ‘security’.

    I also mentioned that mounting an Olympic games always seems to involve Wall Street style accounting, smoke and mirrors, a fair number of knowingly false promises and outright lies. And corruption. Lots of it (remember Montreal?).

    Many of us with long involvement on the Downtown Eastside were also concerned about what would happen to the hundreds of homeless whom the authorities might consider an unacceptably embarrassing blight. The VPD in the past has warned people to get lost permanently or be shot up with a lethal dose of heroin. There are signs the intimidation has begun.

    But no visit. Stale cookies. But then I also published more than one article about the brutish unprofessionalism and corruption within the RCMP. I mentioned the chilling, pathological homicide of Robert Dziekanski at YVR and the lies and coverups (at the highest levels) that followed. They even sent a delegation of Mounties to Poland to try and dig up some postmortem dirt, to no avail) The apparent murder of Jim Bush and lies and coverups that followed (Mounties inserted themselves into the autopsy room, perhaps to helpfully give the pathologist advice on how to do his job). There was the idiotic but brutal raid on a grow-op that turned out to be tomatoes. And a host of other brutalities and stupidities. Tasering children. Tasering an 84 year old confused cardiac patient in his hospital bed.

    Now these guys (and girls) will be running around Vancouver and Whistler with itchy fingers on their beloved Tasers. And machine guns.

    But not at my house, not that I would open the door.

  4. Maryb said on January 2nd, 2010 at 6:41am #

    You ain’t seen nothing yet. Part of the execrable Blair’s legacy was the ‘winning’ of the London 2012 Olympics bid. Costs have risen by the £billion. The organisation is packed with cronies and in general we, the sucker taxpayers, are dreading the expected invasion for the 14 days or so that this circus runs in our overcrowded capital with its inadequate transport system.

    The emnity that we have aroused in the Middle East by killing hundreds of thousands of Muslims and occupying their lands, and by supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestine, might also come home to roost. This will be used to take away yet more of our civil liberties and the state’s surveillance of its citizens will be intensified.

    In addition large sums have been taken away from the funding of our arts to subsidize this unenvironmentally friendly nonsense. At least visitors will be deterred from arrriving by air if the present delays caused by scanning and searching at airports continue.

    Finally it is worthy of note that the ‘estranged’ partner of the NuLabour Minister i/c of the Olympics has been convicted of fraud in Italy involving that champion of democracy, Silvio Berlusconi.


  5. Don Hawkins said on January 2nd, 2010 at 7:55am #

    A kind of global effort the planet has never seen.

  6. florinosci said on January 3rd, 2010 at 8:46am #

    I think the Olympics can be great for cities in a lot of ways. Even though it will be a headache for 17 days for London, don’t you think that some improvements will be made to the city to make it worthwhile? Improved transit system maybe?
    Clear Internet

  7. Maryb said on January 3rd, 2010 at 10:19am #

    No I can see no benefits. We are pretty well bankrupt after the massive bail-outs to banks and their nationalisation. We also have nearly 3m unemployed people (the real figure is said to be nearer 5m) and school and college leavers are facing life on the dole. There is little in the way of ‘legacy’ other than stadia that nobody wants in an out of the way location.

    Look at Athens for the before and after situation – weeds growing through the concrete and rusting metalwork.
    and I expect you have read of their current dire financial state.

  8. lichen said on January 3rd, 2010 at 5:52pm #

    The olympics are such a parasitic phenomena–almost like the WTO coming to town, except that there is more public money stolen for building one-time-use facilities and criminalizing the local poor and homeless to throw them out before the camera’s come.

  9. The Blackbird said on January 5th, 2010 at 1:30pm #

    The Epidemic of Politeness is one of the diseases I really enjoy curing! 😉


    Nice analysis of our weaknesses, Am.