The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What did you think was going to happen?

With the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, it had seemed that Vancouver had finally shed the spectre of violence which had hung over it since 1994. Thousands of people partied in the streets every night, peacefully. And when Team Canada won hockey gold: the cheers and friendly celebrations could be heard across the country. It seemed at last that Vancouver could hold great street parties with the best of them.

But this was not the Olympics.

Olympics anticipation was very slow to build. The Olympics opened with a luger's death and widespread depression over uncooperative economics and even less cooperative weather. Most hoped that things could only go up from there: and fortunately for Vancouver, they did. Even the glitch during the opening ceremonies became teasingly positive by the time Vancouver closed its Olympic Games. Despite all early expectations, these Games will be remembered as a worthy successor to the exceptional 2008 Beijing Games. Considering all that had happened in the world in between, maybe only Canada could have pulled it off at all.

From their very beginning, the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs had been built up toward the great Canada-United States final games, the future Canucks contest with whichever United States team survived to meet them in the final clash: with the Canucks odds-on favourites to win. A series of wins and losses built that up even further, until it seemed that the glory of Canada rested upon this, the seventh and final game.

(Never mind that the Boston Bruins feature far more Canadian content. Nearly the entire team is Canadian, twenty-one Canadians in all, featuring players from every province of Canada except New Brunswick. Only four Bruins players were born in the United States.)

Yet the Canucks did not play up to expectations. Again and again, they nearly lost a game or a series, only to somehow pull it off in the end. Nerves frayed.

Against this yo-yo series is a much more serious backdrop. Vancouver sparkles, but much of Vancouver is also desperately poor, homeless, on the verge of becoming homeless, or working for barely enough to make ends meet. Even among those who actually have jobs, minimum wage in British Columbia has only just gone up to $8.75 an hour. Yet Vancouver's average rent is $1181 a month; and average house prices are close to a million dollars. Debt is rising across Canada, with more than half of all Canadians using credit cards and other rising debt just to pay daily expenses. Unemployment is no longer falling, and may even be starting to slowly creep up again.

Add in two weeks of postal worker rotating strikes and now a lockout, an Air Canada service workers strike, a frustrated workforce and a frustrated public; and threatened government action to cut off both labour actions at the knees.

Add in the nuclear accidents in Japan which continue to rain small amounts of radioactive iodine on British Columbia. Add in the spiralling cost of oil and gas at the pumps. Add in the Arab spring, partly the fuel for those rises. Add in rising costs of food. Add in worldwide nervousness about a pending second economic crash of even worse proportions than what happened in 2007.

And, heck, add in an elected Conservative majority, which gained Conservative seats everywhere in Canada except Qu├ębec and British Columbia.

How can you possibly call what happened next a surprise? What did you think was going to happen?

None of this is a cause or an excuse. I simply point out that there was a great deal of underlying frustration. Not so very much was needed to light a violent spark. A few people demonstrated that in the absence of a cathartic hockey win, cathartic violence on the streets could serve equally well.

After that, rationality went out the window.

Don't blame the police in how it unfolded. They had the city back under control in just over three hours: just half the time it took in 1994. They also did an excellent job of minimising escallation.

(Yes: it could have been much, much worse. Despite the property damage, this was Riot Lite.)

At every step, there were small pockets of violence: and at every step the police refused to be provoked. This was a very wise decision on their part. Any provocation would have made things much, much worse.

Women in the crowd could stand up against people individually, could block and resist and sometimes even deter property violence without a violent backlash against them personally: and many are the on-line videos of women succeeding at exactly that. That this kind of individual heroism could still have an effect during this riot shows clearly that it was only a Riot Lite. Ideals don't last long after a serious riot has been triggered.

Yet what women can do, men cannot, not with impunity. One man who tried made the mistake of getting angry and letting himself be provoked, just enough to go up to the mob rather than stand his ground. It was just that little bit too much. The mob dragged him down to the ground and then kicked and beat him.

Should it have happened? There was nothing right in what did happen: but if one thinks solely in terms of "should", the realities will always come as a surprise.

There were no anarchists in this riot. There were no masks, no true bombs. Not a single gun went off, in a city plagued by gang violence. There were incendiary devices: Molotov cocktails, a simple matter of vodka or gasoline with a rag in the neck of the bottle. How hard are those to make and light in a matter of moments? especially in an environment where liquor had been flowing freely? There were cans of gasoline: again, not so hard to acquire in a hurry, especially after windows start breaking. Certainly a few people had come downtown specifically looking for trouble -- as is the case in every single public venue -- but a few people alone do not a riot make.

At the end of it, several people were injured, one critically -- but not one person died. The emotion and adrenaline focused almost entirely on property damage in the expensive shopping district. Most of the torched automobiles were -- not cheap. Some tickets for that seventh game had sold for more than the price of those automobiles.

The bitterly poor part of Vancouver was not so very far away from the core riot area. The police could never have stopped determined people from reaching it: but none of the rioters headed in that direction.

This was never about a game won or lost. This was about sticking it to the Man and getting some of one's own back.

This time, the fuse and the match happened to be in Vancouver. Yet Vancouver should not be considered an isolated case. The overall background mood in most parts of the world is tinder dry.

While Vancouver's mayor is wrong in blaming the violence solely upon a small group of "anarchists", he is right in recognising that Vancouver's future -- and the future of other cities -- hangs in the balance. G8 meetings are no longer held in large cities for obvious reasons. Toronto was the exception, and managed it only by strictly enforcing a no-go area with hordes of police and a 12-foot fence, and by spending more money than we like to think about. At that, it did not escape unscathed.

But -- street parties? especially during sports and other competitive, emotional events? These background tensions are not going to go away any time soon. Dare a largish city hold such a street party anymore?

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