By Alvin Singh
Unlike many of my progressive colleagues in this city, I voted “yes” with the 64-percent majority during the 2003 Olympic plebiscite. Far from being a rabid sports junkie or a fan of corporate welfare, I believed the Olympic Games would be an opportunity to transform this city into a model for social and environmental sustainability, due in large part to the unprecedented funding that was committed by the federal and provincial governments.
I remember the promise of building a model housing development at both Woodward’s and Southeast False Creek. I remember promises of one-third, one-third, one-third (social, affordable, and market housing) allocations to create a groundbreaking mixed community out of the athletes’ village that could have transformed how we approached the very notion of housing.
And I remember the bid book that spoke about these Games being the first “socially responsible” Games. A big part of the promise of social responsibility came from the 2010 Inclusive Inner-City Commitment Statement that pledged to “maximize the opportunities and mitigate potential impacts in Vancouver’s inner-city neighbourhoods from hosting the 2010 Winter Games”.
Needless to say, none of these agreements have been fully lived up to, and many have been completely ignored. There are two specific areas that are of particular concern for me and for the Coalition of Progressive Electors: civil liberties and housing.
At the electoral level, no one has been championing the concerns for civil liberties more than COPE city councillor Ellen Woodsworth. Ellen was the first councillor to speak out against the security proposals coming from Vanoc and the RCMP-led Integrated Security Unit (ISU). Her support of the Coventry Declaration, and constant criticism of vaguely worded bylaws and contradictions with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (along with others in the community) has just recently meant some of these bylaws will be re-evaluated by council with an eye to strengthening civil-liberties protections. She, along with COPE councillor David Cadman were the only councillors to vote against the bylaws because their amendments to strengthen civil liberties were ignored.
In light of past abuses of power by government and police, it is not enough for us to rely on laws that simply assume protections for our civil rights; we need to demand that they explicitly protect these rights. The “free speech” zones proposed by Bud Mercer of the ISU show precisely why language in such laws needs to be clear and not open to interpretation. With pressure from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, activists, community organizations, and the public at large, it is our hope that these bylaws will be revisited.
On the issue of housing, Vancouver may have missed the biggest opportunity this city has ever had to deal with our shameful homelessness crisis. Instead of harnessing the unprecedented level of capital available because of the Games, enforcing existing anti-demolition/conversion bylaws, or coming up with creative ways to generate new affordable housing stock, this city (under Non-Partisan Association governance) and province abrogated almost all commitments to social housing they had pledged only a few years ago.
Even now, the fate of social housing at the athletes’ village—once the centrepiece of the bid’s social commitments—remains uncertain. Poor decision-making during the awarding of the construction contract and the current financial downturn provide convenient reasons for some to call for the social housing to be scrapped. If that happens, it will only be the continuation of a trend that has turned the Olympics from a social promise into a social disaster.
Decision after decision, a lack of conviction and political will has meant enforceable social commitments have been allowed to fall by the wayside in favour of a direction that was easier, seemingly cheaper, or just more profitable.
The social legacy of the Olympics will not be what we were promised. But that should not stop any of us from demanding that we have a say over the few decisions still left to be made.
As a city, we can decide that civil liberties are too important to sell short, that the interests of multinational corporations come after the interests of our city’s most marginalized. As a city, we can demand that the province live up to its commitments to build social housing and provide a clear timeline in the process. As a city, we can demand that what little housing we have left is not demolished or converted and that existing tenants are protected with regulations that are fair.
Alvin Singh is the external chair for the Coalition of Progressive Electors.