Am Johal: The 2010 Olympics have been an attack on civil society in Vancouver

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      As the opening ceremonies approach for the 2010 Winter Olympics, enthusiasm for the circus has been far lower than expected. The primary reason for this malaise has to do with broken promises by Vanoc and its government partners particularly around housing, civil liberties, and the true costs of the Games.

      The plebiscite on the Olympics in 2003, which saw 64 percent of Vancouverites support the Games, was sold to the public on the basis that this would be the first socially inclusive Olympics. Civil-society organizations were to be brought to the table, and an inner-city inclusive commitment was developed.

      Shortly after winning the bid, the newly constituted Vancouver Olympic organizing committee began to sideline civil-society organizations. What became clear was that the marketing and public relations needs of Vanoc and its government partners would drive the relationship. There was even a time when Vanoc wanted to sign a communications protocol with the Impact on Communities Coalition to limit public criticism of its actions.

      Dealing with Vanoc was akin to dealing with a large forestry or mining company that wanted to speed ahead with development at any cost. Their meetings were held in private, secret deals had already been signed with the International Olympic Committee, and “brand protection” was given a greater value than the human rights of citizens. It became clear that civil-liberties commitments were never really on their agenda.

      Every level of government was given the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions guidelines for host cities to consider implementing as policy in 2007. Unfortunately, another internationally respected report, built around human-rights best practises in dealing with the impacts of mega-events, was totally ignored. Three complaints to the United Nations and recommendations from independent human-rights experts fell on deaf ears.

      Vanoc remains an organization without a real civil-society presence on its board. All of the civil-society organizations which were around the table developing the Inner-City Inclusive Commitment Statement in 2002 have no table to sit at today. City staff write memos to Vancouver city council evaluating themselves on how they are meeting these commitments.

      Unfortunately, in pre-Olympic Vancouver, that is what is passing itself off as “community consultation”. The “bubble world” of the Olympic organizing machine of politicians, bureaucrats, and media is truly embarrassing. Only after heavy community pressure, the City of Vancouver backed off the worst provisions of its ridiculous 90-page Olympic bylaw.

      Despite numerous opportunities for government to re-establish a relationship with civil-society organizations, they have chosen the route of public relations, sacrificing substance at every turn.

      Just a few examples:

      ”¢ Vanoc’s own housing table recommended 3,200 new units of social housing over four years. The report was shelved.

      ”¢ The small affordable housing legacy that was going to be left at the athletes’ village could easily evaporate due to the city’s incompetence in managing the project.

      ”¢ There was no moratorium on evictions in the inner city. A total of 1,150 units are no longer accessible to the low-income community in the inner city since the bid process began. Either through evictions, conversions, or rent increases, the heavily gentrifying Downtown Eastside has contributed to a homelessness crisis—homelessness has more than doubled in Metro Vancouver during the Olympic time period while we have been investing in speed-skating ovals and luge tracks.

      ”¢ Though the purchase of single-room-occupancy buildings has been positive, the province of B.C. still hasn’t come close to re-establishing a provincial housing program that was building 1,200 units annually prior to the program being cancelled during the Olympic bid process. The government is so sensitive on this issue that it is putting together a “propaganda office” at the Woodward’s building to tell “positive stories” to international media during the Olympics. The question should be: how much is that going to cost and how much staff time is going into this?

      Ӣ The new Vancouver city council had an opportunity to re-establish an Inner-City Inclusive Working Group to revive the discussion but chose not to do it.

      ”¢ The Impact on Communities Coalition has called for an independent evaluation of human rights concerns focussed on housing and civil liberties to be conducted by Miloon Kothari, the former UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. Once again, this $6-billion-and-counting steamroller can’t seem to find $10,000 in its budget for quality, independent documentation. To put this in to context, the City of Vancouver is spending $500,000 on Olympic uniforms for city staff, the security budget is $900 million, and the tourism budget for the province is getting an additional $38 million to market B.C. abroad. The sheer size of the Olympic project means that it distorts balanced, public policy making—things have moved forward by bureaucratic inertia.

      ”¢ The $2-million PricewaterhouseCoopers economic analysis of the 2010 Olympics does not even consider something as elementary as “opportunity cost” as part of its economic analysis. B.C.’s auditor general needs to do a full accounting of the total costs of the Olympics to taxpayers at every level of government including secretariats, policing overtime costs, and other hidden costs when the event is over.

      Most British Columbians can’t wait for the circus to be over, because then we can start to talk about more important things in this city and this province—issues like campaign-finance reform, the need for a civic-engagement unit, and a new civic charter based on human rights. At the civil-society level, we are hoping to build a genuine “right to the city” movement that can pressure political parties in the direction of civic reform.

      We will also utilize this mega-event to put a national housing program back on the national agenda.

      After the decadent excess of these Games are over, there will still be a need to uncover the true costs—housing, civil liberties, and financial.

      Am Johal is chair of the Impact on Communities Coalition.

      There will be a rally in support of a national housing program on February 20 from 12 to 2 p.m. at the Vancouver Art Gallery.



      Stephen Zeffron

      Jan 12, 2010 at 4:20pm

      I'm tired of this whining. Let the Games Begin!


      Jan 12, 2010 at 5:37pm

      I am glad that people like Am Johal continue to build public awareness of the true nature of how Vanoc operates. Broken promises, and a strong corporate agenda combined with a genuine lack of interest in civil rights seems to be standard business practices for Vanoc. It is shameful that Vanoc and the IOC continue to reinforce my conclusion that the Olympics is more about corporate marketing and profiteering than the celebration of amateur sport and international unity.
      The "Own the Podium" program does not instill healthy values in our youth, nor is it even reasonable to assume that our Athletes will be able to follow up on the programs arrogant premise.
      As an active amateur athlete, I realize that solving long term housing issues and providing troubled people with safe humane living conditions is more important than spending $900 million on "Security".
      Obviously the Olympics will happen, and I hope they are peaceful and safe for everybody, athletes and local residents alike, however I feel that "civil society" groups need to get their message across to local government as well as visitors in a peaceful, informative and respectful manner, otherwise they (and their issues) will be dismissed easily as a fringe group and subsequently ignored by all.


      Jan 12, 2010 at 7:00pm

      Excellent article and video. It was very motivating to have the facts so plainly laid out.

      Thank you


      Jan 12, 2010 at 8:29pm

      Let's not forget the devastating effect the Olympics are having on small businesses. Employees are having extreme difficulty commuting to work, deliveries cannot take place and some areas are locked down. Some have to lay off employees because they can't afford to pay then with no income coming in. All the lame-brain schemes the various levels of government have offered are thought up by people who never have to leave their desk at work. They need a wake up call. A huge portion of the work force need to travel during the daytime hours in order to perform their jobs. eg. sales people, consultants, contractors. I'd like to send the government a big bill for the loss my own business will incurr! But I know they wouldn't pay it. They'll just raise taxes. Remember Montreal in the 70's folks. Get ready to pay, pay, pay!


      Jan 12, 2010 at 9:43pm

      I hope you'll refrain from whining Stephen, perhaps by cherishing the Olympic memories for several years, while the government raises taxes and funding cuts are made to make up for the deficit incurred by it.

      Bob w

      Jan 12, 2010 at 10:45pm

      I can't wait until it is over and I wish we could run Furlong and his greedy pals right out of town! The IOC and VANOC are just shameful and care nothing for the city they are in!


      Jan 13, 2010 at 12:10am

      Thanks to Am for this article and video. As a relatively new Canadian of only ten years I'm watching the handling of the olympic games unfold like the portfolio of what and who our elected representatives choose to prioritise on our behalf. Within the various levels of council, government and (the apparently unelected special purpose entitity) VANOC, much that we are now paying for appears to have been decided in secret and rushed through. I am appalled by our blatant disregard in this wealthy city, in this wealthy province in this wealthy country for those most in need (the only G8 country without a national housing program! Enjoy your holiday Mr Harper, maybe you will proportionally prorogue your pay cheques and we can build a few houses? I didn't think so, excuse me for asking I thought you were working for me). I'm genuinely ashamed by our collective neglect every time I walk past someone sleeping on our streets - eg. this weekend underneath the Burrard Street bridge where rows of shiny new SUVs are parked lay a man on the concrete wrapped in old coats, another in the dirt. (These are some of the 4600 GM vehicles with free fuel and drivers on $46/hour on call for every IOC member! ....hold on didn't we just bail out GM too?). It's so sad to learn that it costs us more not to change the homelessness situation. What else are the people we have empowered to solve these problems working on? Something more important? Something nicer, something cleaner, maybe something with a seat at the game or in one of those shiny SUVs the rest of us can't afford, environmentally or financially? I hope you will be motivated as I am by those in the video above to remember at every opportunity to ask questions of your elected representatives, to hold them to account for how and on whom they are spending your money, for what and on whom they are focusing their efforts. I hope you will take a few minutes to read about the millions spent on such proud Olympic ventures as our glorious torch relay (a great Olympic tradition invented by the ancient Greeks wasn't it? ...sadly no, guess again) - ask how much on such things as airstrips up north so that not even the farthest flung Canadian be denied a visit from Atlanta's own Coca Cola Corp. ...if the news of the last few years is anything to go by perhaps your tax dollars are hard at work landing that 737 on some reserve to deliver some (of your) nice clean (bottled, city) water or maybe their "Happiness Ambassadors" might be dropping in to spread the love with some addiction counseling and free pop....perhaps not eh). Or if you prefer local news, please do take a few minutes to ask around about the transparent scam that is the "offsetting" of the carbon dioxide emissions from the games – in a wild extrapolation of an already dubious concept VANOC appears to be getting this for nothing from Offsetters, at least if they in turn are successful in hoodwinking some of BC's already cleaner companies into becoming carbon credit donors.....roughly translated into no one actually doing anything different, no less CO2, no money changing hands! (Positively Enron-esque! Do they think we can't count the wood for the trees if they spin us around enough times?). I really identify with the amateur athlete who commented before, where is the sport in all of this, what was it all supposed to be about? All said and done, I hope a few more of us might prorogue our apathy and meet the ballot box with a keener memory next time around and kick these charlatans out on their ears.


      Jan 13, 2010 at 8:23am

      The occupancy rate in Coal Harbour is rather low, yet the land speculators want to keep building that type of housing. Meanwhile the working poor must move further out of the central city to find affordable homes, and then commute on an over-burdened, under-funded public transit system.

      Those condos are owned by jetsetting carpetbaggers who want a bolthole in a place viewed as stable, in case things go south in their homelands.


      Jan 13, 2010 at 1:20pm

      The Olympicâ„¢ games are over. This city will be grid-locked with protests in a few weeks. Enjoy.


      Jan 13, 2010 at 2:36pm

      I didn't think it took 25 years for an echo to bounce back.

      Protesters and navel-gazing committee creators like Am Johal come off like clones from mid-1980s. You remember them...the Expo 86 whiners. Soon after, this province reaped huge benefits from that international event and who was first in line to collect their government subsidies? That's right...the doubters, whiners, sh*t disturbers, and masked protesters (aka outright cowards). And let's not forget the "Citizens Commission for (fill in the blank)". Praise be to the NDP and their blank checkbook.

      Either maximize your opportunity with the Olympics or stand back and get out of the way.

      I wonder what all these "protesters" will say when an out of town guest is knocked down, spit on, threatened or intimidated by the misguided sheeple who follow the likes of Am Johal.