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?
”¢ 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.