Celia Brauer: Where will the children play? When youth burn their own houses down

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      It hadn’t been 24 hours since the Stanley Cup riots of 2011 in Vancouver and we had already seen countless images. The photos and videos of hundreds of people—mostly inebriated male revellers in their twenties—were seared into our conscience. There they were—many wearing Canucks jerseys—smashing cars and store windows, looting, torching, destroying, roughing up police officers and each other, looking like they were thoroughly enjoying themselves. We wanted to look away but we couldn’t. We were outraged, ashamed, and confused. Then came the newspaper and TV discussions and a new phenomenon—“trial by Facebook”—where many would comment on the guilt of the rioters as they were identified. The soul searching went on and on. Were the perpetrators from Vancouver or the suburbs? Why weren’t there more police? Why couldn’t the police who were there control the violence? Were these thugs real Canucks fans or just opportunists? Would they be fully prosecuted? Could we keep having these great large street parties without the fear of further violence?

      No doubt countless dollars will be spent on analysing what happened on June 15 after the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup and downtown Vancouver quickly turned from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. Never mind that many more millions of dollars from public coffers will have to pay the police, firemen, and hospital workers who worked overtime. Never mind the financial compensation for the victims—which included the city—who saw their stores, cars, and other property seriously vandalized. The irony of this is that the huge amount of money laid out for Olympic security was not present here and yet the crowds were just as large. Not only did this contribute to the problem of limited resources to make downtown Vancouver secure—now we have even less money to pay for all the damage.

      Images of young adults furiously and gleefully trashing all that their society holds dear cries out for deeper examination. But where do we begin? Lately two songs by Cat Stevens that were popular when I was growing up have been playing in my head. “Wild World” is a lament from a parent to a child, warning them of the good and evil in the world as they set out on their life path. The other “Where Do the Children Play?” asks the question—why do we pave over our natural world and blot out organic reality. These artistic laments have stood the test of time. In fact I think they are even more relevant today than they were 30 years ago and they are a good place to start this discussion.

      I have lived in Vancouver since 1980 and have watched it “grow up” into what some term a “world-class city”. Certainly Expo 86 and the Winter Olympics in 2010 put us in the public spotlight and the city continues to grow in population and thus density. In many ways it is a successful experiment—we are often voted the world’s most livable city. Yet I have always been concerned that the “livability” for the residents of Vancouver and the larger region is fragile. Ever since I found out the original history was about fish, trees, and Native people with more salmon inhabiting the area than people do today this image has haunted my thoughts. I have always wondered how much population growth one area can handle before the whole region turns on itself.

      If one looks carefully at the people at the riot who were setting cars on fire, breaking windows, looting, and punching policemen or each other—we have to realize that each of these is a person in their own right, raised by a mother and a father, maybe even both at the same time. They grew up in some apartment or suburban house. They ate food from the local grocery store or restaurant. They went to school, hung out with their friends. They studied for tests, did sports, partied on weekends. They might have skied on the North Shore mountains and walked on Kits Beach, but more than likely they would have spent more than their share of leisure hours staring at a television or computer screen watching the world in two dimensions. They certainly would have spent countless hours in a classroom, sitting and listening to a teacher offer them a great number of facts that the department of education deemed important to learn.

      Perhaps they already have a job—in construction, in retail, or at a restaurant—or they are continuing some postsecondary education. They might already be driving a car and have also experienced a few bouts of heavy drinking. But certainly they are all in a state of mild anxiety about their future lives. Where will they live, where will they work? Would they get married and have families? Contrast this to the lives of their great-grandparents who would have come of age in the early 20th century. These ancestors might have been working in a coal mine, in a factory or on a ship. They could have joined the army or fought in a war. Maybe they were hunkered down on a farm raising a family, growing their own food, sewing their own clothes. Regardless—the lives of these people would be very different from those of today.

      Even more so the tribal lives of Vancouver’s original First Nations. Young adults would have been travelling by canoes, killing mammals, fish, and birds for food and building houses as part of their daily lives. Like the ancestors of the settlers, building a family and being an integral part of their village was not optional; it was mandatory. Not that life was particularly idyllic in days of yore but young adults were far more required to fully participate in society. Food was not easily available. It had to be grown, killed, and processed. Waking hours would be spent on sometimes dangerous and other times on very menial tasks. In one century the lives of someone who has lived for a little more than 20 years is vastly different.

      Yes, there were too many at the riot who behaved in an outstandingly irresponsible manner. Yet there were many others who made a point the next day to come to downtown Vancouver and clean up. Also living and working among us are many other young men and women—perhaps a bit older than twenty-something—who are attempting to repair the world that they inherited. They are spending a great deal of their time—for profit or not—trying to save what they have decided is valuable: the shrinking natural world. They are voices in the wilderness shouting about climate change and peak oil and recommending a radical shift before it is too late. They are railing against the blot on the landscape that is the Alberta tar sands and its offshoot the proposed Enbridge pipeline. Closer to home they are fighting the South Fraser Perimeter Road in Delta, the Bastion marina and jet fuel port on the North Arm of the Fraser River and more oil tankers in Vancouver’s harbour. They are trying to turn the tide against many established open-net fish farms in B.C. because these are decimating the wild fish. They are seeking to get shark fin soup banned before this maligned predator disappears off the face of the Earth. They are cleaning up beaches and waterways and educating children about nature. Every day on email and Facebook brings a whole slew of causes to fight. They are mostly about the incessant clear-cutting of the natural landscape for resource extraction and human development and the result some of these harmful practices have on our society. These realities and many more are daily playing themselves out in Vancouver and beyond. And yet our youth are asked to maintain the faith while the general society continues it’s very destructive agenda. This is a lot to ask.

      There was a video circulating on Facebook in the last few days where the Stanley Cup riots were spliced into the advertisement from the Olympics. You remember the one where Sarah McLachlan, Michael J. Fox, Ryan Reynolds, and Kim Cattrall are standing in some beautiful B.C. landscapes saying “You gotta be here”. What struck me about the contrast was that there was an absence of people in the nature shots and a fullness of people, buildings, and objects of man’s creation in the riot shots. Yes, they were all in British Columbia. But can we really compare? Remember—not long ago Vancouver looked like the forest or beach of these ads, with hardly any people.

      The Stanley Cup rioters targeted whatever was handy—stores, cars, garbage cans, police officers and each other. This is the current landscape of too many young urban adults. They want to be part of a positive environment. But in the end they end up a lot closer to a television set or computer screen than a positive intergenerational human community and closer to concrete and asphalt than farmers’ fields. They grow up in a world packed with more people every day. Is it any wonder their inner tensions after the long build up to a final hockey game where their team lost and the frustrations about their own lives break out in key moments like these, in the face of our carefully managed society?

      It was hard not to get caught up in the trajectory of the Vancouver Canucks over the past few months. It was hard not to want to duplicate the feel good vibes of last year’s Winter Olympics. But many of us who are older know there a great deal more to life than participating vicariously in these sports games. Not so these twenty-something rioters—this is their present reality. They showed up on Facebook as criminals and hoodlums caught in the ecstasy of their one moment of expression against the society that has failed them. Very sadly, this is “where these children play”. Grown-up and mixed-up children, no doubt, but people with seriously misguided energy that was directed against the destruction of public and private property and violence against each other.

      Martin Luther King said that “a riot is the language of the unheard”. When the youth of our country burn down their own house, their own city, and trash their own world, we ought to listen more carefully to what they are really telling us.

      “Where Do the Children Play?” by Cat Stevens

      Well I think it’s fine, building jumbo planes.
      Or taking a ride on a cosmic train.
      Switch on summer from a slot machine.
      Yes, get what you want to if you want, ”˜cause you can get anything.

      I know we’ve come a long way,
      We’re changing day to day,
      so tell me, where do the children play?

      Well you roll on roads over fresh green grass.
      For your lorry loads pumping petrol gas.
      And you make them long, and you make them tough.
      But they just go on and on, and it seems that you can’t get off.

      Oh, I know we’ve come a long way,
      We’re changing day to day,
      so tell me, where do the children play?

      Well you’ve cracked the sky, scrapers fill the air.
      But will you keep on building higher
      ”˜til there’s no more room up there?
      Will you make us laugh, will you make us cry?
      Will you tell us when to live, will you tell us when to die?

      I know we’ve come a long way,
      We’re changing day to day,
      But tell me, where do the children play?

      Celia Brauer is a founder of the nonprofit False Creek Watershed Society. She is also a member of the Livable Region Coalition and Village Vancouver.