When Helen Jefferson Lenskyj read Mayor Sam Sullivan’s “Project Civil City” report, she was struck by a sense of déjí vu. Lenskyj, a University of Toronto sociologist who studies the Olympics, told the Georgia Straight that Sullivan’s report seems to be taking the same approach used in other Olympic cities, including Atlanta and Sydney, to criminalize homelessness and poverty.
“Sullivan’s plan in this document appears to be following that same kind of blueprint,” Lenskyj said.
Sullivan’s 32-page report, released on November 27, includes 54 “ideas and suggested initiatives” that emerged from the mayor’s discussions with “community leaders” and provincial and federal representatives as well as from responses to a survey posted on the mayor’s Web site (www.mayorsamsullivan.ca/). Sullivan recommends 10 “immediate actions”. One involves a 60-day review of ticketing, bylaws, and fines, with the objective of “increasing their effectiveness in countering public disorder”.
Lenskyj, who is working on her third book on the Olympics, said the mayor’s plan to create a new “Project Civil City Implementation Office” and “Project Civil City Commissioner”, with a $300,000 budget, will create a new bureaucracy. “It’s an up-front law-and-order kind of approach, which never works,” Lenskyj said. “And it won’t work in this situation.”
The mayor’s report also includes a suggestion to use existing city employees, such as parking-enforcement staff and sanitation engineers, to become the new “eyes and ears” on the street. A “Waste Watch Program” could train city sanitation workers to work more closely with police to identify and report criminal activity.
Lenskyj, whose first book was Inside the Olympic Industry: Power, Politics, and Activism (State University of New York Press, 2000), said that relying on garbage collectors to become the new “eyes and ears” is just a euphemism for more spying and social control. “These are thinly disguised, uncredentialled, untrained security guards,” Lenskyj claimed. “That’s exactly what Sydney did. They gave thousands of people 12 hours of training and empowered them to enforce all kinds of bylaws that were put in place before the Olympics to criminalize homelessness. Calling them ambassadors or sanitation engineers with special training, or parking-enforcement guys with special training, is offensive, to say the least.”
The mayor’s report lists a separate suggestion for a “new locked bin program” for downtown Dumpsters, which would prevent homeless people from being able to retrieve food and other objects from the trash. Lenskyj said this occurred during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. “Again, a lot of this is déjí vu,” she said.
Sullivan claimed during a November 27 news conference that the Project Civil City initiative had nothing to do with the city hosting the Winter Olympics in 2010. Following his announcement, Sullivan acknowledged to the Straight that the crime rate is dropping. (See sidebar.)
“The fact is we do have a higher crime rate than other cities,” Sullivan noted at the conference. “It’s going down. It’s going in the right direction. It’s still too high.”
Sullivan’s 10 recommended immediate actions also includes reconfiguring the Four Pillars Coalition “to ensure that public disorder becomes a main area of focus over the next 24 months”. Sullivan, chair of the Vancouver police board, also wants the board to adopt policies that will increase the street presence of police.
The mayor’s report acknowledges on page 7 that the Web-based survey was “non-scientific” but frequently cites it to justify the recommendations. “It’s obvious who responded to the poll,” Lenskyj said. “It’s those who sit at home with their computers, not homeless people. Not people with addictions. Not sick people. Not poor people.”
The mayor’s Project Civil City Leadership Council will include Conservative federal cabinet ministers Stockwell Day, David Emerson, and Diane Finley, Conservative MP James Moore, and B.C. Liberal cabinet ministers George Abbott, John Les, Wally Oppal, and Claude Richmond. In an interview with the Straight, Kerry Jang, a volunteer with a citizens’ group called Think City, described the mayor’s council as a “conservative dream team”.