Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Olympic security: keeping open space safe

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                                                                                                                       — Heather Conn photos

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I had to laugh at the new so-called high-security measures recently taken at Langdale ferry terminal on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast. In preparation for the Olympics, BC Ferries has added high fencing and barbed wire between the two baggage areas for loading and off-loading foot passengers.

 

Standing there, I wanted to make sure that what I saw was indeed true: on either side of this fortification was, um, blank space. Yes, anyone could easily walk through the open-air baggage area. People were blithely depositing their bags and then walking to the ferry. The bags were left with no one overseeing them. I saw no one checking any of the luggage. Gee, that’s safety.

 

(This made me think of the “security” wall south of San Diego, at the Mexican border. When I saw a portion of it while exploring the dry hills there, this rusty barrier, reportedly made of aluminum sheets once used as temporary landing strips during the Vietnam war, continued for some miles and then abruptly ended. Wall. and space, side by side. An impish Mexican boy sat atop the wall, his legs straddling two nations, and waved heartily at my husband and me. )

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In further Olympic irony, when the torch relay vehicles were boarding the Langdale ferry on February 4, a large Pepsi truck was between them. Since Coca-Cola is one of the Olympic sponsors, I figured that their marketing folk must have been squirming to see such awkward ad placement by their competitor. Pure synchronicity. All of this was in view of hundreds of people, many of whom waved Canadian flags, bore Olympic scarves, hats, and red-and-white clothes. They were waiting, along with local dignitaries and politicians,  to board the deluxe ferry Coastal Renaissance to party with the Premier on a private  junket.

February 6, 2010 at 8:29 am Comments (0)

The hypocrisy continues

Last night, while talking to a friend on the phone about the Olympics, I was shocked at the vehemence of his reaction to a recent VANOC position. This friend, a retiree, wholeheartedly supports nonviolence; in the decade or so since I’ve known him, I’ve seen him angry only once. Yet, when he told me about VANOC demanding that a small-business owner, who makes hand warmers that carry a flame as a logo, remove the flame image and pay them $5,000, he was outraged. He said: “He should kick them in the balls.” I’ve never heard him use such language. I thought: Wow, if a VANOC move can prompt this level of reaction from a mild-mannered, committed pacifist, how will it affect the hotheads?

 

Meanwhile, the hypocrisy continues. The B.C. government has slashed funding to youth sports groups, but it can dish out millions towards promotion and support of the Olympics. Similarly, the B.C. Liberals have decimated arts organizations with their funding cutbacks, yet they’re touting the Cultural Olympiad as if they’re a huge patron of the arts.

 

I find it ironic that many Olympic athletes struggle along on low pay each year (unless they’ve got a generous sponsor), while Olympic sponsors and corporations make millions off their sporting backs. I applaud the dedication, perseverance, commitment, and skill of every Olympic athlete. Hurray for celebrating their dreams. It’s sad, however, to see their efforts awash in merchandising, mascots and promotional paraphernalia that have far more to do with corporate profit-making than rewarding the world’s best athletes. What if VANOC sponsors and advertisers had to share a percentage of their profits with the athletes? That would stun the world.

 

The glitzy, expensive Olympics are happening in the same city with Canada’s lowest per-capita-income neighbourhood, the Downtown Eastside, while thousands of homeless people still seek shelter. We can provide venues for a two-week event but not basic housing for residents. What skewed priorities. One group that highlights this inequitable contrast is the Poverty Olympics; I like their catch phrase: “World-class Province, World-class Poverty.” They plan to host their own torch relay, opening ceremonies and games  in the Downtown Eastside on Feb. 7, as a similar group is doing on the Sunshine Coast this Saturday (January 30) in Sechelt, BC. (They’re using plungers as torches.)

 

The Poverty Olympics website points out these facts:

  • Homelessness has doubled in Greater Vancouver between 2002 and 2005 with more than 2,000 people now living on the streets or in shelters. 
  •  Disease: Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside,has an HIV rate of 30%, the same as Botswana’s. Other diseases like Hepatitis C are rampant.
  • British Columbia has had the highest child poverty rate in all of Canada for six years in a row.

The Olympic Resistance Network website states the following:

“The Olympics are not about the human spirit and have little to do with athletic excellence. They are a multi-billion dollar industry backed by real estate, construction, hotel, tourism and media corporations, and powerful elites working hand in hand with government officials and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). “

Their site highlights Olympics-related issues from security and erosion of civil liberties to environmental destruction and waste and public costs and debt.

 

During the Olympics, the Pivot Legal Society plans to hand out to the homeless 500 red tents bearing the phrases “Housing is a right” and “End homelessness.” Hopefully, this will draw some attention from the international media.

January 26, 2010 at 8:39 pm Comments (0)

A victory for free speech in Vancouver

I am delighted that the City of Vancouver has rewritten its bylaws that previously outlawed any Olympic protests within a 40-block area in downtown Vancouver. The old bylaw, which could have led to the arrest of anyone carrying or displaying an anti-Olympics sign within the so-called demonstration-free zone, was an outrageous abuse of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

This bylaw change has prompted the withdrawal of a lawsuit by Chris Shaw, a University of B.C. professor and Alissa Westergard-Thorpe, who charged that the previous bylaw violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and disregarded civil liberties. Good for them for launching the lawsuit, which was endorsed by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

January 26, 2010 at 8:32 pm Comments (0)

Will Vancouver embarrass itself to the world?

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                                                                                                                       — Heather Conn photos

Protesters in San Francisco demonstrate against Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics
and torch relay (April 2008)

 

With glossy new sports venues and millions of dollars’ worth of ads and merchandising, Vancouver looks poised to make the 2010 Winter Olympic Games a global success. But as the city prepares to host this mega-event, are Canada’s democratic traditions and ethics under threat? How do Olympic spending and initiatives relate to free expression, free assembly and democratic rights?

 

Any Vancouverite or visitor who publicly expresses anti-Olympic sentiment has faced, or will encounter, these chilling realities: censorship of anti-Olympic art; targeting for special policing and border control, and free speech limited to designated safe assembly areas  and protest pens. (See the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) website for more details.)

 

VANOC officials have received unofficial deputized powers to order the removal of visual materials that displease them or compete with the commercial interests of the Olympics’ corporate sponsors. Whether it’s the RCMP, Vancouver police or federal government officials at the Canada-U.S. border, authorities have created an oppressive atmosphere that tells us all: You have only as many civil liberties as we’re willing to grant you. We’ll tell you where and when and how you can voice discontent.

 

I find this extremely disturbing. Before or during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler, if someone dares hold up an anti-Olympics placard (as shown above) and they’re outside the so-called “free speech zones” will they be arrested? It appears so.

 

The BCCLA recommends the abolition of so-called “‘safe assembly areas” for anti-Olympic protesters and that undercover police be prohibited from inciting wrongful acts and from infiltrating and leading in the planning of protests. (Click here to see recommendations regarding the Olympics and protest made by the Civil Liberties Advisory Committee.)

 

Last year, thousands of protesters and Tibetans from across North America converged on San Francisco streets in April to protest the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing and the event’s torch relay through Tibet. Many bore placards of anti-Olympic sentiment, complete with images of the Olympic rings converted to tank wheels, handcuffs, and bloodied bodies. These powerful images symbolized China’s human rights abuses and its ongoing torture of Tibetans. The New York Times even published a series of images of such placards.

 

When it comes to human rights, freedom of assembly and free expression, do Vancouver and Canada have more in common with China than with other democratic nations and cities? What a shameful Olympic legacy.

December 15, 2009 at 8:58 pm Comment (1)

What’s happened to free speech in Vancouver?

Excerpt from a B.C. Civil Liberties Association letter sent to Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and his city council:

“[W]e are losing confidence in your political will to ensure that all voices are heard during the Olympic period, despite your repeated assertions to the contrary.”

 

Freedom of speech is a fundamental right for all, but you’d never know it these days in Vancouver, BC, Canada. The city recently shut down a public art space, which has operated uninterrupted since 2003 in the downtown eastside, after an artist displayed an anti-Olympic painting deemed “graffiti.”

 

Jesse Corcoran, a downtown-eastside artist, hung his art on a horizontal, wooden board outside the Crying Room studio gallery at 157 East Cordova Street, part of the urban area known as “Canada’s poorest postal code.” It showed the five Olympic rings; four contained a sad face and one showed a smiling face.

 

Although the art was not painted directly onto the exterior brick wall, the city of Vancouver forced its removal on Dec. 11, calling the art “graffiti.” It had been hanging there since September.

 

“There needs to be freedom to critique the Olympics,” Corcoran told The Vancouver Sun. He thinks the graffiti excuse is “a convenient way to silence this social criticism.” I agree.

 

Corcoran, a community-care worker, said that his art symbolized the many people who will suffer as a result of the Olympics; only a few will benefit. The homeless have been displaced by the closure of popular Oppenheimer Park in east Vancouver.  Pigeon Park on East Hastings Street is fenced off for repainting and beautification. There are reports of city representatives rounding up the homeless, giving them tickets to board a bus, then driving them to suburban areas like Chilliwack and dumping them off. Whether that’s urban myth or not, it’s disgraceful.

 

Although Mayor Robertson has made shelter for the homelessness one of his priorities,  the city seems more interested in casting Vancouver during the Olympics as a beautiful haven with no ” taint” of panhandlers, people with mental-health issues or substance-use issues. This oceanfront city is  just a prosperous place with glossy new venues and thousands of happy, smiling people, right?

 

I think it’s ironic that Vancouver and VANOC have touted artists and their projects from around the world as part of this upcoming global event. They want to showcase the city as a great patron of culture and the arts, yet grassroots artistic self-expression such as Jesse’s gets quashed.

 

This sets a dangerous precedent against freedom of expression. As David Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, has said: “This [removal of anti-Olympic art] is an excellent example of our worst fears.”

 

Meanwhile, Canada Customs officials at the B.C. border recently detained and grilled U.S. journalist Amy Goodman, accusing her of fomenting anti-Olympics sentiment. Find out the details on my blog; it’s the second item under Media.

December 14, 2009 at 1:15 pm Comments (3)

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