What Price Will Vancouver Pay for the Olympics?

Canadian fans celebrate in Prague after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) vote that Vancouver won the 2010 Winter Olympics

In 2003, Canadian fans celebrate in Prague after the International Olympic Committee vote that Vancouver won the 2010 Winter Olympics. (Photo: Nguyen Phuong Thao / AFP-Getty Images)

Late in April, thousands of Vancouverites gathered in GM Place to watch the unveiling of the Olympic logo in anticipation of the Games in 2010. It was an Inuit inukshuk given the name of Illanaq. The inukshuk is a symbol deeply rooted in Inuit culture and serves as a directional marker that signifies safety, hope and friendship. But under the stylized glow of the Olympics, it became cannon fodder for the cultural critics in Vancouver who felt it was part of the appropriation of First Nations culture without the attendant responsibility.

In this beautiful, polarized place known as Dream City where everything is possible and dissent is rooted in its culture and history, it was just another chapter in its Olympic story.

West coast First Nations leaders were quick to respond. Grand Chief Edward John of the First Nations Summit said some native leaders were so upset with the logo they were prepared to walk out of an unveiling ceremony. “First Nations in British Columbia helped sway the Olympic selection committee,” said John referring to the close vote awarding the 2010 Games to Vancouver.

“One of the first important acts the [Vancouver 2010] committee did was kind of a slight on the support of First Nations,” he added.

Chief Stewart Philip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, said, “I can’t help but notice the remarkable resemblance it has to Pac-Man [note?]. The First Nations community at large is disappointed with the selection. The decision makers have decided not to reflect the First Nations and the Pacific region in the design of the logo.”

Earlier this year, the 2010 Olympic Organizing Committee took Mosi Alvand to court to remove a logo on the sign over his Olympia Pizza restaurant that had the Olympic rings and a torch — a logo that he has had for over ten years, well before Vancouver even bid for the Games.

This was only one of a series of missteps that tells a broader story of the upcoming Olympic Games that will skew government planning priorities for years to come. Promising economic prosperity while downplaying cuts to social services, the Olympic Games will be a work-in-progress over the next five years as all three levels of government negotiate and barter on regional planning initiatives.

Already, Translink, the regional transit authority, has approved a public-private partnership to build a new rapid transit line connecting the airport to downtown worth 1.5 to 1.7 billion dollars to SNC-Lavelin, one of the parent companies supplying bullets to the United States military. Known as the RAV (Richmond-Airport- Vancouver) line, it will be the costliest mega-project in B.C. history. Labor unions have been critical of the project due to the public-private partnership and have raised concerns that the majority of cost overruns will fall on the public.

Many others are arguing that these cost overruns coupled with exaggerated ridership numbers will lead to financial issues at Translink resulting in property tax increases and cuts to bus routes.

Labor unions have also sparred with the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee and the different levels of government on fair wage rates on upcoming Olympic construction projects.

Early on, community based watchdog group, the Impact of the Olympics on Community Coalition, raised concerns about housing, transportation and the environment. The Salt Lake City Olympics led to the eviction of dozens of low-income residents when rents tripled to make way for tourists. The Olympic Games in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seoul and Beijing were all contributing factors in evicting or removing people from low-income neighborhoods adjacent to the event.

In Vancouver’s downtown peninsula, there are already signs of development pressures in the Downtown Eastside neighborhood that houses the greatest concentration of low-income residents. Once home to loggers, shipyard workers, families in Strathcona and Chinatown, it is now home to rooming houses, social housing, social service agencies and in the middle of a contested space with private security on its margins in neighboring tourist havens like Gastown and Chinatown.

The Downtown Eastside is also home to the first legalized safe injection site for drug addicts as well as the first heroin prescription trial in North America. Over 2000 people have died in B.C. due to drug overdoses since the early nineties, with the greatest concentration being in this neighborhood.

There is legitimate concern, that like the Expo 86 World’s Fair held in Vancouver when hundreds were evicted, this community will see rents skyrocket and see stringent security requirements deeply impact its population to make way for tourists, sanitized streets and a hot real estate market.

The referendum in Vancouver over the Olympic Games two years ago during the bidding process passed with 64 percent support.

Massive changes to social assistance policy such as time limit restrictions on collecting welfare, more stringent requirements to obtain disability benefits and legislation such as the anti-panhandling Safe Streets Act have mobilized a community ridden with development pressures, real estate speculators and is home to the neighborhood which bears the brunt of the government’s decision to deinstitutionalize many people who were previously in mental health facilities.

Gary Jobin is one of the coordinators of the Bladerunners Program, a construction program for aboriginal youth where he places many people from the Downtown Eastside on to construction sites for training and apprenticeship in the building trades. “The Olympics are an opportunity to set a gold medal standard on social and economic issues for our participants. If we can do this right, then we can leverage the situation to the point where our kids aren’t a burden on society or themselves,” he says.

Lisa Barrett, the Mayor of nearby Bowen Island and a member of the Lower Mainland Treaty Advisory Committee views First Nations land claims as historically just and would like to see long term planning in the region reflect the reality of these land use decisions coming forward. “Due to the fear of roadblocks, there is a policy of appeasement by different levels of government at the cost of long term planning. If we did this properly, we could all have enough without compromising the ecology of the region,” she says.

As well, as a result of funding available from senior levels of government, Barrett says that issues like transportation are being yanked off the table piecemeal, resulting in poor planning which will inevitably lead to cost overruns. “If you follow the money, you’ll see who’s benefiting from this arrangement,” says Barrett.

Ralph Drew, the Mayor of Belcarra and Chair of the Lower Mainland Treaty Advisory Committee does not view the Olympic Games as directly affecting the treaty making process, but indirectly sees First Nations such as the Squamish making deals on money and land outside of the process which he sees as detrimental to long term planning in the region and the treaty process.

Recently, the Squamish Nation partnered with Concord Pacific to obtain approval for a 1,400 home project located on 1,200 acres and projected to house 3,500 residents near Porteau Cove, west of Vancouver. Neighboring municipalities who have had their own challenges living within their Livable Region Strategic Plans are now ironically crying foul over First Nations development.

A few hundred miles away in the tourist resort of Whistler, Pete Davidson, president of the municipal workers union, has been deadlocked in a stalemate with the resort municipality of Whistler over a living allowance due to the high costs of housing. “We’re seeing things taking off with the Olympics coming here,” he says. “As an old-timer, it’s sad to see things change. The Olympics are inevitable so we’re supporting them. Affordability was already an issue and some people are paying $6,500 just in taxes.” Davidson recently led a march and rally in to the chambers of Whistler’s council meeting with the head of the B.C. Federation of Labor where sparks flew between him and Mayor Hugh O’Reilly.

“Winter time is already tough including the summer with the construction schedule. We are seeing issues with staff, housing, transit and food. With the new Olympic infrastructure, there’s a chance for more community opportunities — but who will benefit? Will it be Intrawest?” says Davidson referring to the company that own the Whistler/Blackcomb mountain and several hotels.

Multibillion dollar highway projects such as the Sea-to-Sky Highway and the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge are also under heavy criticism. The Tsawassen Band, which is closest to reaching a final deal on a treaty, has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Deltaport that would see hiring initiatives for members of their band.

Professor emeritus and the former director of U.B.C.’s Museum of Anthropology, Dr. Michael Ames says that none of the levels of government appear to make much effort to create a positive climate of public opinion for a just settlement, which to him suggests a lack of political will: “It appears that through a combination of accident and design the various levels of government have created such a cumbersome process of negotiations and non-negotiations that there is likely too little gain for anyone other than those hired to play the game.”

According to Ames, “First Nations do not possess on their own sufficient numbers, voting power or public appeal to exert significant pressure on public policy. They need alliances with segments of the majority population. How many non-First Nation political leaders, intellectuals, or media pundits are publicly championing the First Nation cause for social justice? Until strong voices from the general population are raised in support of social justice for Canada’s aboriginal populations, I doubt they will receive much by way of redress through negotiations. We may have to look to the courts, which sometimes appear to be more progressive than our politicians.”

Former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt, who is now a member of the B.C. Treaty Commission, says that there is now a new relationship with First Nations based on mutual respect. Harcourt was premier of the province when land use planning led to battles between environmentalists, First Nations and forest dependent communities. He was also Mayor of Vancouver in the mid eighties when service agreements for water, sewer, education and other services were being signed between reserves and neighboring municipalities. “Ironically, in the past, the rest of the province looked at aboriginal land claims with fear and loathing but now some of the best relationships have been developed in rural and northern communities such as Powell River and Prince George. The laggards are now in the Greater Vancouver Regional District,” he says.

From his perspective, discussion is only going to intensify in the Vancouver region when there will be a need to sign service agreements with municipalities over police, fire services, transportation and infrastructure as part of the land claims process. Harcourt sees long term planning pilot projects with twenty or thirty year time frames with aboriginal communities as one method of alleviating regional tensions during the treaty process: “We have to build capacity with First Nations communities so that we can all be part of the planning process.”

A recent fact-find delegation was sent from Vancouver to Turin, Italy, the site of the 2006 winter Games where community activists, a city councilor and city staff were sent to report back on social, labor and sustainability measures that were taken in preparation for the Olympics. Said Linda Mix, spokesperson for the Impact of the Olympics on Community Coalition, “There are many sustainability programs that we can learn from as well as their plan to negotiate a truce during the Olympic Games between warring nations. This would be good message for us in Vancouver and the rest of the world.”

City Councilor Jim Green who led the delegation to Turin says,” It reinforced my belief in making sure culture was at the forefront of the Olympic Games and to use the opportunity to clearly show that Vancouver and Canada is a multiethnic community working in harmony. We also have the opportunity to showcase Vancouver and Whistler and project a sense of our community’s identity to the rest of the world.”