Vancouver 2010: Authoritarianism Comes to Canada

Sara Robinson

I’ve lived in Canada for very nearly six years now. I’ve loved it here. I love the people, the health care system, the bigness of the place, and the fact that the Canadian Charter of Rights includes an Equal Rights Amendment. I own a home, pay taxes, and am learning to think in metric. I’m in the process now of applying for citizenship.

Which is why my heart is doing double salkows as I write this. I honestly never thought that writing a blog post could get me deported — but, given current circumstances, it’s possible this one just might.

Let me explain.

Last Wednesday, Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman was detained at the Peace Arch crossing on the US/Canada border just south of Vancouver. She was on her way to speak at a fundraiser for community television programs in British Columbia. The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) held her for an hour and a half, searched her computer, and finally let her pass only on the condition that she leave the country within 48 hours.

American expats in Vancouver are, to say the least, outraged. So are a lot of Canadians. CBSA has completely clammed up about the whole issue, since they’re under no legal obligation to explain themselves to anybody this side of Ottawa. And fingers are pointing hard at the City of Vancouver and the city’s Olympic committee, whose paranoia about the possibility of (horrors! shudder!) protestors at their games has led them wantonly disregard most of the essential civil rights guaranteed by the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This story crosses my life very personally, via several paths. Like Goodman, I’m an American progressive journalist (though I would never pretend to her stature). I’m also intimately knowledgeable about the Olympics, having worked as a staff journalist living and working inside one of the Olympic villages before and during the 1984 Los Angeles summer games. As a long-time resident of Vancouver, I cross that same stretch of the border (though not usually at the Peace Arch, an over-used crossing that locals leave to the tourists) and talk to those same CBSA officers once every week or two. And from my house — just 10 minutes from one of the Games’ skiing venues — it’s been a joy to watch the excitement ramp up over the course of the past year, gathering toward the long-awaited moment we welcome the world and light the torch. That moment is now just over ten weeks away.

The Olympics have always been controversial in this city, as they are in every host city around the world these days. It’s always a variant of the usual debate cities have about subsidizing professional sports franchises — but since both the money and media stakes are so much bigger, the Olympics always bring along an avalanche of extra fallout about the overweening influence of corporate money, the way we want our town portrayed to the world, and who’s going to collect the spoils that result from this major disruption in the life of the city. It’s always ugly — but it’s an expected part of the package when you sign on to host the Games.

I’ve been sitting this fight out, because I’m pretty much agnostic on these issues. I saw the Olympics come and go from LA, lived for a summer near Mexico City, and spent time in Athens in the months following their 2004 Summer Games. In all three cases, the Olympics gave these cities the ultimate excuse to invest in much-needed new infrastructure, spruce up their public spaces and cultural facilities, strengthen ties between the city government and neglected neighborhoods, and do right (for once) by their local arts communities.

LA was festooned with scores of newly-commissioned murals, mostly funded by Nike and painted by Mexican-American artists, that became instant city treasures; and refurbished its iconic Coliseum, which had first been built for the 1932 Games. Athens got a new airport and subway, which turned into the single biggest, richest archaeological dig in history; along with a new National Museum of History and another new museum atop the Acropolis. Mexico City, back in ’68, got a reconstruction of Chapultepec Park and a Museum of Anthropology that’s still among the best in the world. Vancouver finally got a long-delayed subway connecting its airport to the rest of the city’s transit grid, and a newly-widened, breathtakingly scenic highway that takes half an hour off the trip to Whistler. Our own well-regarded anthropology museum got a face-lift, too.

These are the kinds of civic investments that pay off for decades, if not centuries. They’re the kinds of things that materially contribute to making any city truly great. Getting the Olympics forces a host city to focus intensely for a few years on who it really is, what makes it a special place, and how it wants to be perceived. The world is coming; you’d better look sharp. And my observation has been that, plutocratic economics aside, the Games do tend to leave places in better shape for the long haul than they would have been otherwise; and that many of these improvements do benefit everyone.

There will always be pushback from people who have other priorities and value other kinds of investments. The fact is: city leaders need to deal with that kind of dissent any time they take on any civic project of this scale. But Goodman’s arrest has spotlighted the deeply (and uncharacteristically) authoritarian way Vancouver’s city fathers have chosen to deal with this particular issue. It’s now obvious that several things have gone painfully wrong here.

First, according the Democracy Now! report linked to above, the city administration is irrationally terrified that the world will arrive to see unruly protesters in the streets (like nobody’s seen this before?) — and they’re so panicked about this that they’ve designated all anti-Olympic protestors as “potential terrorists.” This is the ugly shadow side of Canada’s famous uber-politeness: a visceral terror of noisy public outburst of any kind that runs deep enough to totally obscure the rather bright line between honest free speech and terrorism.

You have to slip the bonds of reason pretty thoroughly to make that kind of (il)logical leap — but evidently, Vancouver’s leadership has stuck the landing, with yards to spare. If they’d done it on a ski jump, they’d have set a new world record and gone home with the gold.

Second, it’s obvious that nobody down at City Hall bothered to talk to anyone in the national intelligence services before making this absurd correlation. “Terrorism” is a very specific kind of political behavior, with its own psychology and sociology — much of which is very well-understood by experts. (And the Canadian government does have some of those experts on their payroll.) But there’s very little in the protests to date that suggests anything that fits any of the known patterns of emergent terrorism.

I have no doubt there have been traffic tie-ups and uncouth behavior. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn some overheated activist lost his or her head and sent death threats to some city official. But you can easily prosecute acts like this using laws already on the books. Only people who’ve completely lost their grip on reality would believe that they need to abrogate Charter rights to implement draconian measures like these:

  • Passing a version of the Bejing law that gave the Chinese government full access to the computers of visiting journalists covering the games, so unflattering stories could be censored in advance. Canada hasn’t gone that far; but searching Goodman’s computer and asking to see her notes is getting dangerously close. The world’s journalists need to be taking this very, very seriously. The only governments that resort to tactics like this are governments with something to hide.
  • Detaining (and possibly denying entry to) legitimately credentialed foreign journalists, for any reason.
  • Arresting Canadian citizens who appear in public to make statements — including holding signs — that are not “celebratory” on the topic of the Games. That’s right, my friends: In my hometown, right now, you can get busted for going downtown and holding up a sign that expresses disapproval of the Olympics. Yes, the civil libertarians are all over this, and lawsuits have been filed.
  • Arresting legally-resident Americans who participate in demonstrations, taking them down to the border, and forbidding them to ever return. (We’ll know soon enough, I guess, if this also extends to bloggers.)
  • Equating “demonstrators” with “terrorists” so that law enforcement can apply federal terrorism laws to people who are merely exercising their free speech rights.

All of this is a massive overreaction. It’s also a blatantly Orwellian abuse of the terrorism laws — the very kind of abuse that civil libertarians, both in Canada and the US, predicted would happen back in the aftermath of 9/11 when those laws were being passed. We knew that when governments got that kind of power, they’d find justifications to use it. Now, I’m watching them exercise it on the streets of my own hometown. It’s every bit as ugly as we’d feared.

The results are warping everything and everyone. It’s almost certainly distorting the focus of the city’s security forces. There are a lot of reasons local demonstrators are unlikely to be a material threat, no matter how much they frustrate the event organizers. But the world is full of much bigger dangers, and that’s where the attention and resources should be going. (Or maybe there aren’t enough real dangers on their radar, so the security team has simply blown the protester “threat” out of proportion to justify their existence.)

It’s also warping the local law enforcment culture. This piece of the world is the native range of the Mounties — the modest, respectful, deadly competent cops who single-handedly faced down mountain men, hostile settlers, furious natives, and the continent’s largest and most aggressive fauna, usually without so much as producing a gun. Though there were no Mounties involved here — downtown protesters are handled by the Vancover PD, and Goodman was harassed by the border patrol — both agencies partake of a Canadian law enforcement culture that’s deeply rooted in the Mountie way. It’s boggling that the local constabulary is now willing to toss 140 years of noble ideals overboard because a few city leaders are embarrassed by bunch of scruffy demonstrators brandishing signs that say rude things about a sports event. But, evidently, we’re there.

It’s also warping what it means to be an Olympic host city. The sad fact is that any city that accepts responsibility for the Games these days is inevitably forced to build this kind of “security infrastructure.” Rights must be suspended, restrictive new laws made, dissent quashed, police broadly empowered to do what they must. And — just like the museums and the subways and the stadiums — once an Olympic city goes to all the trouble of creating this kind of infrastructure, it will get to live with it for a long, long time. You will get your city back when the athletes and TV cameras pack up and go home. But the odds are good that you will never recover the freedoms that got plowed under so that shiny new law enforcement edifice could be constructed around you.

And it’s warped me: my relationship to this country, and to my work, and to the choices I make every day about where I go and what I do. I’d been making travel plans this week, intending to escape the city and the traffic and the tourists and spend those three weeks in February somewhere far, far away (and warm). But now, I’m torn. The outraged American journalist part of me says: Stay. Cover the protestors first-hand, blog the hell out of it, own the story. There’s nobody better-positioned to tell it well.

And my inner soon-to-be Canadian says: Go ahead and go. Choosing to stay here and cover this could very well be grounds for the Canadian government to reject my citizenship application, or revoke my permanent residency, or even simply refuse to allow me back into the country some random weekday when I’m on my way home from a border run.

Speak up and take the risks — or shut up and stay safe. It’s a crappy choice, and the fact that I’m being forced to make it feels like a betrayal. I really, honestly never thought this country would make me afraid to write, afraid to travel, afraid enough to change my plans and stifle my thoughts and pull my punches and change the way I do my job. I never thought my status in this country could be so conditional that the Charter of Rights would not apply to me. (I left the US in no small measure due to a so-called PATRIOT Act that threatened to deprive me of those rights. Tell me again: what was the point?)

Hard lesson learned today: There are no safe harbors for lovers of freedom. There’s only the ongoing struggle between people who know that their only real security lies in holding onto their civil rights, no matter what; and the people who let their fears overwhelm their better sense, hunker down defensively because they can’t brook opposition, and think that depriving people of their freedoms will somehow bring about lasting peace and order. What I learned from Amy Goodman this week is that the second kind of people are everywhere now, including my own front yard.

Sara Robinson has been on a planned academic sabbatical since the first of October, and will return to her regular weekly column here at ourfuture.org in early January.

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