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Vancouver students fight back against Olympic marginalization

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In 2003, a referendum was held posing the question to Vancouverites: Do you support the Vancouver bid for the Olympics? At the time, 64% claimed they did.

I can still recall debates among family members and friends surrounding the referendum. As someone who grew up on the west side of Vancouver, I led a privileged life when compared to many in this city, and accordingly, was exposed to a privileged perspective regarding development and governance in Vancouver. This viewpoint carried over into the Olympic debate. It is unnecessary to expand upon the perceived benefits of the Olympics, as most of us are subject to the consumer culture that is perpetuated by mass media, our governments, and the International Olympic Committee. But to elaborate on the negatives: arguments made by my friends and family against the Olympic bid consisted of a fear that our comfortable, beautiful city would be exposed to tourist and media frenzy. The theory went that the world would inevitably fall in love with Vancouver, causing it to become perverted by the global housing market and thus swell in population, similar to what occurred post-Expo '86, the World's Fair which was held in Vancouver that year. Furthermore, there lay the anxiety that the Olympics would go over budget, leaving the city and province in massive debt and the individual tax payer out thousands of dollars: critics looked to the Montreal's 30-year debt stemming from the 1976 Summer Olympics to help fuel such fears. However, concerns such as these were not enough to persuade the majority of voters against the bid.

My perspective, previously influenced by such arguments, has been drastically altered since the referendum, a shift that parallels sentiments held by many residents of Vancouver and British Columbia. A significant source of this shift comes directly from witnessing the negative impacts as the city prepares itself for the games. Rather than simply being concerned with the city's spot on the world stage and the games' monetary burden, increasingly people are coming to realize that the social, environmental, and financial costs of the Olympics, often borne by marginalized peoples, far outweigh any possibility of enjoyment that the games may bring.

When vying for the bid, the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC) formulated the "2010 Winter Games Inner-City Inclusive Commitment Statement" that promised British Columbians, including those of low and moderate-income, equal participation in the planning and hosting of the Olympic Games. Topics addressed ranged from the provision of accessible and affordable events, to the protection of civil liberties and public safety, to the security, maintenance and development of both rental and market housing.

However, as February 2010 approaches, we have witnessed nearly all of these commitments be broken by VANOC, the city, and the province. Exclusive rights to advertising and marketing have been given to corporations like McDonalds and Coca-Cola, concomitant with infringements on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Construction costs have been driven upwards while the bill is being placed on the taxpayer, and low-income housing, shelters and single resident occupancy buildings are being shutdown while the streets of the Downtown Eastside are being socially cleansed through legislature such as the Assistance to Shelter Act.

Personally, as a student at the University of British Columbia (UBC), I will not experience first-hand many of the negative impacts of the Olympics. To "avoid disruptions to our education," UBC and other university and college students are receiving an extended reading break, which will span the full two weeks of the February Olympics. This was organized with the intention of encouraging students to volunteer for the games. Fortunately, many are rejecting this absurd attempt by academic institutions to promote Olympic participation: some are leaving for a holiday, but many will remain, taking to the streets on foot or on bike, in demonstrations of public art and theatre, or protest.

Recognizing our privilege as post-secondary students is essential to our approach in organizing around the Olympics. It is our responsibility to acknowledge that the benefits of the Olympics are limited to those who already hold extreme power in our society. We must therefore do everything in our capacity to educate others about, if not equalize, the power distribution. As students we must bring creative, critical approaches to the re-structuring of systems of power, and the Winter Olympics is an ideal platform for such actions.

There are numerous marches, rallies and celebrations that are being organized, which will address issues such as those raised in this article. Unfortunately, many of the by-laws introduced by the city make it illegal to hold signs, to distribute literature, or to do anything that might "impede another's ability to enjoy the Games." Ironically, in a round-about method, these by-laws further validate the necessity to speak publicly about the repressive measures employed throughout the Olympics. In order to promote accountability and responsible actions from law enforcement during such events, a Legal Observer program has been implemented by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA). Legal Observers will be present throughout the city, known to authorities and civilians as neutral observers. Their role will be to document interactions between law enforcement and civilians, especially in instances of conflict, should they arise. The BCCLA will compile this information, to be used in legal cases post-Olympics, if necessary.

Importantly, a UBC faction was funded by the Student Legal Fund Society (SLFS) as part of the Olympic-Preparedness Partnership with the BCCLA, which will train upwards of 330 students to be Legal Observers on the UBC campus. The UBC Olympic ice rink, one of the final stops on the Olympic Torch Relay, will likely be a site of political action, and the campus, a home to many students, will be subject to intensified security measures throughout the Olympic period. The partnership also includes Know Your Rights workshops that take either a civilian or activism based angle, educating students on their constitutional rights, and how those will transfer to an Olympic context.

Grassroots activism is another avenue of addressing issues of social justice pertaining to the Olympics. The collective Vancouver Action (VAN.ACT!) was brought together by the desire for such activism, and established itself as a group of students and youth. Particular projects have involved the creation of public art; organizing of free, public sporting events as a means of reclaiming both sports and public space; and political mobilization around the gentrification and social cleansing of the DTES. Recently, hundreds of DTES residents and concerned members of the community came out to a rally organized by VAN.ACT! and a coalition of DTES community groups in opposition to the Assistance to Shelter Act, nicknamed the "Kidnap the Homeless Act," provincial legislature that was pushed through in order to "clean up" the streets for the Olympics. It gives police the power to forcibly displace homeless from the streets in instances of ‘extreme weather.' The most inspiring part of this project has come from building strength and solidarity within the relationships established between DTES community members and local advocacy groups.

The student and activist communities that I have been fortunate to engage with have awakened me to the constant interplay of privilege and marginalization in this city. Beyond anything, the Olympics have highlighted the intensely diverse and often polarized spectrum of experiences in Vancouver. For those us who prioritize social justice as the platform from which a society should function, the Olympics are a symbol of the oppressive structures that force existences into the margins. For this reason, we must do everything in our power to resist the Olympic spectacle and unveil it to the public as the devastating Global Consumer Super Feast that it truly is.

Sarah Stevenson is a fifth year student at the University of British Columbia, where she studies biochemistry and history. Sarah is a board member of the Student Legal Fund Society, a collective member of VAN.ACT!, and works for the Equity Program of the university's Alma Matter Society.

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