Six months until Vancouver Olympics: Civil liberties at risk

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At the very of end of July 2009, the Impact on Communities Coalition filed two new human rights complaints against VANOC, the International Olympic Committee and the Canadian government partners organizing the 2010 Winter Olympics at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland.

In essence, it was a public declaration that the Inner City Inclusive Commitment Statement has proven to be nothing more than a public relations whitewash and that the vision for the 2010 Winter Olympics as the first socially sustainable Olympics was officially dead.

We began raising concerns about tenancy rights and civil liberties issues as early as 2001.  By the time we launched our coalition in January of 2002, these were issues that were being hotly debated.  We pushed for a civic plebiscite to happen where assurances were given that social issues would be addressed.  In that environment, the Inner City Inclusive Commitment Statement was signed.

As civil society organizations sat around the table, every attempt at putting hard targets in place were brushed aside by the Vancouver Bid Corporation and the government partners.  At the time, the province was building 1,200 units of social housing annually.  We asked for an additional 2,010 social housing units as a legacy, over and above the existing program. 

Not only was the existing social housing program cut, we will not come close to a legacy of 2010 units.  If anything, we now have a massive housing gap in the province.  There are now over 10,500 homeless people in the province and homelessness has more than doubled in the Metro Vancouver region since the bid process began.  While speed skating ovals and luge tracks have been built, while we plan to spend $900 million on Olympic security alone for a two week party, our most vulnerable citizens are living through a health and human rights disaster.  There will be more homeless people than athletes in Vancouver in February 2010.

In October of 2007, Miloon Kothari, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, visited Vancouver and released a comprehensive country report on Canada in February of 2008.  Unfortunately, many of those excellent recommendations have been left on the shelf.  Kothari expressed concerns in his report about tenancy rights and civil liberties issues leading up to the 2010 Olympics. 

Experts such as Glen Bailey from Salt Lake City, Dr. Kris Olds from the University of Wisconsin, Claire Mahon from Switzerland and Dr. Helen Jefferson Lenskyj visited Vancouver and shared their concerns.

A UN human rights complaint was originally filed in April of 2008 by the Impact on Communities Coalition, the Pivot Legal Society and the Carnegie Community Action Project with the help of UBC students which focused on the speculative conversion of Single Resident Occupancy Hotels.  Almost 1,400 units have been lost since the bid process began, even with the province's purchase of this important  low-income housing stock.  There are now at least 16 of these hotels which are double-bunking in substandard conditions.

The two complaints filed at the end of July 2009 focus on tenancy rights and civil liberties.

Major loopholes in BC tenancy legislation are regularly exploited to evict long-term tenants, particularly around minor renovations.  Unlike Ontario, there is no option for the right of first refusal.  As the 2010 Olympics approach, there is a legitimate fear that there will be mass evictions.

Though the City tried to put in some preventative legislation, it simply does not go far enough nor will it be adequately enforced.  It was irresponsible for the City to create a public policy framework that could so easily be exploited.  It creates the conditions for mass evictions to take place.  During Expo 86, over 1,000 residents were evicted in the Downtown Eastside.

In a comprehensive 2007 report on the impacts of mega-events by the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, it highlighted the main impacts of hosting an Olympic Games on housing rights:

-Displacement and forced evictions of communities and/or individuals in order to pave the way for the construction of mega-events related infrastructure;

-Displacement and forced evictions of communities and/or individuals related to redevelopment and gentrification processess that are linked to or brought about by the staging of mega-events;

-Displacement and forced evictions (particularly of tenants) related to significant increases in housing costs related to the hosting of the mega-event;

-Escalation of housing costs have a significant impact on the local population's access to affordable housing;

-Reduction in the availability of social and low-cost housing in the pre- and post-mega-event phases, as well as during the event itself;

-'Cleaning' operations to remove homeless people from sight before and during the mega-event phases, as well as criminalization of the homelessness;

-Introduction of other 'special' legislative or policy measures to facilitate the preparations for or staging of the mega-event:  for example, measures allowing for expropriation of private property, or targeting homeless or minorities, increases in police powers, or restrictions of freedoms such as assembly and movement;

-Discriminatory and disproportionate effects on marginalized groups including the poor, low income earners, those with insecure tenure, the homeless, ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples, the elderly, the disabled, street venors, sex workers, migrants, and other vulnerable groups;

-Limited transparency and participation of residents and civil society in decision making affecting housing issues.

In the most egregious violations of housing rights, the Beijing Olympics led to the displacement of 1.25 million people and the Seoul Olympics resulted in 720,000 being forcibly evicted.  In Atlanta 9,000 arrest citations were made to homeless people, predominantly African-Americans.  In Athens, hundreds of Roma were evicted for the 2004 Olympics.  We are expecting hundreds of evictions in Vancouver leading up to February 2010.

Regarding civil liberties, there are four main areas that are cited in the UN human rights complaint.

First, there has been the use of selective policing methods by the Vancouver Police Department including the use of ticketing to harass low-income individuals.  In 2008, there were over 1,100 city bylaw tickets and over 800 provincial statute tickets issued in the Downtown Eastside, a substantial increase from 2007 of 247 bylaw tickets and 342 provincial statute violations.  Additionally, the VPD with the City of Vancouver's Engineering Department have been regularly seizing the belongings of homeless people through street sweeps.

Secondly, the Integrated Security Unit has been involved in home visits and visits to the workplaces of social activists.  This is clearly a disproportionate and overzealous response by an over-funded organization that should be focused on more important things.

Thirdly, provocative artworks have been used as a pretext to monitor social activists.

Fourthly, the City of Vancouver's 90 page omnibus legislation that has been dubbed as City Councillor Geoff Meggs' 'Olympic Shock Doctrine' rewrites civic bylaws to place the rights of corporate sponsors above those of citizens attempting to engage in free speech and participate in democracy.  This was a promise made to the IOC, in order for Vancouver to obtain the corporate Olympic franchise from Switzerland with public money. Megaphones are banned from live sites, there are restrictions on signage and limits on leafleting.  It is an Orwellian piece of legislation, implemented only weeks after Mayor Gregor Robertson declared that all of Vancouver is a free speech zone.

Under the legislation, City Manager Penny Ballem can make bylaws 'on the fly' without having to come back to council.  She will have 'special powers' just like the Wonder Twins.

Civil society organizations have been marginalized since Vancouver won the Olympic bid.  Despite promises of a funded watchdog group with inner-city representation, no meaningful consultation body has been established. 

The fear of consultation that has contaminated both the bureaucratic and political circles in pre-Olympic Vancouver is a direct attack on democracy and civil society.  Almost eight years after we began meeting to initiate our coalition, there is no table that we are invited to sit on either by VANOC, the City of Vancouver or the provincial government.  In their willingness to cite the Inner City Inclusive Commitment Statement, VANOC and government partners have chosen the route of centralized communications and slick public relations over substance and reality.

Democracy and human rights should not be suspended for a two-week sporting event. Renters are not second-class citizens.  Human rights are basic rights and they should not be based on obligations.  The IOC is not above the law.

If Olympic organizers were meeting the commitments they had made to Vancouver citizens, we would not be filing human rights complaints against the organizers and the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland.  

Come 2010, the world will be watching.  Hopefully, the organizers and the government partners will finally act in the interests of citizens. Unfortunately, based on what has happened in the last eight years, I’m not counting on it.

Am Johal is a rabble columnist and the founder and Chair of the Impact on Communities Coalition.

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