White Snow, White People, White Lies

NOTE:  Last week the Vancouver Sun reported on the B.C. government’s Assistance To Shelter Act,  which housing and anti-poverty activists called “a ‘Kidnap the Homeless Act’ and nothing more than a ploy to beautify the Downtown Eastside for the Winter 2010 Olympics”. In light of this news and the downgrading of Vancouver’s credit rating (due to huge Olympic cost overruns), I thought I’d republish this 2007 piece I wrote for Canadian Dimenson magazine. Prescient? 

Renaissance thinker Michel de Montaigne once remarked, ‘Mistrust a man who takes games too seriously; it means he doesn’t take life seriously enough.’ Thankfully those brave protestors who disrupted a ceremony marking the three-year countdown to the Vancouver Winter Olympics haven’t read Montaigne. They realize that the Games in question should be taken very seriously as they stand to impact life in Vancouver for a long time to come.

I’ve never been a fan of the Winter Olympics. For a radical like me, the Winter Games is quite obviously the preserve of the rich: rich countries and rich people. And given the global apartheid that is the world economy, it’s not only the snow that is white every four years, it’s the athletes and spectators as well. Most countries have neither the weather nor the resources to train athletes for competition in what more appropriately should be called the Games of the Global North. And whereas the poor can run, play soccer, or box with the best of them, they’re not likely to have access to the ski hills of Whistler or the bobsled runs of Western Europe.

But Vancouver’s Games look to be particularly exclusive, not only for the nature of the events themselves, but for the impact this spectacle will have on the city. As critics of Vancouver 2010 have said, the Winter Olympics stands to put a massive burden on the public purse; a burden that will be paid with cutbacks to social services and further dismantling of an already fragile provincial welfare state. This will happen despite the ‘social’ rhetoric which accompanied the organizing committee’s sales pitch to the B.C. public. They promised benefits for the broader community, poor and rich alike; business for some, housing and jobs for others. But Vancouver 2010 is shaping up to be the Games of white snow, white people, and white lies.

For the business elite and their friends in provincial government, the Games is about selling Vancouver as a competitive city, a good home for capital and investors in the Asian Pacific Rim. As they see it, in 2010 Vancouver will prove to be a city of arts and culture, good infrastructure, a decent quality of life, and a business-friendly city hall. This is the mantra of cities in a globalized economy with urban regions battling for investment, jobs and a stable tax base.

But a new highway and a bit of commodified arts and culture is not enough. The blight of homelessness and the Downtown East Side must also be erased to improve the competitive image of Vancouver and maintain the legitimacy of the Olympic project. A city can go about this type of image makeover in a number of ways. The revanchivist regime of Rudy Giuliani’s New York dealt with the ‘dangerous classes’ through a combination of intense gentrification, fuelled by a deregulated real estate market, and a law-and-order policing agenda intent on sweeping the streets clean of human debris.

Despite the best efforts of Gordon Campbell’s Liberals, many British Columbians and Vancouverites have resisted this type of social cleansing. The ‘social road’ was to be the one taken in Vancouver as the province and the city promised to address homelessness and protect the right of inner-city residents to affordable housing. However, as the Vancouver Sun reports, the Vancouver Olympics’ housing round table has found the province and city to be well off their funding targets. Vancouver requires up to $1 billion worth of support and housing in time for 2010 if the two levels of government are to meet the demands of their so-called ‘social agenda’.

Who will cough up the cash? The Financial Times reports that due to the construction boom in western Canada, the cost of preparations for the Games has steadily risen. As a result, organizers have requested a 23 per cent boost in financial support from the provincial and federal governments. For its part, the Campbell government established a $139m contingency fund for cost overruns. Yet the government claims it will only dip into this fund if it’s spending is matched by the feds. According to progressive economist Marc Lee, Campbell is sitting on a $3 billion budget surplus for 2007 and the next few fiscal years. But nothing in the B.C. Liberals record shows them to be willing to partner social justice and economic prosperity. Maybe the city will pick up the fiscal slack. This scenario makes sense for a provincial elite intent on disciplining Vancouverite’s penchant for electing left-wing councils. The public cost of the games will impose fiscal austerity on Vancouver City Hall for years to come, burying the future prospects of municipal socialism under the avalanche of a winter debt.

Published in Canadian Dimension Vol 41 (3) May/June 2007

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