Stolen Land and Borrowed Dollars

Creative resistance bloomed in the lead up to the Vancouver Olympics.

The Vancouver Winter Olympics were marked by vigorous activist fight-back, as civil libertarians, indigenous dissidents, anti-poverty advocates, environmentalists, artists, and anarchists teamed up in a city with a long history of direct-action protest. While the Vancouver Sun derided protesters as “whiners and grumble-bunnies” who couldn't “hold their tongues even on a special occasion” so Canadians could “relax and cheer on the home team,” anti-Olympics activists offered spirited, sweeping criticism: the Olympics were taking place on unceded indigenous (Coast Salish) land; taxpayer money was being squandered on a sports mega-event instead of indispensable social services for those in need; civil liberties were being crushed underfoot by militarized security forces.

Campaigners emerged in Vancouver in 2002—one year before the city was granted the Games by the International Olympic Committee—and built momentum right through the Olympics. Activists helped to force a non-binding referendum in February 2003 on whether the city should continue to seek the Olympics. The pro-Olympics side won easily with 64 percent of the vote, assisted by spending 140 times more than the anti-Olympic side. The result helped seal Vancouver's bid, which was chosen by the IOC in July. But the referendum campaign provided a vital precedent for future demonstrators to leverage public conversation around the Games. Today, public referendums are a key tactic in resistance to the Olympics. Plebiscites have torpedoed bids in Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland in recent years.

The groundswell of dissent in Vancouver included groups like the No Games 2010 Coalition, which ran a long-term public education project to demystify Olympic discourse. Poets hosted action-inducing programming at the VIVO Media Arts Centre. The NGO Impact on Community Coalition staged panels and seminars that deepened public debate. More militant groups with direct-action experience like No One Is Illegal and the Anti-Poverty Committee provided more radical analysis. 

Religious, environmental, and indigenous groups got on board, including Streams of Justice, Native Youth Movement, the Power of Women Group, Van.Act!, and No 2010 Olympics on Stolen Native Land. The Olympic Resistance Network (ORN) formed in spring 2008 and pulled in people from all these groups. ORN's decentralized, anti-authoritarian approach helped build a strong alliance grounded in principles of consensus-style democracy and mutual aid. Local universities canceled classes during the Games, creating an infusion of young people with more free time for hitting the streets.

On the eve of the Games, I sat down with David Eby, then the executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. He told me, “There is a real unanimity of purpose around NGOs in Vancouver as a result of the Olympics.” He described the activist atmosphere as “cooperative and reinforcing.” Resistance took the form of a two-track fight-back, with one wing working inside the institutional corridors of power and another applying pressure from the outside through direct action and public displays of solidarity.

One major grievance revolved around the cost of the Games. Once again, Olympic boosters grossly underestimated costs, pegging the overall price tag of the Games at $1 billion. But by January 2010, on the eve of the Games, costs had soared to $6 billion. Once the post-Games Olympic hangover wore off, estimates were a sobering $8 billion to $10 billion. Through taxes, each resident of the city donated nearly $1,000 to bankroll the two-and-a-half-week party. The economic collapse of 2008 was untimely for Olympic organizers, but they were already in the habit of lowballing costs and shifting fiscal responsibility onto the backs of taxpayers. The funding structure of the Games was nominally a public-private partnership, but various levels of the Canadian government were on the hook when the going got rough.

The most egregious instance of the Canadian public being forced to backstop private ineptitude was the construction of the Olympic Village. The Olympic Village was supposed to be the crown jewel of Olympic development and a rainmaker for the city. In reality, the project became a debacle that hemorrhaged public funds. Millennium, the private developer that won the bid to build the Olympic Village, lost its financial backing while the Village was only half built, and the city responded with a $100 million bailout. Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason called the episode “one of the biggest financial losses in the City of Vancouver's history.” Olympic organizers had initially promised that 20 percent of all units would be converted into non-market housing for low-income people. But once taxpayers took on responsibility for the cost of construction, which ballooned to $875 million a full year before the Games began, the city needed to recoup what it could from condominium sales, scuttling the promise for low-income housing.


Protesters in Vancouver's Robson Square on the first day of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Photo by Kris Krüg/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0



This was especially galling given that in the year of the Olympics, one think tank found Vancouver to be the least affordable of nearly three hundred cities it examined. Vancouver's median household income was $58,200, while the median house price in Vancouver was nearly ten times that: $540,900. The gap between great wealth and dire poverty was especially stark in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighborhood, a gritty eight-by-fifteen-block area that is Canada's poorest postal code outside aboriginal reserves. Nevertheless, Vancouver's place in the silver-toned terrain of global capitalism fits Andy Merrifield's description of a modern-day cosmopolitan city like a spandex speed-skating suit: “… cities themselves have become exchange values, lucre in situ, jostling with other exchange values (cities) nearby, competing with their neighbors to hustle some action.” Local developers and real estate barons had hustled themselves the Olympic Games. They were abetted by politicians of all stripes, including Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, a New Democratic Party–style liberal and the cofounder of the Happy Planet organic juice company. When it came to the Olympics, Robertson drank the Kool-Aid.

Over-the-top security measures also taxed the Vancouver Olympic budget. The initial security cost was pegged at a laughable $175 million. Eventually it catapulted to more than $1 billion, as opportunistic Canadian authorities used the Olympics to jack up the state's Kevlar-per-capita quotient. Gord Hill, an indigenous activist from the Kwakwaka'wakw Nation, described the process to me as “police extortion from the ruling class.”

Vancouver's special blend of celebratory militarism included more than a thousand surveillance cameras pegged to posts across the city. Military-grade helicopters and CF-18 Hornet fighter jets patrolled from above. Below, police with semi-automatic weapons strolled through Olympic space and patrolled anti-Olympic demonstrations. Security officials acquired a Medium-Range Acoustic Device, or MRAD; deployed by American forces in Iraq, the device uses focused high-decibel sound for what is billed as non-lethal crowd control. However, after pressure from activists and civil libertarians, authorities were forced to disable its weapons function, essentially transforming it into an exorbitant bullhorn. Activists were well aware that the military-style equipment for today's state of exception could become the quotidian instruments of tomorrow's everyday policing.

The Olympics triggered the formation of the Vancouver Integrated Security Unit (VISU), an assemblage headed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and composed of more than twenty policing agencies. VISU had a distinctive military sheen, with 4,500 to 5,000 military personnel involved, surpassing the 2,900 that were stationed in Afghanistan at the time. One-fifth of the entire country's policing power saturated Vancouver for the Olympic moment, including 6,000 officers from almost 120 different police departments. The Vancouver Police Department provided another 1,300 men and women.

In total, more than 17,000 security officials descended on the city, including people from the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Department of National Defence, city police forces, and almost 5,000 private security agents. The Canadian Border Services Agency circulated its officers in the Downtown Eastside, demanding proof of citizenship from residents and acting as de facto immigration police. VISU teamed up with their cross-border colleagues from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which organized an “Olympics Coordination Center” in nearby Bellingham, Washington.

VISU moved aggressively to infiltrate protest groups. Speaking at the Vancouver International Security Conference, Jamie Graham, the police chief of Victoria, BC, revealed that a police informant had worked his way into dissident circles, becoming a bus driver who transported activists to a protest of the Olympic torch relay. Police harassment and intimidation were commonplace. Activists told me that virtually everyone involved in the Olympic Resistance Network was visited by VISU, whether at home, at work, or on the street. Beginning in June 2009, VISU harassed the renowned Vancouver Olympics critic Christopher Shaw. Sometimes officials held a copy of his book—Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games—and said they found “disturbing information” that they wanted to discuss with him. By the time the Olympic year rolled around, these visits occurred almost daily. VISU also questioned Shaw's friends, girlfriend, and ex-wife. On the eve of the G8/G20 summit in Toronto, which took place four months after the Vancouver Games, VISU even tried to flip him into becoming an informant, a proposition he refused.

Indigenous peoples—First Nations, Inuit, and Métis—played a vital role in challenging the Vancouver Games. Relatively recent history had more than a little to do with it. During the closing ceremonies of the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montréal, nine First Nations agreed to participate in an official commemoration ceremony, in which 200 native representatives were joined by 250 non-indigenous dancers sporting costumes and paint to pass themselves off as First Nations people. According to the Montréal Games' Official Report, the “sumptuous procession” was “made even more exciting by the play of lights and the theatrical music based on André Mathieu's Danse sauvage.” The First Nations scholar Janice Forsyth concluded, “In the end, non-Aboriginal performers dressed and painted to look like ‘Indians' led the Aboriginal participants through their own commemoration.”

In 2010, some indigenous groups were once again willing to work with the IOC, participating in opening and closing ceremonies. But this time, for the first time ever, the IOC recognized Aboriginal people as official host partners. In advance of the Olympics, four First Nations from British Columbia—the Lil'wat, Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh—created the Four Host First Nations to host and assist with the Games.


Promises to indigenous peoples “fell far short in providing resources that would appropriately support impoverished and disadvantaged indigenous groups throughout British Columbia.”

The three official mascots were also First Nations–inspired: Miga, a mythical sea bear; Quatchi, a sasquatch; and Sumi, an animal spirit. Although Aboriginal people played a more prominent role than in any previous Olympics and were not being outrageously typecast and imitated as at Montréal, they made up only a tiny slice of the Olympic workforce. In 2006–2007, Aboriginal people comprised 1.2 percent of workers in the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC). Between 2007 and 2009 this increased slightly—to 3 percent—before inexplicably dipping back down to 1 percent in 2009–2010. The indigenous studies scholar Christine O'Bonsawin from the Abenaki Nation at Odanak told me that promises to indigenous peoples “fell far short in providing resources that would appropriately support impoverished and disadvantaged indigenous groups throughout British Columbia. Olympic commitments that were intended to be truly anti-colonial or decolonizing in nature would have provided long-term support structures and systems, rather than short-term and shortsighted financial payoffs, as was the case with the 2010 Olympics.”


Thanks to the hard work of activists, the specter of dispossession haunted the Vancouver Olympics. The indigenous intellectual Taiaiake Alfred notes that due to the relative dearth of treaty relations, British Columbia “remains in a perpetual colonialism-resistance dynamic.” The IOC's decision to stage the Games on unceded Coast Salish territory put a spotlight on this dynamic and led to “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land” becoming a predominant anti-Olympic slogan.

Eighty of the 203 indigenous bands in British Columbia refused to participate. This is remarkable in light of ubiquitous pro-Olympic propaganda promising economic gain. O'Bonsawin points out, “The inclusion of colonial narratives has tacitly been enshrined in the Olympic formula,” creating story lines that set indigenous peoples in historical stone, “thereby removing them in time and space from present-day realities.” Indigenous anti-Olympics activists took to the streets to remind all that athletes were skiing the slopes and hitting the half-pipes on unceded Aboriginal land.

Indigenous elders played a key role at one of the biggest direct actions of the Games: the creation of the Olympic Tent Village. On February 15, 2010, a few days following the official opening ceremonies, demonstrators challenging the twin processes of gentrification and the criminalization of homelessness descended on 58 W. Hastings Street, where they took control of the space owned by developer Concord Pacific and leased to VANOC for use as a parking lot during the Olympics.

The site was strategic: the lot was a highly visible location where inequality is indelibly inscribed in the social landscape. Concord Pacific had a permit in hand to develop high-priced condominiums on the plot. More than one hundred tents were eventually pitched there. Harsha Walia, who was at the center of tent city organizing, told me the action demonstrated that “there's an increasing willingness to engage in more creative tactics…that break the ritual of protest.”

Upon entering the Olympic Tent Village, one saw a sacred fire tended by Aboriginal elders. Another community fire burned in the back of the lot, with music and workshops filling the area. Food Not Bombs provided victuals. Activists from Streams of Justice (a Christian social justice group) and Van.Act! (an outgrowth of the University of British Columbia's Students for a Democratic Society) helped with logistics. A security crew prevented unwanted outsiders, like the news media, from entering the camp and helped assuage tensions that arose inside the village; at one point two suspected police infiltrators were ejected. Leadership emerged organically from the vital organizing efforts of the Power of Women Group, a collection of Downtown Eastside residents—many of them Aboriginal elders—with deep roots in the neighborhood and widespread respect within activist circles. Individuals from this group, along with Dave Diewert of Streams of Justice and Harsha Walia of No One Is Illegal, served as media spokespeople. Every day or so community meetings helped set and enforce camp protocols and create work schedules.

The Olympic Tent Village led to unique social interactions, where university students could intermingle with people from the streets, the professoriat with the subproletariat, rich exchanges that would not have happened with more traditional forms of protest. The original plan was to run the tent village for five days, but because of the overwhelmingly positive energy, the action was extended beyond the end of the Olympics. Numerous activists I spoke with stressed that the Olympic Tent Village was not merely a symbolic act but a material victory too. Because of the action, approximately eighty-five people secured housing through the City of Vancouver and the provincial agency BC Housing. The action was also a vital precursor to Occupy Vancouver, which sprung up the following year.


After gathering for speeches at the intersection of Georgia and Homer, a drummer led the chanting crowd down toward BC Place and the opening ceremonies. Photo by KXCD/CC BY 2.0



Another concrete advance that Vancouver activists achieved was the cultivation of the Vancouver Media Co-op (VMC). Headed by Franklin López and Dawn Paley and composed of numerous citizen journalists, the VMC provided the public with up-to-date information, politically driven art, and all the news that's unfit to print in the corporate media. The VMC mobilized alternative versions of the Olympics, filing stories from the streets of Vancouver and creating space for independent journalists to post their blow-by-blow documentary work.

The VMC produced two segments for Democracy Now!, the leading community media outfit in the United States, thanks to López's previous connection as a producer for the show. After the Democracy Now! host, Amy Goodman, and two of her colleagues were detained and questioned at the US–Canada border in November 2009 on their way to Vancouver, the show's producers were alerted that something unique was going on. Suspicious that she intended to speak out against the Olympics at a lecture planned for the Vancouver Public Library, border guards rifled through her personal effects and grilled her about the subjects she would cover in her talk and whether one of them was the Winter Olympics.

VMC journalists were skeptical of the efficacy of social media like Twitter and Facebook, dubbing them the “social media mafia.” As López told me, it “pushes the model of corporate social media as an alternative media, which it really isn't. A lot of it is ad-driven and event-driven.” VMC journalists were aware of what Mark Andrejevic calls the “digital enclosure,” whereby we create an interactive, online field in which all of our actions—and transactions—generate a slew of revealing information about ourselves that can facilitate state surveillance. VMC journalists' critique of social media also dovetailed with Jodi Dean's conception of “communicative capitalism,” which reframes the social-media surge as ersatz political participation: “Communicative capitalism captures our political interventions, formatting them as contributions to its circuits of affect and entertainment—we feel political, involved, like contributors who really matter.” She adds, “The intense circulation of content in communicative capitalism occludes the antagonism necessary for politics, multiplying antagonism into myriad minor issues and events.” Although many anti-Olympics activists employed social media to get the word out about events (for instance, through Facebook's “events” function), it was striking how many activists told me they slid off-line and into the streets for the Olympic moment. For them, keyboard activism could supplement boots-to-pavement protest, but it shouldn't supplant it.

In Vancouver, the prospect of using mainstream media to deepen the Olympic debate was not particularly promising. Both Canwest—which owned the Vancouver Sun and the Vancouver Province newspapers—and the Globe and Mail were official sponsors, or “print media suppliers,” of the Games. Still, activists did not write off the mainstream press. They often appeared as sources, providing quotes informing the public about why they were demonstrating. They also placed op-eds in newspapers that made the anti-Olympics argument. The VMC's Dawn Paley referred to the mainstream media as “SQUM,” or status-quo media, but was quick to point out that “mainstream media are very relevant because they set the agenda.” Social media could help generate numbers at protests and circulate information, but in terms of reaching a general audience, the mainstream media still mattered. As with many dichotomies that were exploded in Vancouver, the mainstream media–alternative media conundrum was not an either-or but a both-both.

For some, the Vancouver Olympics are remembered as a major athletic success for the home country. Canada's “Own the Podium” campaign—whereby the country ramped up its sports funding for five years prior to the Games in order to win as many gold, silver, and bronze medals as possible—was successful, helping Canada haul in twenty-six medals, including fourteen gold. But others will remember the Games for the spirited dissent they engendered. As Harsha Walia told me: “The Olympics provided a foundation for a much longer-term analysis and debate and vision of our terrain of struggle. It was pivotal for bringing the local terrain of struggle to a national and international scale.” And the VMC was a vital Olympic legacy, if one not planned by Olympic organizers. According to Gord Hill, “The VMC reenergized and raised the standard of the radical alternative media structures that we have in this country.”


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