The Olympic Games last only two weeks, but their legacy will be felt in Vancouver for years to come. The price tag for taxpayers is estimated at around $6 billion, including around $1 billion in “security” costs. Last week, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge praised Vancouver organizers, calling the Vancouver model “a blueprint for future games.” To talk about what that blueprint could mean for Vancouver, as well as future host cities, we go now to Vancouver, where we are joined by Am Johal, chair of the Impact on Communities Coalition, a watchdog group around the Vancouver Olympics founded in 2001. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: The Olympic Games last only two weeks, but their legacy will be felt in Vancouver for years to come. The price tag for taxpayers is estimated at around $6 billion, including around $1 billion in “security” costs. Last week, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge praised Vancouver organizers, calling the Vancouver model, quote, “a blueprint for future Games.”
Well, to talk more about that blueprint and what it could mean for Vancouver, as well as future host cities, we go to Vancouver, where we’re joined by Am Johal. He’s the chair of the Impact on Communities Coalition, a watchdog group around the Vancouver Olympics founded in 2001. Am Johal also initiated Canada’s 2010 Homelessness Hunger Strike, a rolling nationwide hunger strike calling for a national housing program in Canada.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!
, Am Johal. So, the Olympics are underway. In the Olympics themselves, one major tragedy with the death of a luge player, a luge athlete, because of, they’re saying, the way the track was set, and they’ve changed that. But what else is happening in Vancouver now?
AM JOHAL: Amy, first of all, I just wanted to say, to apologize on behalf of Canadians for the way that you were treated at the border here just a few months back.
In terms of Vancouver, the polling is showing that only about 50 percent of people are supportive of the Olympics, which is very different than many host cities. One would assume it would be at 80 or 90 percent, if the Olympics were actually doing what they’re intended to be doing, in terms of economic development and all these other premises that they’re based on. But here in Vancouver, particularly around housing, civil liberties, the costs of the Games, in all of these areas these major impacts are being felt. And so, this resistance that you’re seeing in Vancouver, which is widespread and has the support of a wide swath of the public, is being felt.
In the area of housing, we’ve had a net loss of 1,300 single resident occupancy hotel units, where a number of low-income people have lived in the city. This is — goes in line with what happened in Atlanta, in Salt Lake City, other Olympic Games. And so, right at the very beginning, during the bid process, we knew what had happened in other places, and we raised these questions and concerns. Yet, during the bid process, the Olympic — the International Olympic Committee has not changed their bidding process. And it’s essentially one of the largest corporate franchises in history, and we buy this with public money.
And even though it’s explained to us that this is going to result in economic development — it certainly benefits the tourism industry, it certainly benefits the development industry, it certainly benefits the construction trades, but after that, the economic benefits are really quite questionable, particularly around the issue of opportunity costs. From the day that the Olympics were awarded to Vancouver to the day that the opening ceremonies took place, homelessness more than doubled in this region. And so, when we see the amount of money that was spent on the opening ceremonies or a billion dollars on security, and at the same time, these social indicators that —- across the city and across this region, seeing this change happen, it’s difficult for people not to make that connection. We also have a budget coming up in British Columbia in a few weeks’ time, where we’re going to see massive cuts to healthcare and education, as well.
On the area of civil liberties, incredible impacts. We’ve had social activists visited at their homes and workplaces. We’ve had a particular public policy, specific public policy, put forward by the city of Vancouver to meet the needs of the International Olympic Committee and to protect corporate sponsors, which clearly violates freedom of speech and the civil liberties of citizens. You can get fined right now in the city of Vancouver for using a megaphone near an Olympic live site or near an Olympic venue. So this kind of criminalization of protest and freedom of speech is part of the Olympic project. And this happens in virtually every Olympic Games. To date, we’ve already filed three human rights complaints to the UN against the government of Canada. Around the costs -—
AMY GOODMAN: Am Johal, what do you mean —-
AM JOHAL: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, people are visited at their homes?
AM JOHAL: Social activists who have been critical of the Olympic Games have been visited at their homes by the Integrated Security Unit, which is the unit responsible for security around the Games. Chris Shaw, a prominent anti-Olympics activist, was visited at a coffee shop near where he works at UBC. People that he knows, friends, acquaintances of his, were also visited and asked to do background on him. So I think this kind of thing that you would never suspect would exist in Canada is happening under this exception around the Games.
I think added to that is the purchase of equipment and bureaucratic inertia around the Olympic Games. We have an expansion of closed-circuit television cameras happening. We had the purchase of a military-grade sonic weapon that was first used against G20 demonstrators in Pittsburgh, that was purchased by the Vancouver Police Department without any democratic consultation about whether we needed such a piece of equipment in the city of Vancouver. They did eventually take down the piece that could blow out eardrums and are simply using it as an audio device.
But these are just the things that we know about. In terms of activists being visited, we know about that. The other levels of surveillance, whether people’s emails are being checked or whether cell phones are being tapped. We also know, for example, that a protest that happened in Victoria, when the march was taking place, the bus driver of that -— the bus driver was actually an undercover police officer. So there’s been an incredible amount of surveillance of those who have been critical of the Games, and many of the — the extent of which we won’t know until after the Games, when we go through the public process. And certainly around the costs of the Games, $6 billion is just what we know about. After all the costs come in for shipping in snow into areas that there weren’t any, we’re certainly going to see those budget numbers go up.
AMY GOODMAN: Am Johal, what about the First Nations response to the Olympic Games in Vancouver?
AM JOHAL: Absolutely. The four bands that are in the downtown area signed on as Four Host First Nations. But in terms of the rank-and-file membership of these organizations, there’s been a significant amount of dissent.
Here in Vancouver, we also have a significant urban aboriginal community, which were largely left out of the bid process or any of the consultation process. Amongst the 2,800 or so homeless people in Vancouver, 32 percent are aboriginal. And so, many of the low-income people that are represented here in the city, literally blocks away from the opening ceremonies, have had no consultation or benefits resulting from these Games.
And I think people like David Dennis and other people who have been raising these questions in the media are doing an incredible job of organizing and mobilizing people, whether we’re talking about the civil liberties community or the aboriginal community or the environmental community. The protest that happened on February the 12th was an incredible convergence of groups. It was a peaceful demonstration. And really what we have here is a kind of right-to-the-city movement, that’s building, that’s about asserting human rights in the urban domain. And I think that’s particularly exciting, because we’re really asserting what we’re for, rather than simply being against the Olympic Games.
There’s much to be against the Olympic Games, simply because this happens in virtually every city. In Vancouver, this bid process was going through back in 2002, and we were actually in contact with people from Salt Lake City about the impacts. We flew people from there to here to talk about what happened. So it’s not as if we didn’t know what was going to happen.
It’s just that the organizing process is done like a franchise model. It’s a cookie cutter approach, and it really leaves civil society organizations on the sidelines. Even those people who didn’t oppose the Games, who were mildly critical, who were ready to be around the table, once the bid was awarded to Vancouver, they’re asked to sign communications protocol so they wouldn’t criticize the Olympic project. And so, those groups that were around the table that signed onto an inner city inclusive commitment statement, that had commitments around housing and civil liberties, literally years after the Game, they didn’t have a table to sit at.
And some of these promises that were made, for example, like the Athlete’s Village, where there was supposed to be 252 units of social housing, because that project has been mismanaged, those units may not ever happen. They may not become social housing units at all. So even the paltry promises that they made likely will not come true.
AMY GOODMAN: And in terms of how much money Vancouver will make, I assume in the whole process that was the big push to the people of Vancouver, is how it would bring attention both in tourism, but then just in infrastructure building.
AM JOHAL: Yeah, and one of the impacts that’s certainly happened is that — you know, gentrification was an issue in Vancouver prior to the Olympics coming here. We have a downtown peninsula that’s built up. There was already pressures on the inner city. But what the Olympics do is that they exacerbate, accelerate these development paths, so the impacts are far greater, and they happen at a faster rate.
Around the economics, we’ve had reports done by PricewaterhouseCoopers, by the Sauder School of Business at UBC, and even during the bid process. And they talk about, you know, x number of jobs. Every time a cost overrun happens, it’s still viewed as a contribution to GDP, based on the economic analyses that they’re using. Even in Economics 101, there’s a term called “opportunity cost,” which is, you take the $6 billion they spent on the Olympic Games, and we take a look at, what if we spent it in a different way — rather than spend a billion dollars on security, we had spent it on social housing? That also puts people to work. It gets people off of the street. And so, when we look at Olympic numbers and the economic value of them, they need to be compared with how we would have spent that money otherwise.
So, in terms of what happens to a city that you live in, you know, this is not good for working people, this is not good for low-income people. And this is essentially taking public money that benefits the private sector. And once again, it’s the development sector that benefits. It’s the tourism sector that benefits. And it’s definitely going to have an impact on the budget that comes in, and we’re going to see further cuts to social programs and healthcare.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Am Johal, I saw about a thirty-second clip last night on our local news in New York of the protests. And, of course, what they showed was the smashing of glass, of windows of stores. Can you talk about the protests that have happened and what the plans are from today on?
AM JOHAL: Yeah, absolutely. You know, there’s many, many different groups that are protesting. And our agenda, in terms of local people who are here, is that we have been pushing housing issues and civil liberties issues and aboriginal issues and sustainability issues. In fact, in a couple of hours, we’re going to be unfurling a banner off of the Cambie Street Bridge as part of the housing campaign that’s being kicked off today. There’s 500 red tents that are going to be distributed around the city to homeless people, which is similar to a campaign that was done in Paris.
At noon today, there’s a press conference, where the Power of Women group based in the Downtown Eastside, Streams of Justice, and a number of student groups are going to be part of a housing squat that begins today. Over the course of the next week and next Saturday, there’s going to be a rally for a national housing program. So we’re going to continue with our peaceful, nonviolent protest activities, and we’re going to continue with a right-to-the-city movement that goes well beyond the Olympic Games.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us. Am Johal is chair of the Impact on Communities Coalition, an Olympic watch group, speaking to us from Vancouver. When we come back from break, we’re staying in Vancouver for the hour. We’re going to speak with a Vancouver physician, part two of our conversation with Dr. Gabor Maté. Stay with us.