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Report Slams Run-up to Olympics

Coalition cites broken pledges on housing, green goals.

Monte Paulsen 7 May

Monte Paulsen is a contributing editor at The Tyee. He welcomes your feedback via e-mail ([email protected]), and invites you to participate in the online discussion happening below.

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Vancouver bus stop. Photo by Elaine Briere.

A watchdog group has issued Vancouver Olympic organizers a grade of D- for nearly failing to keep their commitments to protect housing, the environment, and civil liberties.

In a report released this morning, the Impact of the Olympics on Community Coalition has accused the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) and its governmental partners of ignoring their commitments to build affordable housing, applying constitutionally questionable legal tactics against protestors, intimidating its opponents, financial mismanagement and excessive secrecy. The 32-page report card even raises questions of complicity in hastening the death of an ill, elderly woman.

The community coalition, or IOCC, graded VANOC, the City of Vancouver, and the Province of British Columbia -- described in the report as "The Parties" -- on progress against their own promises. Most of those promises are found in three documents: The 2003 Bid Book, The Inner City Inclusive Statement (see sidebar, at right) and The Multi-Party Agreement, which provides guarantees by Premier Gordon Campbell and Her Majesty the Queen that all "commitments made, either in writing or orally... shall be binding on Vancouver."

"We are not against the Olympics," IOCC chair Rob VanWynsberghe told a local press scrum on Monday. "The D- means that there's still time to meet the commitments."

Donna Wilson, an executive vice president at VANOC, responded to the IOCC report in an afternoon teleconference.

"We will consider the findings of this report against the work we are already doing," Wilson said. "If the findings are accurate or fair, we'll consider them."

Wilson added that VANOC would release its business plan on May 7, and would release a report on its progress toward its sustainability commitments in June. She said those reports would demonstrate VANOC's commitments to sustainability and social inclusion.

The IOCC plans to issue follow-up reports every six months between now and the 2010 Games, and warns that "if the Parties continue at the current pace in their attempts to realize the Commitment statements, the ultimate grade given to the Parties will be a failing grade."

No housing being built

The report accuses "The Parties" of failing to meet their commitments to provide affordable housing and prevent homelessness. (See promises, at right.)

Construction is well underway on Olympic venues such as the Richmond Oval, the UBC Winter Sports Centre, and the snowboard facility at Cypress Mountain. In striking contrast, notes the IOCC report, "No major construction of low-income housing has commenced."

"Vancouver is following historical patterns of Games-related evictions," the report card states. For example, the bid for the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Games promised to create 2,500 new units of affordable housing; only 150 were built. Likewise, the bid for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games promised to protect housing; but Human Rights Watch now reports that Chinese officials have carried out more than 100,000 evictions.

The IOCC report card finds "promised housing is being cut, as was seen in Southeast False Creek where dedicated middle-income housing at the Athletes' Village was eliminated." And the IOCC conservatively counts more than 800 SRO units lost in the Downtown Eastside since June 2003, plus and additional 541 units in 22 hotels are at risk of imminent closure due to their purchase by developers.

"A number of residents have been forcibly evicted or faced eviction attempts," the report card states. "At the Golden Crown Hotel, the owner told Global Television News that he was evicting tenants to make room for Olympics workers and other construction workers."

"This loss of housing has undeniably resulted in displacement," the report card states. Homelessness has doubled since Vancouver secured the Olympics, and experts predict that between 4,000 and 10,000 homeless Canadians will be haunting Greater Vancouver's streets by the time the opening ceremonies commence in 2010.

Other construction related to the Olympics is on pace for completion despite overruns. For example, the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre, its cost now estimated at $800 million, will house the world press corps just blocks from downtown eastside neighbourhood where most of the city’s homeless are concentrated.

"Given the realities of government timelines and the construction market in Vancouver, the [IOCC report] authors would like to suggest to the Parties that if they wish to open new affordable housing before 2010, they must start immediately."

Homelessness report ignored

VANOC has "ignored" its own housing report, says the IOCC.

An ad-hoc group called the Inner-City Inclusive Housing Table was organized at VANOC's behest in mid-2007. The table included corporations, not-for-profits and representatives of all three levels of government. In March of this year, they released a comprehensive report that offered more than 20 unanimous recommendations intended to guide VANOC and the host governments in meeting their commitments to protect and enhance low-income housing.

The Inner-City Inclusive Housing Table report calls for the construction of 3,200 units of new social housing, the acquisition (or rental) of an additional 800 units, and the conversion of hundreds of units of athlete and worker housing into low-income housing after the games. The housing table report warned VANOC not to delay: "...unless this issue is tackled quickly through a focused program as set out in the report, the problem will become larger, more visible, and increasingly difficult to solve."

But the report has been left to gather dust, claims the IOCC.

"Despite the significance of the [housing table] report," the IOCC report card states, "no press releases on the subject have been issued by any government member of the committee. VANOC has not posted a link to the report on their website, despite the fact that they are the body responsible for the report itself. No level of government has publicly commented on the report, nor have any political leaders indicated their position on the recommendations contained therein."

(The report can be downloaded here, from the City of Vancouver's Housing Centre.)

"Did VANOC and the three levels of government spend all this time and money creating this unique report just to sit on it?" asked David Eby, an attorney at Pivot Legal Society, which helped edit the IOCC report. "It's starting to feel like they got us all together just to check that bid commitment off their list of things to do."

"It's not our report to respond to," replied Wilson, who added there was no money to build housing in VANOC's budget. "We have to work with our partners: the province, Vancouver, the federal government." Nonetheless, Wilson said VANOC would respond to the Housing Table report in June.

"Homelessness is a serious issue," Wilson added. "We do take it seriously. That's why we convened the table."

'World is watching'

The report card notes that environmental protection is a "surprisingly new concept" within the Olympic movement, which did not add the environment to its charter until 1994. Vancouver, which won its bid in July 2003, became the first host city bound to promises of environmental sustainability.

"The world is watching Vancouver in its ability to set impressive environmental precedents for future host cities and Games," the IOCC notes.

What the world has seen thus far is a fight over freeways. Like most winter Olympiads, the 2010 Winter Games will be spread over a large territory. One of VANOC's principal challenges will be to provide sustainable transportation between venues that span the 120-kilometres from Richmond to Whistler. Despite the availability of rail lines and other alternatives throughout the region, the IOCC report card states that VANOC and the province have demonstrated a preference for "less-sustainable methods of transportation, despite bid promises to ensure sustainability."

The bitter battle over the demolition of Eagleridge Bluffs in West Vancouver is offered as an illustration. "The Federal government requested that the Province not proceed with the proposal," the IOCC notes. "This request was echoed by the GVRD, the councils of West Vancouver and North Vancouver, citizens, and the Province's own Ministry of Water, Land and Air protection."

Yet the Province pressed ahead with a four-lane highway through the area. "Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon, repeatedly stated that the highway was the 'only option' and that requests [for] modes of transportation with a lower environmental impact, would not be considered."

The IOCC report card finds that other sustainability commitments -- such as the zero waste management strategy and green building design -- have received insufficient resources. Still other promises have yet to be addressed at all; these include a liquid waste strategy, hydrogen fuel infrastructure installation plans, and greenhouse gas emission reduction strategies.

The report also notes that the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment has expressed concern about Nordic ski trails being developed in the previously pristine Callaghan Valley. The mayor and council of Whistler have requested that VANOC heed the B.C. Ministry of Environment's advice to study the remote Callaghan Valley first, and build the new trails in locations that will minimize impact on habitat.

"We are quite shocked and surprised that the request is being ignored," Joe Foy of the Western Canadian Wilderness Committee said on Monday. "It's not what we were promised. We were promised that this Olympics would focus on protecting and enhancing natural ecosystems."

'Unduly punitive' injunctions

"Olympic-related curtailments in civil liberties have been occurring for the last year," states the IOCC report, warning that "...the situation will likely only intensify as time goes on."

Among the half-dozen assaults against civil liberties raised by the IOCC was the stifling effect of civil injunctions followed by criminal contempt of court charges. The report explains how the province used these legal maneuvers as something like a pincer movement against the protestors encamped at Eagleridge Bluffs.

First, the province encouraged a private party (in this case, the construction firm hired to build the highway) to seek a civil injunction against the protestors. Police were then brought in, and criminal sanctions imposed -- not for the act of nonviolent protest -- but for violating a civil court order.

"The use of court injunctions and charges of criminal contempt to respond to civil disobedience... is a distinct policy choice which is unduly punitive, minimizes access to procedural rights for protesters, and has distinct implications for the bid book Commitments," states the IOCC.

"Civil injunctions artificially set up protesters' actions as a challenge to the authority of the Court, rather than a challenge to the party that is the target of the protest."

The IOCC report explains, "In contempt proceedings, the judge need only establish that the accused violated an order of the court," whereas in a criminal prosecution, "the law requires a mens rea or 'guilty mind' requirement." The IOCC report warns that in other instances, the Supreme Court of Canada found it unconstitutional to combine civil offences with the threat of imprisonment.

"The use of injunctions is particularly troubling because it is a crafty way in a democracy to impose severe sanctions on people who speak out," said local attorney Cameron Ward. "Canada, unlike some other Olympic host nations, is supposed to be a free country, a place where citizens have the constitutionally guaranteed right to peaceful protest, and to express themselves without fear of police response."

"There are many other options available to VANOC and the bid book partners for dealing with non-violent civil disobedience," the IOCC claims. These include charges under the Criminal Code, provincial trespassing tickets, or physical removal of alleged trespassers through "Breach of the Peace" arrests.

The IOCC report notes that one of the three protestors jailed in the wake of the Eagleridge protests died shortly after her release. Harriet Nahanee served nine days of a 14-day term and subsequently died from pneumonia complicated by undiagnosed lung cancer. The report notes that the 71-year-old's "stint in jail may have contributed to or accelerated her death."

'Criminalization and marginalization'

Another breach of civil liberties noted in the report is the apparent attempt by Vancouver Police to frame an outspoken critic of the games for a crime.

The facts of the case are these: On March 6, 2007, an official Olympic flag was stolen from Vancouver city hall. The following day an organization calling itself the Native Warrior Society claimed responsibility for stealing the flag, and distributed a photograph of masked men posing with their purloined prize.

Three weeks later, the Vancouver Police Department raided offices of the Downtown Eastside Residents' Association (DERA) at 11 o'clock at night. No flag was found. The police later explained they were acting on "a tip," but refused to provide its source. A week later, the pro-Olympic city councillors overturned a staff recommendation and abruptly terminated grant money allocated to DERA.

DERA insists it has no connection to either the Native Warriors or the flag incident. But DERA and its allies have been strident critics of the 2010 Winter Games. The IOCC report states, "the combination of these incidents points to a worrying trend of criminalization and marginalization of inner-city advocates in the lead-up to the Games."

Similarly, the IOCC report calls on the city to withdraw Mayor Sam Sullivan's controversial "Project Civil City," an initiative that seeks to spend $1 million of Olympic Legacy funds to police against nuisance crimes. "The authors are concerned that the Project Civil City initiative is designed expressly for the purpose of limiting the poorest and most marginalized inner-city residents' access to public spaces in Vancouver during the Games."

VANOC meets in secret, keeps no minutes

The IOCC report card notes that VANOC itself is a corporation established by three governments (the city, the province, and Canada), each of which are subject to various accountability mechanisms, such as the provincial Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Financial Information Act, and the Financial Disclosure Act.

"Despite the fact that their constituting bodies are subject to all of these pieces of protective legislation, neither 2010 Legacies Now or VANOC are subject to this accountability legislation," the report card states.

"VANOC holds board meetings that are closed to the public, and of which no minutes are kept." The report notes that this is exceptional, even by the scandal-prone standards of other Olympic organizations. "Previous Olympic Committees have held open board meetings without jeopardizing the success or profitability of the Games."

"The complete lack of transparency is simply unacceptable," Darrell Evans of the Campaign for Open Government told the press. "It's far below national and international standards, in fact, it's lower than Third World standards."

Wilson did not comment on questions related to the VANOC board, except to confirm that next week's meeting would be closed to the public.

In another issue of public accountability, the IOCC calls on the publicly owned Insurance Corporation of British Columbia to withdraw its corporate sponsorship of the 2010 Games, noting that "the cost of the $15 million ICBC sponsorship is borne directly by taxpayers."

Reports to follow every six months

The weakest section of the IOCC report is that devoted to finance, which does not substantiate its claim of "well-grounded concerns that the public budgets for the Olympic Winter Games are inaccurate and that the business practices of the Parties may expose tax payers to cost overruns." The report card is silent on questions of cost overruns at the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre and Translinks' Richmond-Airport-Vancouver Skytrain line.

The report also is silent on VANOC's commitments to First Nations, inner-city employment and impacts on small business. The IOCC blames its lack of staff for these omissions, and promises to address them in future reports, due every six months.

Members of the IOCC include: B.C. Persons With Aids Society, Better Environmentally Sound Transportation, British Columbia and Yukon Territory Building & Construction Trades Council, Civil Society Development Project, Institute of Health Promotion Research, Pivot Legal Society, Richmond Poverty Response Committee, Society Promoting Environmental Conservation, Southeast False Creek Working Group, Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre, Think City Society, and the Vancouver and District Labour Council.

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