Is Your Freedom a Security Risk?
The most significant threat to Vancouverites during the 2010 Games, reasons David Eby, is the criminalization of free speech. Personal expression is not a security risk nor an attack on the viability of the Olympics, he says, and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association may be prepared to take the City of Vancouver to court to protect this right.
Temporary Olympic by-laws passed by Vancouver council in July present the most problematic issue for citizens because the laws set a precedent for any major event to come to the city and how we “tolerate protest, dissent or criticism as a society and the space we make for it.
“The Olympics have asked for special treatment when it comes to protection for sponsors and the IOC—it’s an important test of Vancouver’s commitment to free speech,” he told Linda Solomon.
LS: What concerns you most about these by-laws?
DE: The public suggestion that permitting citizens to express themselves on public space in Vancouver is a security threat to the Olympic Games or a threat to their viability.
LS: Council made its decision and there was a little public outcry from the usual corners and then life went on. Now what?
DE: We’re concerned about a number of aspects of the bylaws and the constitutionality of those bylaws. We’re talking with legal counsel about the possibility of challenging the constitutionality of the bylaws in court before the Olympics.
LS: What is the likelihood you’ll do that?
DE: Very high, for for a couple of reasons. The response from the City to our concerns is that our concerns are overstated and that we don’t understand that the City has obligations to protect Olympic sponsors. We’ve tried to make our concerns clear, but that message isn’t getting through. I don’t see the City changing tack on this. Beyond the City not understanding our concerns, Mayor Larry Campbell signed a contract in 2003 that promised no protests in view of the venues and if they feel like they have to abide by the terms of that contract, then they’re not going to change those laws.
LS: If they feel that way…
DE: It seems they do. They passed these bylaws, which would enable them to follow the terms of the contract.
LS: Didn’t we already see that VANOC is above the law? The B.C. Supreme Court ruling on the women ski jumpers found that the International Olympic Committed does indeed discriminate against women ski jumpers by not allowing them the same right afforded to male jumpers since 1924. But despite this moral victory, VANOC is governed by the IOC and is beyond the reach of the Canadian Charter. The ski jumpers are now appealing that decision—what could that accomplish?
DE: That appeal is interesting on a couple of levels. First, to see if VANOC is a government organization or not. Second, to see if a government organization like VANOC can avoid the Charter if a third party asks them to.
Keeping in mind that decision and those issues, we don’t think the city of Vancouver had the jurisdiction to sign a contract waiving Vancouverites’ free speech rights in the first place and we don’t believe that the city had the authority legally to pass the bylaws that they have, which we believe are contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And that has nothing to do with VANOC.
LS: Through the courts, does VANOC have the potential to erode the rights enshrined in the Canadian Charter?
DE: Depending on the outcome of the ski jumpers case and possibly any legal action taken by our organization, there could be precedents set that would be remarkable in their implications for the rights of Canadians under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
LS: What example will Vancouver set for future Olympic cities?
DE: It is safe to say there was concern that if Vancouver didn’t sign the contract that Canada would not be awarded the Games. If B.C. and Canada and Vancouver will not stand up to the IOC and insist on democratic rights—Olympics or no Olympics—then what countries and what cities will?
LS: Is there not some degree of injustice if VANOC signed the contract after the Olympics had been awarded?
DE: I guess it depends on the chronology of the contract signing. I don’t know whether that took place before or after the announcement was made that Vancouver was awarded the Games. If it was before the public announcement, there was a legitimate concern that Vancouver might not be awarded the Games. If it was after, I’m not sure Vancouver was careful enough in its bargaining with IOC regarding the Olympics.
In terms of the disagreements over democratic and equality rights in how the Olympics will be hosted, really the fight has just started because it is only becoming clear now what the actual plans are for the Olympics in terms of security and the implications of the signing of the 2003 contract.
LS: Would signing this contract have been a difficult decision for council?
DE: I don’t want to let the current city council off the hook because I do believe that these bylaws are not acceptable in their current form and they surely know it, but I also believe they are receiving legal advice inside City Hall that is causing them to make political decisions contrary to the political backgrounds of many involved.
LS: That must be a very hard part of being an elected official.
DE: Had I been elected, I know that would have been a major issue for me, especially disagreeing with what appears to be the interpretation of the obligations under that contract.
LS: What is the most fundamental principle at risk here?
DE: It’s as fundamental as Canadians being able to express their opinions on public land without interference from the government. VANOC, in my opinion, is a government organization, set up by government, controlled by government and the city of Vancouver, and the city of Vancouver is accountable to its citizens. Neither VANOC or Vancouver have the ability to tell Canadians that they cannot hold a Free Tibet banner on the public sidewalk in front of GM Place, butthat’s what the bylaw says.
You’re not allowed to hold any signs that are unlicensed in the zones that are set out in the bylaw’s terms. You can only post way-finding signs or celebratory signs. A celebratory sign is defined in the bylaws as a sign that builds excitement around the Olympic Games or creates a positive feeling about the Olympic Games.
LS: Somehow I feel like Free Tibet might not make the cut.
DE: I always use the Free Tibet example because I’m worried that the BCCLA’s concerns about free speech will be used to justify China’s actions around the Beijing protest zones. If Canada has free speech zones, China may feel that Canada’s actions justify that they had free speech zones too. This behavior by Canada, a nation that is seen nationally be a democratic rights leader, creates an unfortunate precedent for other countries that are less developed in their rights and freedoms.
LS: So you’re saying that this is an issue that should concern not only Vancouverites, but also Canadians in general and beyond that, it’s also an international issue.
DE: Yes. If a country expresses concern about these restrictions on free speech asked for by the IOC, in the future the IOC can point to Canada and say: “Canada didn’t have any problem with these restrictions, why would you?” We think it’s a terrible legacy for Canada to allow itself to be used in that way. Once you start eroding such hard-won freedoms, they are very difficult to get back.
LS: It’s easy to forget how people fought for such rights and freedoms.
DE: Freedoms tend not to be wiped out overnight. They are eroded slowly. That has been the case in many different countries that have seen significant erosions in human rights. First we eliminate free speech around Olympic venues for a single occasion and then a similar event happens and it makes sense to do it again. And then a slightly smaller event happens and we might as well do the same thing for that event. Before you know it, every international event in Vancouver is justification for restricting free speech.
LS: Why does free speech matter?
DE: The idea of the right to free speech trumps, in our opinion, the right not to be offended because we believe that the best way for society to come to a conclusion on important issues is free and public debate rather than repressing unpopular ideas. We feel that repressing unpopular speech leads to violence. We would much prefer that people be able to express their ideas and be heard and potentially even offend than to have them feel that the only way they can be heard is through violence or terrorism.
LS: Are you saying that what might be seen by some as a protection of our rights is, in fact, a threat to those rights?
DE: The irony is that security is not being enhanced by repressing dissenting speech, even if it’s unpopular, but security language is being used to justify actions that actually increase instability and risk.
If people believe Olympic security measures are being taken to protect them, they are sorely mistaken. All the documents that we have ever seen of the mandate of the Integrated Security Unit is to protect first, the athletes at the Games, and second, the “Olympic family,” who are sponsors and the IOC. So the billion-dollar security budget is not directed to protect the population in Vancouver, whether housed or homeless, or pro- or anti-Olympic. The security budget is intended to protect an elite group of people who are spending two weeks in Vancouver and Whistler.
LS: If I hear you right, you’re saying these security measures are not even intended to protect the audience.
DE: The general public ranks third as long as they’re attending Olympic events. The first are the athletes and the second is the Olympic family—they are unambiguous about that.
LS: Numbers that reach the billions seems unreal to most of us.
DE: You can build one new social housing unit for $200,000, so by my quick math, that is 5,000 social housing units for the cost of the security budget. And the population of street homeless people in Vancouver is estimated, at the high end, to be approximately 2,500 people, so you could eliminate street homelessness in Vancouver. You could house more than half of British Columbia’s street homeless population for one sixth of the expense attributed to the Olympic Games. You could virtually eliminate street homelessness across Canada for the full cost of the Olympic Games, which is $6 billion. People make choices about how public dollars are spent, and while our organization doesn’t take a position about how those dollars are spent, personally, I think it’s a tragedy.
Photo of David Eby by Yukiko Onley