Vancouver riot review: John Furlong's balancing act
The following piece was first published on August 2. The Stanley Cup riot review, which will be released today, is co-chaired by John Furlong.
On the surface, no one seemed to bat an eye when former VANOC CEO John Furlong was selected for the provincial review of the post-Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver. After all, Furlong was the well-respected organizer of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler. Who better to understand how to manage a large-scale event in the downtown core, which fell apart during the riots?
But behind the new appointment, a wave of disquiet rippled through some observers of Vancouver’s political scene. Wasn’t this the same John Furlong who criticized Mayor Gregor Robertson in his recent book? Does he really have the right to review the riot, given the death of an athlete under his watch?
Some have told the Vancouver Observer that they wondered whether the BC Liberals had used Furlong’s appointment to set up the NPA to launch a politically-motivated attack against the mayor just ahead of the elections. Others, however, told VO that Furlong is a man of integrity, capable of objectivity despite his checkered history with the mayor. Still others said that Furlong's findings will be discounted, given history, if they seem to fuel the NPA's effort to characterize the post-Stanley Cup finals mayhem as "Robertson's Riots."
Vancouver 2010 Winter Games
It was supposed to be John Furlong's shining moment: with an estimated 32.6 million people from around the world watching, he was standing at the podium, delivering a speech for the Olympics that would "transform a country".
"I have given thousands of speeches in my life, but never with so many people watching," Furlong wrote in his Olympic memoir, Patriot Hearts.
Yet the celebration had a funerial overtone, due to the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, a 21-year-old Georgian luge athlete who had a fatal crash just hours before the opening ceremony on an Olympic track which luge athletes criticized as having flawed design. Anti-Olympic protests flared up outside of the stadium. One of the four pillars of the Olympic cauldron had a mechanical failure and failed to stand up, as if Vancouver itself couldn't rise to the occasion. And behind the scenes, sources say, Mayor Gregor Robertson was struggling to be included in Olympic ceremonies and share the stage with Gordon Campbell.
It wasn't the first time that the mayor was left out of a key public event organized by the premier's office. "When the trade and convention centre opened the mayor wasn't invited -- that was very shocking ot me," COPE City Councillor Ellen Woodsworth told VO.
Furlong openly expressed his disdain of the mayor of the Olympic city's wish to participate in his book.
Photo above: Mayor Gregor Robertson addresses a tourism event while VANOC CEO John Furlong watches (far right.)
"...I got a call from the mayor, who was freaking out about not being part of the ceremony in Olympia," Furlong said in his book, written with Globe and Mail reporter Gary Mason.
Furlong expressed annoyance later that then-Premier Gordon Campbell was going to have to "share the stage" with the Vancouver mayor. "Now we had to phone back and say, ah, well, he's now going to have to share the stage with the Vancouver mayor. It made us look like amateurs who didn't know what we were doing..."
Last week, City Councilor Ellen Woodsworth questioned Furlong's judgment for accepting B.C. Liberal acting Premier Christy Clark's appointment to review the Vancouver mayor's role in the Stanley Cup riots. And she apprently was not alone in this view: in a recent survey in the Georgia Straight, 87 per cent of respondents said they did not agree with Furlong's appointment to an independent riot review.
Woodsworth has called for him to step down from the riot review.
Balancing personal relationships and non partisan requirements
Woodsworth first told the Globe and Mail that Furlong's capacity to review the riots was compromised by his "close relationship" with Peter Armstrong, the campaign chair for the Non-Partisan Association. Armstrong is the CEO of The Rocky Mountaineer and appointed Furlong last March to the board of Rocky Mountaineer.
Woodsworth later told VO that the two men socialize, and pointed to Armstrong's Facebook profile photograph. In it, the men pose side by side, cheering on the Canucks in Chicago (see top photo.)
In addition to Furlong's connections with the NPA campaign chair, Woodsworth questioned the closed-door methods used to appoint Furlong to the riot review.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark said she had a "chance meeting" with John Furlong and offered him the post. Woodsworth said that the City had been consulted about the appointment of Doug Keefe to the riot review, but were not consulted about Furlong's appointment. For Woodsworth, a red flag went up when she went to Armstrong's Facebook page after reading an article by Vancouer civic reporter Jeff Lee. Then she said, she looked further and found that Furlong had joined the Rocky Mountaineer board.
"If he disclosed his position, it may have been okay, but the fact is that nobody knew," Woodsworth said.
Clark declined to comment on whether she was aware of Furlong's connections with Peter Armstrong prior to the appointment.
"My take on it is that it's like many things she has done since Christy’s been premier: she just didn't think it through properly," a political watcher who asked not to be named, told VO. "I don't think she was trying to deliberately hurt Gregor (although some may, and that’s possible), but she made a bad call in putting Furlong on there, just because he asked to do it at some social engagement.
"Whatever he does now, it's going to be tainted with the fact that he is politically biased, definitely close to the NPA (and the provincial Liberals) and key figures in it, and he is not favorable to Gregor as everyone knows.
"Furthermore though he is not qualified, he's not a lawyer or a judge or an expert on policing, investigations or inquiries or crowd control.
“(The review) is going to be tainted with the fact that he is politically biased, definitely close to the NPA (and the provincial Liberals),” he said. “And he is not favorable to Gregor, as everyone knows.”
He also dismissed Anton’s argument that the city would “run out of people” if it looked for someone who was not politically connected. “That’s simply not true,” he said. “Most people aren’t connected politically, but John Furlong most definitely is. It’s a mistake that will hurt the inquiry.
"The smart thing would be to have him gracefully step down, but there haven't been too many smart things since she's been Premier, so I don't expect it this time.”
However, Furlong assured Vancouver Sun reporter Jeff Lee of his objectivity:
"If I felt conflicted at any point I would have declared that to be the case -- I don't feel conflicted."
Peter Armstrong is not only the NPA's campaign chair, he also donated $265,486.00 to the B.C. Liberals between 2005 and 2010. The NPA courted Armstrong to run for mayor, according to Globe and Mail reporter Frances Bula's May 30th blog, but he apparently declined as NPA Councillor Suzanne Anton decided to run instead.
Furlong's presence has created a perception of bias against the Vision Vancouver mayor, Woodsworth said.
"Given that the NPA is already in campaign mode and attacking Gregor Robertson, with Suzanne Anton calling the riot 'Robertson's riots', it is problematic for me that Furlong would co-chair an external review that will report back on Aug 31, just when the campaigns are going to be in full force."
No effect on the elections? Jim Green comments...
Jim Green, the former city councillor and mayoral candidate who worked with Furlong in the Olympic planning, agreed that Furlong is close to the NPA and the B.C. Liberals, but said he was confident that Furlong’s NPA connection would have little or no impact on the outcome of the review, and little political consequence for the mayor.
“(Clark) is very political with her appointments … She has a tendency to appoint people who are close to her,” he said.
“But having said that, Furlong’s going to have to be the most objective guy on earth in the review, or he’ll get everyone in trouble, including the premier.”
Although Green was “not impressed” with Furlong’s jabs at the mayor, he also expressed respect for the former VANOC CEO, and said he would bring appropriate credentials to the review.
“Sometimes we had strong disagreements, but I always had a lot of respect for him. How do you go from running The Arbutus Club to running the Olympics? I have utterly different political alliances and opinions, but I think he might be the right guy for the job.”
Furlong: open admiration for former premier Gordon Campbell
Despite his attacks on the mayor in his book, Furlong is fawning in his praise of Canada's new High Commissioner to Britain, B.C.'s ex-Premier.
"Gordon Campbell never insisted on centre stage . . . Gordon never once asked to be accorded any special favours as the lead politicians in the host province. He went way up in my estimation."
Campbell clearly relished his role at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games and Harper chose Campbell to represent Canada in time for Campbell to particpate in the London's 2012 Summer Olympic Games.
Above: Gordon Campbell (left) and Mayor Gregor Robertson (right) at Canada Line opening ceremony
Although Campbell and Robertson reportedly enjoyed a friendly relationship during the Olympics, Christy Clark's relationship with Robertson has been unclear. Earlier this month, Gwyn Morgan, a senior advisor to Clark, blasted the mayor in a column that appeared in the Globe and Mail:
"...it was decisions made by the mayor and civic officials that created an anarchist's dream scenario of overwhelming numbers, booze and fan disappointment."
When asked if Clark had appointed Furlong to the riot review to position him to damage Robertson's political career, Woodsworth answered, "A lot of Vancouver mayors have gone on to become Premier."
Green agreed that the B.C. Liberals view the mayor as a threat.
“If I were any Liberal, I’d be very worried about Gregor,” he said emphatically. “He’s very smart. If he were to run for Premier, he’d probably have huge support from the NDP.”
However, he disagreed that Clark is overly concerned with the mayor at this stage, saying that her immediate concern was B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix, who will be facing her in the next provincial election.
Luge death: CBC investigation
As Furlong works on reviewing the riot, it's worth noting that he was the subject of an investigation himself by the CBC's Fifth Estate report for the death of Kumaritashvili.
Screencap from YouTube
At the time of the Georgian luger's death, the accident was quickly attributed to "driver error" during the Games by British Olympic Association's performance director Sir Clive Elwood. However, Whistler's luge track designer had previously warned VANOC and FIL that design issues in the Whistler track could result in serious accidents, according to a CBC investigation.
Although Furlong initially claimed that he had no way of knowing that the track was considered dangerous, an email dated March 2009 (leaked by VANOC to the Globe and Mail) showed that Furlong was aware of design concerns surrounding the track, and was worried about the possibility of being blamed in the event of an accident:
“[E]mbedded in this note (cryptic as it may be) is a warning that the track is in their view too fast and someone could get badly hurt. An athlete gets badly injured or worse and I think the case could be made we were warned and did nothing ... Our legal guys should review this at least.”
In his book, however, Furlong denies that VANOC could have done things differently. He instead mentions how other people must have felt somewhat responsible for the young athlete's death: on Nodar's uncle Felix Kumaritashvili, he writes:
"I imagined the guilt Felix must have felt, that he was partly responsible for the tragedy."
As for his right-hand executive, Dave Cobb, he writes about how he was "wounded" by the athlete's death, but adds:
"Of course, Nodar's death was out of Dave (Cobb)'s control."
While he questions if VANOC had "bloody hands" over the luger's death, he doesn't talk about any responsibility on his organization's fault, and mentions that people like Sliding Centre director Craig Lehto were "unfairly wearing some of the responsibility for what happened."
Through his account in the book, two things are evident: first, how the VANOC members were emotionally "devastated" by the accident, but second, how Furlong was determined not to let it get in the way of a successful Olympics. "If we didn't get the situation (the death of Kumaritashvili) under control, all of the problems were going to be laid at my feet and everyone was going to say: 'See, he was the wrong guy after all. He didn't have nearly the right experience. What were we thinking?'" he writes.
Furlong was evasive during the CBC's "Death at the Olympics" report, frequently interrupting reporter Bob McKeown's questions and arguing that VANOC was not part of discussions about the track. Although the CBC spoke with Furlong for an hour and 20 minutes, no admission about VANOC's awareness of the track problems emerged.
Questioning a national hero
So why have so few people spoken critically about Furlong's track record, or the potential bias that Furlong brings to the riot review?
"No one is willing to talk about it. There are people who know (about his Peter Armstrong ties), but no one wants to talk about it," said Woodsworth. "To quote someone else, Furlong is 'God' in Vancouver."
Maybe not God, but CityCaucus.com, the NPA blog, has gone so far as to refer to Furlong as a saint.
And Vancouver Sun reporter Lee seemed almost to be warning off other journalists when he wrote blog last week, "Anyone who criticizes Furlong is risking a public drubbing."
"His handling of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and the miracle he wrought in energizing a nation around the Games has almost made him a saint."
Amid speculations about how Furlong’s role will affect the outcome of the review, Green brushes off the idea that the riot review will affect the mayor, saying it won’t be an effective political weapon by the NPA.
“You can’t run an election based on the past,” he said. “If Anton is going to run an election on the riot, on bike lanes and on the chicken coop issue, she’ll get annihilated.”
Photo above by Linda Solomon: NPA City Councillor and mayoral hopeful Suzanne Anton (left) with Vision City Councillor Andrea Reimer at the 2010 Winter Games at City Hall celebration of Olympic torch arrival.