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Democracy Now's Aaron Maté discusses his report on the Olympics, titled "In the Shadow of the Olympic Flame: A Report from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, the Poorest Neighbourhood in Canada." He finds reasons to celebrate small, important human justice victories.
VO: What was it like witnessing the Olympics in your hometown? What did you notice about how the culture and atmosphere shifted?
Maté: I think the Olympics' overall impact on Vancouver has been a negative one, but that doesn't mean it wasn't nice to see the genuine excitement that was everywhere downtown.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are of Expo '86. When I saw young children caught up in the Olympic revelry, I imagined that it was a similar kind of experience for them.
The world became merged with our city (although were this ever to become subject for debate, I would posit that Expo 86 was a million times cooler). Of course, Expo also had its downside that I learned about years later. This downside included the displacement of at least 1,000 residents from the Downtown Eastside.
In Vancouver, we know homelessness has more than doubled since the Olympic bid. The availability of low-rent units has also been reduced. It is impossible to say that there is no connection between the massive expenditures on the Olympic and the massive budget cuts that have recently been announced.
And so, in that respect, as nice as it was to see people having a good time, it is disheartening that it turned into this display of nationalist pride, as if this two-week spectacle takes on a meaning other than just a bunch of really good athletes competing against each other.
That's where events like the Olympics serve a negative role: they channel people's innate needs for community into becoming invested in outcomes that have zero effect on their lives (the number of gold medals we win) while simultaneously having detrimental effects on things that do effect their lives (poverty, civil liberties, etc.).
VO: Do you think that the Olympics had a positive impact, in terms of raising awareness amongst an international audience?
Maté: For what it's worth, I think Vancouver activists did an incredible job of organizing and doing the best they could to put the focus on the social problems ignored and impacted by the Games' presence. It is extremely difficult work when you're up against a giant machine like the Olympics, which thrives so much on this contrived imagery of togetherness.
Whether that reached an international audience, I don't know. A lot of that is dependent on how the corporate media covers this stuff, and I didn't see NBC or CTV doing live broadcasts from Tent Village.
Certainly the Olympics galvanized social justice activists in Vancouver, I was amazed at how much was going on, not just during the Olympics, but in the years leading up to the Games too.
VO: It was interesting to see the parallel victory of Canada winning the gold medal and the homeless protestors of Tent Village receiving homes. What are your thoughts on this victory?
Maté: It was just striking, the contrast between a whole country celebrating some guy scoring an overtime goal, and these activists winning housing for over 40 homeless people.
I say this without judgment. It is just an interesting contrast. The Canada-USA game was not that different, in terms of the players involved in a NHL All-Star Game.
Yet, because all the players are wearing a red uniform it all of a sudden becomes a national victory? I fault no one for celebrating or enjoying the game. I just take issue when it takes on a higher meaning than what it is, which is just some dudes playing a hockey game.
Meanwhile this amazing group of people working with scarce resources have organized, taken over a lot owned by one of Canada's largest developers, slept in tents for two weeks, all the while risking arrest. They ended up winning housing for homeless people, some of whom who haven't slept in a bed for years. That's just amazing, and it's amazing that we as a country don't celebrate that more.
But I think there's actually an opportunity for hope and social change in the hysteria and celebration that greets things like hockey.
Do we as humans have an innate need to become sports fanatics? Perhaps. Or, perhaps there's a different thing at play. I think the hysteria around sports is an expression of people's need for community, and even for struggle. Why do we all love to root for the underdog?
In our society, sports are one of the few outlets we're given to express that. The challenge, of course, is how then to reach people that might not otherwise be drawn to the social justice movement.
That takes care and thought and a lot of organizing. This of course then raises the issue of the effect of tactics like smashing the windows of The Bay, which I think was counterproductive, to put it mildly. But that's a struggle we face everywhere. The victory at Tent Village is one example of the power of organizing and activism, and it's heartening to see so much of it happening in Vancouver.
For Part 2 of Democracy Now's report, please click here