I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that Wednesday’s riots weren’t about hockey. And this is old hat by now but I’ll mention it anyhow, just to set up what follows: other cities have riots about things that matter. Egypt’s recent collective action resisted the weight of political oppression; LA’s 1992 riots were the tipping point of structural racism and violence against American black folks. In short, riots happen because people can’t take it anymore.
I’ll back up a moment. You’ll agree that a central sentiment in the wake of Wednesday’s events has been, This isn’t the Vancouver I know. Those hooligans are highlighted as bad apples and considered different from the rest of Vancouver. In contrast, Vancouver’s true spirit – a good, kind city that voluntarily rallies to repair the damage – is asserted in millions of Facebook status updates, as well as editorials, water cooler chats, and messages from elected officials.
Vancouver (and Canada) have a national identity of welcoming, multicultural, generous, egalitarian, and beautiful. This sense of self is told and told again and gains legitimacy with each telling. We appear in lists of the world’s most livable cities, and herald BC as the Best Place on Earth. These ‘stupid kids’ who incited the violence last week are considered an anomaly and an embarrassment, and as we’ve said every thirty seconds over the past four days, we’re sorry on their behalf.
I won’t bother convincing you here that Vancouver and Canada are plagued with extreme social inequalities.* But imagine for a moment that there had been a riot in Vancouver about say, the grossly disproportionate number of Aboriginal people living with inhumane housing conditions in Vancouver. Imagine if there had been a riot about the absolute epidemic of sexual assault against Canadian women (1 in 4). Roll with me here: if either of those riots had occurred, Canadian people would scoff. Talk of government handouts and the number of women attending university would be uproarious. But look at how bad things are in Other Countries! Do you know how people live in Africa? and Women can do whatever they want now, don’t you know what it Used To Be Like!
In short, my point is that Canada’s national narrative leaves no room for real social action against inequality. Anger about oppression gets minimized, silenced, and scorned; the plaintiff is considered entitled, ungrateful, and quickly compared to some other scenario in a way that shuts down any honest acknowledgement about privilege. And yet the anger remains. And as all of us with counsellors know, if you don’t express your anger it will find some other way to get out. In this case, the hockey game was a politically neutral air vent to release some of the pressure that’s been building. Riots in other places are about real social issues because their cultural narrative allows for it. No one is telling LA they should shut up and be grateful for minority tax credits. Inequality of opportunity, consumer alienation, sexual violence, racial oppression, silenced colonialism, and political disenfranchisement in The Most Livable City on Earth leads to an irreconcilable violent impulse.
The way out is to allow for real, validating criticisms. For the love of god, stop saying how wonderful Vancouver is. Listen to the people who have been left behind. Or frankly they’re going to incite riots.
*If you need convincing, email me and I’ll send you some citations for research on inequality in Canada based on race, class, gender and sexuality, disability, and most of all our colonial legacy.