Watching events over the weekend in Toronto during the G20 summit, I was reminded of similar scenes in Vancouver during the Winter Olympics.
On the day of the opening ceremonies, for example, thousands marched to BC Place to "take back our streets." The protest was organized by the Olympic Resistance Network, whose goal was to disrupt "business as usual" in Vancouver. The demonstrators included aboriginals claiming title to the lands on which the Games were being held, and groups that felt the funds expended on the Olympics should have been spent on public housing.
A standoff with police lasted about two hours, but the protest was peaceful for the most part. Three people were arrested, according to the protesters. Police reported only one arrest, with the police chief, Jim Chu, saying that his force would monitor the situation but did not want to impede freedom of speech.
The next day, however, things turned ugly after police in riot gear confronted more than 200 masked protesters using Black Bloc tactics; many were wearing goggles to counter tear gas and pepper spray. The violent demonstrators, a good number from Quebec, threw newspaper boxes through the windows of a Hudson's Bay store, which was selling Olympic souvenirs and clothing. Seven people were arrested; yet, the violent protests came to an end that day, the first day of competition.
Several factors explain the difference between Vancouver and Toronto.
First, living on the West Coast (also known as the Left Coast), the Vancouver police had considerable experience in these situations; as part of their training, they had closely studied neighbouring Seattle's 1999 World Trade Organization riots. In Jim Chu, the force had a relatively young chief attuned to the diversity and the values of the community.
That said, the local community also played a key role. Simply put, and counter to all stereotypes, Vancouverites were almost universally excited about their Olympic Games and about the prospect of having the eyes of the world on their magnificent city for two weeks.
The Games themselves never became a partisan issue. For one thing, B.C. New Democrats still regretted their mistake in opposing the Social Credit government's wildly successful Expo 86. More important, the Olympic Games had been initiated by an NDP government; after the party was returned to opposition in 2001, it did not look for areas to criticize.
The first manifestations of violence in Vancouver were quickly condemned by New Democrats at all levels, including the mayor (a former NDP member of the legislature) and members of the city council, also controlled by the left. In Ottawa, by contrast, NDP MPs from Toronto chose to play opposition politics in the lead-up to the G20 meeting - as did their Liberal counterparts, notwithstanding that the summit was the brainchild of Paul Martin.
Of equal importance, the violent protesters in Vancouver were roundly and uniformly denounced by the local media; I cannot think of a single journalist or member of the chattering class who expressed even a modicum of sympathy for the "cause" - which is not the impression one had in Toronto. And, after some initial hesitation, the violent demonstrators were even condemned by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association - in contrast to the position taken this week by its counterpart at the national level, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the residents of Vancouver were not prepared to cut the violent demonstrators any slack, or to assist them in any way. On the contrary: In several instances, ordinary citizens took matters into their own hands in defeating the Black Bloc tactics. As a result, Vancouver ended up looking good in the eyes of the world. Sadly, Toronto the Good ended up looking disorderly and disunited, with finger-pointing likely to continue for months, if not years.