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Gary Mason, Globe and Mail national affairs columnists, in 2010. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Gary Mason, Globe and Mail national affairs columnists, in 2010. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Legacy

One year later, Stanley Cup riot a distant memory Add to ...

It was one year ago today that the citizens of Vancouver began to put the Stanley Cup riot behind them.

That is when dozens of them arrived downtown, some with brooms, others with shovels, most with gloves, to begin the cleanup from the mayhem of the night before. Some began writing on the blank sheets of plywood that were covering the shattered windows of The Bay department store.

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The opportunity to put into words what they were feeling at that moment was wonderfully cathartic. More than anything, their expressions of anger and disgust but also of defiance – the determination not to allow the riot to define their city in any way – proved to be prophetic.

Contrary to the predictions of those who said the riot would leave deep and lingering psychological scars on the city, it did nothing of the sort. While the people of Vancouver and surrounding area won’t ever forget June 15, 2011, most are no longer consumed by it. They long ago put it behind them to be preoccupied by things that matter more – their jobs, their family, the shaky state of the world.

Even the sentencing of those convicted of taking part in the riot barely moves the interest-meter of most people these days.

There are many reasons why the riot didn’t have the deep and lasting impact on the city that many forecast.

Firstly, no one died. In many respects, that remains one of the true miracles of that evening, given the bottles that were being thrown around, the fights that were breaking out, the guns and knives that were undoubtedly being carried by some of those who were there. Had three or four people been killed, then the riot would be remembered quite differently.

When I think of events likely to prompt a visceral reaction from people in Metro Vancouver years from now, the death of Robert Dziekanski leaps to mind. The footage of his writhing body on the floor of Vancouver International Airport after being tasered by an RCMP officer left a far more indelible mark on the minds of most people than the Stanley Cup riot ever will.

Secondly, the damage, while significant to some businesses, was limited to a few million dollars. While that’s nothing to sneer at, it’s minimal compared to the destruction caused by other riots or by natural disasters such as earthquakes. In some riots in the U.S. – Detroit comes to mind – you have often seen evidence of the ruin that took place years later. Buildings have remained burnt out, boarded up and unoccupied.

Walk downtown Vancouver today and there is little sign of what happened last year.

Thirdly, there was no great underlying cause for the riot. It was fed by booze and ignited by the outcome of a hockey game. This wasn’t the Rodney King riots that took place in Los Angeles, where race relations were at the core. In some respects, the effect of that riot is still felt in the U.S. because the issue at the heart of it has not been completely resolved.

“The Stanley Cup riot had no political dimension,” says Rima Wilkes, associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. “There were no quote, unquote, sides in the way other riots have. There were no divisions in the community at the heart of it, no underlying issues connected to the life of the city itself.”

Finally, cities, especially big ones, are remarkably resilient; a testament to the power and durability of the human spirit. Cities bounce back from calamity, often stronger than ever. When you think of the inspiring recovery that New York has made from 9/11, it is perhaps no surprise that Vancouver would recuperate so quickly and completely from an event that doesn’t even rate mention in the same breath as what happened south of border in 2001.

The Stanley Cup riot was many things but a tragedy it was not.

Earthquakes that level cities are tragedies. Tsunamis that wipe out towns and kill thousands are tragedies. Losing a child in an accident or through illness is a tragedy.

Years from now, last year’s riot will be reduced to historical footnote. It will become a point of reference in the timeline of a city. The images will endure, to be pulled out and broadcast for anniversary sake. But the city itself will have long since moved on.

In fact, it already has.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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