On the afternoon of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals in Vancouver, I walked to the Canada Revenue Agency on Pender Street to pay my monthly tax installment.
I wondered: Should I go home to watch the game, or should I go to one of my client’s restaurants to watch it and “take in the atmosphere?”
The number of mostly drunk 22-year-olds walking past the CRA’s office, many blocks away from the arena, convinced me that home was the wiser choice that night.
The next morning, after the riot, there were shards of broken glass as far as the eye could see at “ground zero,” where the rioters had kicked in store windows and looted places such as The Bay, Sears and London Drugs. But they also vandalized smaller stores, including Swimwear Inc., taking whatever they had. In that case, at least $70,000 worth of inventory and all the display mannequins.
There are hundreds of issues that residents of Metro Vancouver are struggling with during this time of embarrassment and outrage.
Let me identify two issues that might be of greatest concern to small businesses:
The first is insurance.
A riot was declared by police the night of June 15. Is there insurance available for damage caused by a riot once the “Riot Act” has been read? Or will each business owner’s insurance policy not cover looting and vandalism?
If you owned one of the cars damaged or destroyed by the rioters, you’re covered, but only if you have comprehensive insurance from ICBC or a private insurer. ICBC’s comprehensive insurance policy specifically covers “civil commotion or riots,” in addition to damage resulting from theft, fire, vandalism, earthquakes and “collisions with wild animals.”
Residents without this type of comprehensive coverage will have no insurance for damage to, or destruction of, their cars that night.
What about the stores that were looted?
The good news was delivered by Lindsay Olson, vice-president of the Insurance Bureau of Canada. By and large, the language contained in most insurance policies that retail business would likely have taken out for fire, theft and vandalism would normally cover losses from damage and looting that occurred during the riot. It would, of course, depend on the individual insurance policies.
As for the broken windows, retailers must have obtained separate “plate glass insurance.” Wherever you are in Canada, now might be a good time to revisit your company's insurance policy to see what’s covered and what’s not. If a riot can happen in a place like Vancouver, it can happen anywhere. I've seen the aftermath of a riot, and you don’t want this to happen to your city. Or to your business.
The second issue of interest to small businesses, and everyone else for that matter, is catching the rioters.
The most vivid image I can recall from the TV coverage is the scores of people taking photographs and videos with their celphones. These pictures and videos have been posted to Facebook and other sites for “friends” to tag or otherwise identify. There are at least a dozen Facebook pages with, collectively, hundreds of thousands of “fans” exposing the identity of the rioters.
Some individuals have actually posted how many cars they burned and the number of stores they looted on their personal Facebook pages, with the comments below often suggesting “take this down you idiot, it's evidence,” or “thanks I’ve just taken a screen shot of your admission and I’m sending it to the police.”
The amount of digital stills and video posted to Facebook or sent to police is staggering. Businesses such as London Drugs have high-definition video surveillance cameras that captured clear shots of looters in their stores. ICBC has offered the use of its facial recognition software, originally acquired to expose identity theft, to the Vancouver Police department so that in circumstances where a photo or video shows a crime being committed, images can be linked to pictures on drivers' licenses to verify the identity of the suspect.
In this age of social media, those involved in the riot are finding themselves all over the Internet and the local papers. Their personal reputations are being catastrophically damaged by the outrage and the attention. These pictures will be online forever, with one simple Google search showing prospective employment candidates, potentially with great resumes, setting cars on fire on June 15, 2011. They may lead to lost employment possibilities, lost scholarships and lost futures. And I have to confess, there isn’t a lot of sympathy for anyone caught in the camera’s glare during the riot, enjoying their moment of fame along with any stolen goods.
This is putting some employers in a position of having to decide whether the continued employment of someone whose photograph shows him or her running from a store clutching looted clothes or Coach purses, breaking a store window or trying to set a car on fire, will damage that company's reputation, especially if that person deals with members of the public. “Do I really want the guy setting the BMW on fire with a smile on his face working in my business and dealing with my customers?”
When the Facebook posts start identifying addresses where the suspects live, where their parents live, or the location of their workplace – along with threats to their personal safety – it sounds a little too much like vigilante justice, and there have to be limits. If photographic evidence justifies a charge, then those looting and rioting should be appropriately charged and if the evidence warrants it, convicted. If there isn’t the evidence, there shouldn’t be a conviction. That’s how the system works, or how it should work.
But a conviction is less certain in 2011, and it may be that these rioters and looters will get a far rougher ride in the court of public opinion than in the court of law in B.C.
That's because the B.C. justice system is so underfunded by the provincial government right now, it is conceivable that many of those eventually charged will have those charges stayed and their trials cancelled if they cannot get a speedy trial, despite assurances from Premier Christy Clark that those involved in the riots will be prosecuted.
Vancouver businesses affected by the riots, and Vancouver residents angry with what happened the night of June 15, should know that unless money is directed to the justice system immediately, many of those rioters will go free.
New money is required to hire additional provincial court judges to give those charged fair and speedy trials, and funding needs to be found for B.C. sheriffs, who keep our courtrooms safe and secure. And unless there are adequate dollars for legal aid, so that those charged aren’t representing themselves and creating further delays in the system, then maybe the only justice the rioters will get is Facebook justice, which isn’t justice at all.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Tony Wilson is a franchise and intellectual property lawyer at Boughton in Vancouver, and he is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University. His newest book, Manage Your Online Reputation, was published in November.
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