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Riot police stand guard at Hamilton Street and Georgia Street after the Bruins won the Stanley Cup and cars were set ablaze in Vancouver on June 15, 2011.Rafal Gerszak

The most regrettable thing about the Vancouver riots is how predictable they were.

Any casual reader of this column will know my powers of prognostication are mixed at best. And yet I was able on Monday to guess that there would be a riot in Vancouver. Win or lose, I told a number of friends, Vancouver will have a riot on Wednesday night.

This is not because of a crystal ball or even a sophisticated understanding of the dynamic of this series. It was because Vancouver has a history of civil strife, going back to anti-Chinese race riots of the late 19th century and the labour battles of the 1930s.

There is the obvious parallel of the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs. One can also point to the 1997 APEC protests. (I was a participant as a student at Green College at UBC.)

My experience of living in Vancouver was that the city has an explosive combination of factors that can lead to a greater propensity for public violence:

» British Columbia's wide left-right split and violent labour battles created a climate of militancy in rhetoric around public issues.

» The city's wide catchment area for young people looking for the excitement of a big city with progressive values attracts a huge number of disenfranchised people from all over Western Canada. Its high cost of living and service economy tends to leave them disenfranchised, and disenchanted with the establishment.

» Its status as a drug capital makes public intoxication more acceptable and common, especially on a big night like Game Seven.

These broad social factors leave Vancouver with more of the dry tinder needed for riots than some cities, but anyone familiar with the 1994 riot could guess another one was on the way.

The question is why the police and city took a relatively hands-off approach to security Wednesday night. Bob Whitelaw, who investigated the 1994 riots, says many of his 100 recommendations were missed in the 2011 case.

For instance, police did not remove vehicles from the designated fan zones, leaving an attractive target for the early burnings that sparked the riot. More importantly, why were the police hanging back and not engaging early perpetrators? Observers report the police hanging back in groups, rather than taking action early in the evening to halt violence and arrest the felons.

While this is pure speculation, it is possible that the criticism and prosecution of police in the Toronto G20 riots had a somnambulant effect on the Vancouver police, leaving them awaiting orders rather than engaging rioters.

I'm not normally a cheerleader for police, but the state of flux around the public's attitude toward riot avoidance is likely impeding their ability to react quickly. And if there is anything the public wants, it is a quick response to the criminal actions that trigger riots like Toronto and Vancouver, rather than heavy-handed responses after the riot begins.

Toronto media spent the last year engaged in a bizarre flagellation of the police that avoided debating trade-offs between security and liberty. Perhaps now a public discourse over the Vancouver riots will help to establish how the police are expected to respond in situations of civil strife.

Because a quick and measured response is critical in these situations - and that is not what Canadians are getting.