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VICTORIA, LEKWUNGEN AND WSANEC TERRITORIES—At first glance, Victoria, BC appears to be an idyllic setting for the official launch of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Torch Relay.
Only a short trip across the water from Vancouver, Victoria is known as a sleepy, prosperous, tourist-friendly city. Yet beneath this façade, Victoria is becoming a hotbed of local resistance to the Olympics, which is fueled – in part – by deepening poverty.
"Gordon Campbell called the Olympic Torch Relay 'an incredible opportunity to showcase' B.C." says No2010 Victoria organizer Kim Croswell. "The fact that he thinks there’s something to ‘showcase’ tells me what circles he’s running in."
Under the banner of No2010 Victoria, local anti-poverty and environmental groups have been using the Olympic spotlight to "showcase" the critical issues that they are working on throughout the community. Growing public outrage at the colossal cost of the Games and the Torch Relay festivities have added fuel to the anti-Olympics fire.
"The Olympics are contributing to everybody’s poverty," says Rose Henry, a Coast Salish elder-in-training whose life experiences led her to become one of the city’s best-known anti-poverty advocates.
"They're creating a bigger deficit and taking seed money that has been there to help overstretched social service agencies that are already struggling with their finances."
Henry estimates there are upwards of 1,600 homeless people in Victoria. "But there's only 375 beds available during winter months," she adds.
"Beds are like winning the lottery. And so people are criminalized; they’re getting ticketed for sleeping in public places, having a backpack or sitting on the sidewalk."
Henry is an organizer with the Committee to End Homelessness, a grassroots group led by and for members of the street community. The Committee has already expressed concerns that the Games will make life more difficult for homeless people living in Victoria. "We're seeing the number of people growing because of Olympics," says Henry. "We're having people leaving Vancouver thinking that life is easier in small town Victoria. But Victoria doesn't have same services as Vancouver, and the issues are just as big."
No2010 Victoria organizer Linden Stewart says that people involved in different movements have been coming together to use the Games to draw attention to the issues they’re working on.
"Victoria is a middle-class town. Maybe some people aren't impacted by 2010, but the folks in their backyards are. It’s important to demonstrate locally so that people who don’t normally think about these issues do."
While critical media reports in Victoria tend to focus on the escalating costs of the 2010 Games, local anti-poverty organizers are trying to push the debate beyond the digits.
"There's an incredible amount of financial, human and environmental resources going into an event that excludes a large population of marginalized peoples in our province and our country," says Heather Hobbs from Harm Reduction Victoria, a local group that works for justice and dignity for illicit drug users.
"Instead of focusing on addressing the needs of the most marginalized communities, resources are going into once-in-a-lifetime event," Hobbs says. "The event arguably won’t benefit marginalized people but will contribute to a legacy of homelessness and poverty."
Harm Reduction Victoria made headlines earlier this year when it began operating a "Guerilla Needle Exchange" to mark the one-year anniversary of the eviction of the city's only fixed site needle exchange.
"We're hearing from people who use drugs that they aren’t able to access services that they need in order to adequately house themselves and meet their most basic health care needs," says Hobbs.
"People hear that there's all this money going into Olympics, and it's very frustrating and infuriating when they continue to be on streets and have nothing to eat."
Harm Reduction Victoria is also using the Olympic Games as an opportunity to bring the issues faced by drug users into the local anti-poverty organizing mix.
"In activist movements there hasn’t been lots of attention paid to needs of people who use illicit drugs," says Hobbs. "So when we come together to talk about these issues, we realize how we can support one another and integrate our concerns in each others' messages."
Bringing groups such as Harm Reduction Victoria and the Committee to End Homelessness together to share the stage in denouncing the Olympics is one objective of No2010 Victoria. The collective organized a teach-in on local issues in March 2009, which featured groups such as the Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resource Society (PEERS) and the Society of Living Intravenous Drug Users (SOLID). The plans for the Olympic Torch Relay send-off also centred on ongoing local struggles.
“We’re very conscientious about bringing struggles together”, says No2010 Victoria’s Croswell. “We’re imagining a grassroots groundswell to acknowledge our own communities instead of a corporate festival.”
Tamara is a community organizer, researcher and independent journalist whose work focuses on international and local poverty-related issues.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.