Opinion » Maxed Out

Maxed Out

Exorcising democracy

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By G.D. Maxwell

Between William Shakespeare and Mark Twain I sometimes think all the good lines have already been written. "Lies, damn lies and statistics," generally attributed to the latter to explain sometimes baffling arguments supported by dubious numbers, has been rattling around my stuffy head most of the week.

Blame Vancouver. Or rather, my very incomplete understanding of exactly what Vancouver is.

When I moved to Canada 24 years ago, I woke up one morning and found myself in Montreal. Montreal was a very cool city. Très cosmopolitan. It seemed to me more like a foreign country than probably any place in Canada outside of outport Newfoundland or Goa Haven possibly could. Not understanding the language helped, as did not understanding why in the world anyone would want to live in a town where the temperature was -40º, as it was my first week in Montreal. Days before, I’d left high 70s Fahrenheit and a minor sunburn behind in southern New Mexico.

But as much as I enjoyed discovering the unique pleasures of La Belle Province, my gaze was cast westward. I really wanted to move to Vancouver. The mountains had been ripped from my soul. As nice as sailing on Lake Champlain between the Green and White Mountains in glorious autumnal foliage was, they weren’t what a Rockies kind of guy could comfortably call mountains.

The nine years of a possible life sentence I spent in Toronto is best forgotten entirely. Needless to say my longing for Vancouver during that period was intense.

Vancouver never materialized; Whistler intervened. My gain; your loss.

And Vancouver remains a mist-shrouded mystery to me. I make it down valley a couple of times a year, less frequently as time passes and my tolerance for all things urban lessens. My mental map of the city is mostly terra incognito, sprinkled with random familiar bits.

As an outsider, Vancouver always seemed to start where the highway widened, traffic increased, blood pressure began to rise and drivers ramped up their rage. I could never figure where it ended travelling east on the Trans Canada and it seemed pretty much to nuzzle up to the US border on the south. Only water clearly defined its western edge.

But watching the results of Saturday’s Olympic plebiscite roll in, something didn’t seem right. I wasn’t sure what though. I was simply warmed by this little island of democracy poking up in a sea of provincial paternalism. Good turnout – 46 per cent – solid result, not some wishy-washy, Quebec referendum 50.1 per cent kind of split. 64 per cent in an increasingly polarized society was far more conclusive than any election result in recent memory.

It didn’t hit me until the next day when I was writing a story about the plebiscite. 134,790 people cast votes. That number represented 46 per cent of eligible voters? There are only 293,000 eligible voters in all of Vancouver? A city of almost 2 million!

Then it hit me. That mass-o’-sprawl an hour-and-a-half south of town is the GVRD. Quick Watson, to StatsCan. City of Vancouver… 2001 census… 545,671 people. GVRD… 2001 count… 1,986,965. Holy shit! There are 21 separate cities down there. Brave, Larry Campbell, mayor of teeny, tiny Vancouver. But Babs Sharp, Mayor of North Van didn’t hold a vote. Neither did Malcolm Brodie, Mayor of Richmond. Nor Wayne Wright of New West. Or Lois Jackson of Delta.

Merde, dude. I’ve been had. This wasn’t any shiny exercise in democracy. This was a meatless bone to a starving dog.

The 2001 census of British Columbia counted 4,095,934 souls. Each and every one of them is going to be on the hook for B.C.’s share of the cost of holding the 2010 Games. The "resounding" Yes vote was cast by 2.1 per cent of them. Hey, man, majority rule! It’s the two per cent solution.

But let’s not split hairs. Elections are won by the people who turn out to vote and lost by the people who stay home and bitch. The sad fact is, while Vancouver’s plebiscite is to be applauded – something the powerboys of the BidCorp, Victoria and even our own mayor still won’t do – it is to democracy what the International Olympic Committee is to the Olympic Ideals: a sorry, pale reflection of the real thing.

The real travesty of Vancouver’s plebiscite though isn’t in the puny numbers. It’s how it’s being trumpeted as such a "win", such an overwhelming show of support not just in Vancouver, not just in B.C. but in the whole of Canada, by the very scoundrels who didn’t have enough faith in the people to allow us a vote in the first place.

And first among the scoundrels is our very own mayor.

According to Clare Ogilvie’s piece in the Province, His Hughness was "just thrilled" at the vote. "It was a huge turnout, a clear majority…." As we all know, math is hard.

Most disturbing is the apparent inability of Mayor O’Reilly to grasp the richness of what could have been. Two years ago when a vocal minority of people in Whistler were clamouring for a free vote on the Olympic bid, Hugh was ag’in it. His unwillingness to engage the populace seemed absurd given the initial Ipsos-Reid poll showing 74 per cent of Whistleratics in favour.

But in Clare’s piece he highlighted his slippery grip on democracy this way: It’s very risky. There’s no good time to have a vote. If you have one too early, people aren’t informed. If you have it too late in the process, you might derail it.

There you have it boys and girls. In the wrong hands – those of the people purportedly living under it – democracy is a dangerous thing. What kind of paternalistic tripe is that?

Fact is, if you’d have had just a little faith, Hugh, you’d have gotten a vote at least as positive and probably stronger, than the one teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy Vancouver got last Saturday. It doesn’t matter if all the facts aren’t known and people are uninformed. Hell, if we waited for a fully informed population, there’d never be a vote on anything. Knowledge isn’t a prerequisite of democracy! People vote their gut for chrissakes. That’s why you’re mayor. You’re our guy. One of us. Joe Whistler. A ski patroller. A chimney sweep. What don’t you understand about that? What the hell are you afraid of?

The planets are aligning in Vancouver’s favour. Too many Olympics scheduled and desired by European countries in the next decade, crazy dictators threatening the world in Korea. It’s looking good. If we get the Games, we’ll put on one hell of a party and hopefully not drive future generations any further in debt than previous, inept B.C. governments have already managed to do.

But it’ll never cease to amaze me how apparently smart people can be so dumb about having faith in the folks around them. You owe us, Hugh. Big.