By James Keller
January 7, 2010
VANCOUVER - Two large stone lions quietly stare out onto the north
lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery, keeping watch over the Olympic
countdown clock and, more weekends than not, scores of protests and
rallies that have made the site the city's answer to London's Hyde Park.
The spaces on either side of the century-old former courthouse
regularly play host to anti-war rallies, political demonstrations and
even a pair of annual marijuana smoke-ins.
During next month's Winter Games, the gallery could become the centre
for anti-Olympic activism.
The police, the city and Olympic officials have said they'll leave
the largest side of the gallery open during the Games by keeping it
out of any security zones that would restrict activity, allowing
protesters to use the art gallery's backyard as it's been used for decades.
There are few other spaces like it in Canada, serving as the de facto
spot for protests and activist culture in the city, a tradition that
traces its roots back to - when else - the 1960s.
The neo-classical building with its large imposing columns was
completed in 1906 as the city's new courthouse, and the sweeping
steps leading up to the north entrance along Georgia Street were a
frequent setting for formal portraits and special ceremonies in the
first half of the century.
Politics began to encroach on the space in the '60s, says Joan Seidl
of the Museum of Vancouver, with rallies against the Vietnam War.
There was concern over long-haired hippies hanging out on the lawn
and bathing in the courthouse fountain.
"It seems to me that it's from that point that you start to see it
actually used for protests,'' says Seidl, saying it's no coincidence
that such activity gravitated towards the court building.
"From the mid-1960s, it's been identified as the place you go to
voice your alternative opinions. It (the courthouse) represented the
powers that be and the establishment.''
In the late 1960s, the city passed an anti-loitering bylaw and
several people who were hanging out at the courthouse were arrested.
The arrests prompted loud accusations that the city was targeting
people with long hair, and, says Seidl, solidified the spot as the
default place for dissidents in Vancouver, even after it was
converted into the art gallery in 1983.
Today, police say there are at least 50 protests and rallies a year
on either side of the gallery, from massive demonstrations that
attract thousands to small gatherings of a handful of people waving
placards about all manner of topics.
The south side of the gallery, a small patch of sidewalk and steps
along busy Robson Street, will be under several security restrictions
during the Olympics and effectively off-limits to protesters, but
Seidl says keeping the larger north lawn open is an important gesture.
"It just seems to me that it's acknowledging the historical uses of
that space, and it's according them a certain kind of respect,'' says
Seidl. "It will be interesting to see how it's used.''
The gallery has already seen Games-related protest, notably when the
digital Olympic countdown clock was launched in February 2007.
Protesters stormed the stage, shouting obscenities and pelting police
with rocks, eggs and paint-filled balloons.
Olympic opponents are already planning at least one demonstration at
the art gallery during the Olympics on Feb. 12, the day of the
Alissa Westergard-Thorpe of the Olympic Resistance Network says more
could follow if police and the city make good on their promises to
leave the space alone.
"It's one of the main places (for protests in Vancouver). I do hope
that it is kept open,'' says Westergard-Thorpe.
"For people coming into the town, it would be nice for them to see
that despite all of the attempts of the Olympic industry to shut
people down and to silence us, people are still out expressing themselves.''
Westergard-Thorpe says the space has become a vital part of the city.
"Sometimes you go there and there's a demonstration on both sides, so
that's a great sign that you have an active participatory society.
It's extraordinarily important,'' she says.
Activists have accused the city, local police and the RCMP-led
Olympic security unit of planning to clamp down on free speech during
the Games, and have pledged to boycott so-called "safe assembly
areas'' that will be set up near some venues specifically for protesters.
A civil rights advisory committee recommended in a report last month
that the north lawn of the art gallery lawn be left open during the
Olympics without designating it as an official protest zone - the
designation would surely have kept protesters away.
Vancouver police say they'll treat the space as they do any other day
- they'll keep watch over any protests simply to ensure they're safe
"We usually don't have to intervene in most of these situations,
until it moves to the street, and then of course we want traffic to
flow and we also want to ensure the protesters aren't in any
danger,'' says Const. Jana McGuinness.
"We don't have an issue as long as the protest is peaceful and law
abiding, and they all are for the most part. We haven't had a lot of
issues over the years.''
Don Luxton who runs an architectural consulting firm and is president
of Heritage Vancouver, says the art gallery lawn is one of the only
public gathering places in the city, and it's important to preserve
that whether it's during the Olympics or any other time.
"Vancouver is notorious for not having public spaces, so I think
people have gravitated to this space because we don't really have a
public square or anything else,'' says Luxton.
"I don't think it's just a question of protests. I think it's a
question of free speech - where's our speakers' corner? We just don't
have these spaces.''