The Watchers

December 1, 2009

It’s a chilly Sunday in the Britannia Community Centre on Commercial Drive—what Micheal Vonn, policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association,  calls the heart of “No Games” country. Some 40 volunteers are exchanging nervous pleasantries and joking that the second-storey room is hard to find for a reason. “Are we under no-signage restrictions already?” a latecomer asks.

Most of the participants at this Legal Observers training session aren’t career activists, Vonn says. “But it’s a nice fit for people who would just like to stand up for democratic space for everybody at such a public event.” She’s referring to the 2010 Games, when the Observers—the first group of laypeople to supervise Olympic security—will act as neutral, passive witness: “It’s an oversight,” she explains. “A citizen-participation thing.”

Maria Russell, a chemist in food safety, likes the title of Legal Observer, and the“political action that goes with it.” Kevin Abrahams, of the Haida Nation, believes that First Nations people are unfairly represented in all the wrong areas: jail, addiction, poverty. He’s been bothered by the police because of his race, he says, and he doesn’t have much faith in the law. “I’d like to do my best to see it’s upheld.”

Caroline Price, a lawyer with Peck and Company volunteering for the day, wears a T-shirt that reads “East Van: Where the Weak Are Killed and Eaten.” She explains that the Legal Observers program, a joint venture between Pivot and the BCCLA, will educate volunteers on their civil liberties while they act as deterrents to rights abuses and, in the worst case, misconduct by police and other security forces during the 2010 Games. A hundred volunteers will don orange T-shirts and walk the streets with notepads, audio, and video equipment. The Legal Observers will be deployed anywhere the civil-liberties association thinks they’ll be useful. This includes security checkpoints, venues, and organized protests. On a waiver, volunteers tick off their “risk tolerance” level. The form notes that the BCCLA cannot guarantee “zero risk.”

John Richardson, head of Pivot Legal, warns that volunteers may be targeted, harassed, and even arrested by police. He says the program is already having an impact on the plans of the Integrated Security Unit (ISU), the group tasked with overseeing the RCMP and municipal officers who will patrol the Games. “The presence of Observers will place constraints on how freely the military and police might act, which is good news for the Charter of Rights.”

The group role-plays scenarios. An officer roughs up and arrests a young protestor: what did you notice? An overzealous observer gets confrontational with the police: what should you do differently?

Micheal Vonn believes that the goal of the Legal Observers—to be the “eyes and ears on the streets”—is “exactly the philosophy we hear the police using.” The police have been provided with the Observers’ training manual and invited to a session. Vonn hopes this transparency will foster cooperation with the police. According to Const. Lindsey Houghton, the VPD “share the same goals as the BCCLA.” An officer will attend Legal Observer training and, he hopes, bring back “valuable information to share with the frontline officers that can be used to serve the public.” Vonn has faith that most Canadians are “civil libertarians at heart,” believers in fairness, due process, and freedom of speech. “Typically, though, Canadians think they understand their rights intuitively, and are gob-smacked when they find out how things really work.”

Vonn got her own start in civil-liberty work in 1998. An AIDS educator at the time, she had, she says, only a flimsy understanding of her rights. At a conference discussing the criminalization of those with AIDS, she remembers mentally smacking her forehead and thinking, “Oh, shitfire! Don’t tell me I have to go to law school?” It was a pivotal moment; Vonn realized “the idea of carrying placards and writing letters to ministers might be nice” but a legal education would be more useful. Law school taught her just how fragile her rights are—“and that they’re worth fighting for.”

When NATO was bombing Kosovo, Vonn stood on the steps of the art gallery amid the turmoil of demonstrations and police retaliation, feeling lost, frightened, and naive. The intimidating police tactics made her feel she was doing something “dangerously wrong. It was the first time I’d been afraid for my safety in public space, and it wasn’t because of ‘bad guys.’ ”

She worries that the Games will make the fight to protect civil liberties difficult. The host city agreement between Vancouver and the IOC entails a “kind of co-opted pressure to comply with what the Olympics purportedly require.” When the world comes to Vancouver, she says, the IOC wants smiling, happy faces on display and naysayers shushed. 

The volunteers at the training session won’t see each other again until February, when they’ll be joined by 350,000 strangers and 16,000 more police than usual. The Legal Observers will be there to ensure that civil rights don’t get lost in the crowd. Says Vonn: “The space of rights is getting so narrow that they virtually don’t exist—it’s important to push back against that.”

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.