2010 Flashback: A crash course in Vancouverology

Vancouver natives a rare find, politics startlingly liberal

With the 10th anniversary of Vancouver hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics upon us, we are looking back at some of the stories that were making the news in the Courier during those 17 days in February.

This story was originally published Feb. 19, 2010

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Vancouver is my home. I like it here, and after living here for 15 years, I’m glad the city is hosting thousands of visitors and receiving extensive foreign media coverage during the Games.

But what’s the Vancouver that tourists and foreign media aren’t learning about? What are Vancouverites like? What’s our economy, our politics, our view of ourselves and the rest of Canada? Who in Vancouver is famous? What’s our history? Here’s a simple FAQ answering those questions.


Is Vancouver a world class city?

No, because Vancouver never gets blown up in disaster movies. New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, New Dehli and Sydney all get blown up by aliens or shaken apart by earthquakes, because they have iconic symbolism global moviegoers recognize. Vancouver? Few could pick out the city’s skyline if it landed on their heads, which is why Vancouver never plays itself in the dozens of American movies and TV shows shot here each year. Curiously, Vancouver does lie in a significant earthquake zone, and scientists are expecting the Big One, fairly soon, but hopefully not before Feb. 28.


Is it true almost no one who lives in Vancouver was born here?

Yes. Vancouver is the ultimate place where almost everyone you meet is from somewhere else. One third of the city’s residents are foreign born, one of the highest such ratios of any major city in the world. An even higher percentage were born outside the city and British Columbia. Stumbling across a Vancouver-born resident among your neighbours, friends or colleagues is almost as rare as finding a leprechaun. This makes for a lively city culturally. It also makes for little sense of local history, heritage or tradition as the city constantly reinvents itself with new arrivals.


What do Vancouverites think they invented but did not?

Starbucks, which started in Seattle. Hockey, which started in Nova Scotia. Even our laidback West Coast lifestyle and social liberalism were originally borrowed from San Francisco, albeit modified to fit local bylaws and zoning.

If you look at the Games, Vancouver has apparently invented very little. The official Olympic merchandise available in local stores was made in China. David Atkins, who produced the opening ceremonies, is Australian. The late Leo Obstbaum, who designed the medals, mascots and torch and who passed away suddenly last year, was an Argentine-born Spaniard. The head of VANOC, John Furlong, is originally from Ireland, albeit a longstanding Canadian citizen.

Vancouver did, however, invent Greenpeace, which was founded here in 1971, and one of its key founders, David McTaggart, was actually born in Vancouver.

Greenpeace remains the city’s most enduring and influential global legacy, although now headquartered in Amsterdam.


What are politics like in Vancouver?

Parochial but liberal. The City of Vancouver is one of the few major civic jurisdictions in North America without a ward system and instead elects its councillors at large. Civic politicians have done nothing to solve the increasing expense involved with getting elected. The current Vision Vancouver regime that runs city hall is a sophisticated coalition of social and environmental progressives backed by the biggest land developers in the city.

Vancouver has a longstanding geo-political schism along Main Street. The East Side, traditionally poorer, envies the greater wealth and political power of the West Side. The West Side shrugs at it. Some argue the traditional split of West Side versus East Side has become meaningless, especially when no house on the East Side can be bought for less than half a million dollars.

Politics here can exhibit startling progressiveness. Almost all elected civic officials support the city’s legal supervised drug injection site. Gay politicians campaign openly and are elected without fuss. But women remain under represented among elected civic positions, as are residents of Chinese and South Asian backgrounds.


What is the economy of Vancouver? 

The traditional mainstays remain timber and mineral extraction from the vast hinterland of British Columbia, government services such as schools, universities and hospitals, and tourism, whose halting performance in the 1990s was a major reason B.C. embarked on an Olympic bid. The economy has been broadened in recent decades by American film and television production, software and videogame creation, real estate speculation, taxpayer-funded construction projects, English language schools and marijuana cultivation and distribution, which despite being illegal is a major mover of cash and has spun off side economic activity in hydroponics, home security systems, armoured vehicles and personal body armour.


Can you make a living in Vancouver?

That depends, because Vancouver is a small job market by international standards, and professionals in other parts of Canada do not take the city seriously as a career choice. The Games again provide evidence. Of the 203 athletes on Team Canada, only two are from Vancouver. Of the actors, performers and athletes who appear in the HelloBC.com tourism commercials airing non-stop during the Games, only one, Sarah McLachlan, makes her living here. Most of the talented celebrities in those ads declaring “you gotta be here” left as soon as they could for far better opportunities elsewhere.


Who are the world’s most famous Vancouverites?

Pot crusader Marc Emery, science fiction writer William Gibson, writer and artist Douglas Coupland, singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan, crooner Michael Buble, actor Michael J. Fox, the late actor James “Scotty from Star Trek” Doohan and fictional TV cop-turned-coroner-turned-mayor Dominic DaVinci. Of these eight, only two were born in Vancouver (the fictional DaVinci being one), although Buble was born in the adjacent suburb of Burnaby and Coupland was raised in West Vancouver.


Who are the world’s smartest Vancouverites?

Pot crusader Marc Emery (born in Ontario), science fiction writer William Gibson (born in South Carolina), writer and artist Douglas Coupland (born in Germany) and aggressively non-fictional City of Vancouver manager Penny Ballem (born in Quebec). Vancouver claims just one Nobel Prize winner—the late Michael Smith of UBC for Chemistry in 1993. He was born in the UK.


Was the city always full of pretty, vibrant and rich people doing nothing at the city’s hundreds of coffee bars found at the feet of all these gleaming downtown towers?

No, this used to be a far more working class place with a very modest skyline. Survivors of that era talk of a city of beer halls, bowling alleys, busy Legions and the ability of working people to buy Vancouver Specials, ugly but supremely functional houses. The rich cordoned themselves off behind tree lines on the West Side and contented themselves with being rich, playing golf and reminiscing about their war service. Many people actually worked with their hands, and there was at least some acknowledgement that the city was connected to the Earth. It was a provincial era, but also affordable.


What is the relationship of Vancouver to the suburbs?

A mixture of loathing and utilitarianism. The suburbs have amenities Vancouver does not, like IKEA, more than one Wal-Mart and free parking. The city also depends on the suburbs for its airport, highways into the country and farms with real food. Many families have fled to the suburbs for cheaper homes. But Vancouverites, even those who were born in the suburbs, tend to disparage the ’burbs. To them, Richmond is dull, Burnaby, Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam are indistinguishable as are North Vancouver, the District of North Vancouver and West Vancouver. Delta takes our garbage. No one can spell or pronounce Tsawwassen. Flush twice, it’s a long way to Surrey.


What is the relationship of Vancouver to the rest of British Columbia?

Non-existent. B.C. is larger than either California or Texas and the source of our wealth and power grid, but to most Vancouverites, it is a big blank space punctuated by reports of loggers, cowboys and small towns where people eat fatty foods and play bingo. Vancouver has skated through the global recession, and few here have noticed that many towns elsewhere in the province have been hollowed out as the forest industry shuts down. This ignorance has not gone unnoticed outside the city’s boundaries.


What is the relationship of Vancouver to the rest of Canada?

Almost non-existent. The near complete absence of French in the Games opening ceremonies, while a minor national scandal for a bilingual country, mirrors the near complete absence of French in daily Vancouver life. According to the 2006 federal census, languages such as Cantonese and Punjabi far outnumber the city’s French speakers, which makes Vancouver seem like a satellite in a distant orbit around a planet called Canada.

The city is politically marginalized federally. The nation’s third largest city can claim exactly one prime minister, John Turner (born in England), who holds the record for the second shortest time in office.

In a country with one of the most elusive national identities in the world, Vancouver has the most elusive identity of any Canadian city. The Atlantic cities have deep Celtic roots, drink and fiddling. Toronto is where God lives. Ottawa is the prime minister’s home. Montreal is suave. Calgary is brash. Winnipeg is gentile. But Vancouver? After you talk about the rain, trees, ocean, mist, wind, the mountains and towers of glass, you’re at a loss for words.


What is the history of Vancouver in brief?

The first proto-Vancouverites were descendants of paleolithic people who crossed over from Asia beginning perhaps 12,000 years ago. Those who settled here flourished next to the largest salmon-bearing river in the world and in the embrace of a rich temperate coastal rainforest. Beginning 150 years ago, they gave way, almost without firing a shot, to waves of Scots, English, French, Chinese and Americans who got bundled together in a primitive British colony as they looked for gold and furs and eventually settled on timber and more pedestrian minerals. The colony became part of Canada to avoid becoming part of the U.S., Canada built a railway whose terminus ended in Vancouver and prompted the first of the city’s frequent grandiose real estate schemes, and the new town promptly burned itself down. Settlers from China and the Indian subcontinent increased in number, and a couple of race riots later, the city grew inland from waterfront beachheads to replace forest and farm with roads and subdivisions. A couple of world wars raged that left the city paranoid but unharmed, the Depression came in the 1930s, Elvis in the 1950s, Sinatra in the 1960s and hippies in the 1970s. There was also a massive and successful fight against a freeway system through the city, which saved working class neighbourhoods and made commuting 30 years later a nightmare. In the 1980s, following a world’s fair and more grandiose real estate schemes, the city kicked out its traditional industry and the jobs that went with it and replaced it with architecturally uninspired condos. A new wave of Chinese and East European immigrants, many impatiently entrepreneurial, hit the city. Housing prices skyrocketed, roads became congested, more towers went up and the skyline shone at night, but as the millennium turned, the rising cost of homes pushed out the middle class, artists, school children and non-profits to disappear into the expanse of suburbs to the east and south. The area known as the Downtown Eastside lost its economy and became a warehouse for drug addiction and mental illness. A legal drug injection site opened up. Cops shrugged at marijuana possession. Gangsters gunned each other down on public streets. A 1,000-year-old dead tree stump in Stanley Park was “saved.” Gay couples got married. Neighbours argued bitterly about dogs in public parks. After a lot of fuss about the huge expense involved, the Olympics came, and a giant party broke out.


It rains here, a lot. Housing is insanely expensive. How can people live here?

Because on the days when it doesn’t rain, the sun comes out, the sky turns blue and the mountains rise above us, a kayak trip away. Cradling a latte in your hand and walking down Granville, West Fourth or Commercial, you wonder why anyone would choose to live anywhere else. It is our own beautiful misery, and when you experience one of these days, you’ll know why.


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