Call for referendum and public debates before we go down this path –
By Dr. Chris Shaw
Chris Shaw is a professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and a member of the Program in Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. He was the founding member of No Games 2010 Coalition that opposed the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Shaw wrote the book Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games. He’s a now Victoria resident and founding member of No Games Victoria 2022.

The Times Colonist recently ran a report on a proposed bid by Victoria to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games. The head of the bid, David Black, a local newspaper magnate, suggested that hosting the games would accomplish a variety of happy things, including building social housing and improving sports facilities.

It would do all of this on a “practical and modest budget”. What’s not to like here? It’s all kittens, unicorns, and rainbows, right? Well, maybe actually there’s a lot not to like.

For starters, there is the absence of an actual budget that the public can see. Apparently the city hasn’t seen it yet either, at least based on messages received from Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps. Helps is not concerned, however, given Black’s experience and reputation as a businessman who headed up the committee that brought Victoria the 1994 Commonwealth games. Maybe, but Black’s comment that he cannot disclose the budget “lest the competition get wind of it”, is patent nonsense and not the sort of thing that builds confidence, at least apart from the naïve boosterism that Helps seems to feel.

This last week, the bid from Victoria went to the Commonwealth Games Federation and we still have not seen the financial proposals. It should go without saying that budgets for capital projects in any functional democracy should be public documents.

Next, is there a business plan? Maybe…or maybe not. The city still hasn’t seen one, or at least is not acknowledging the same. One supposes the taxpaying public is supposed to just accept this omission because, after all, Black is a ‘reputable businessman.’

So, we don’t know what it will cost or how much of that will be public money. Of the latter, we don’t know how much is to be given by the city or the CRD versus the contributions of the province or the federal government, not that the latter really matter since we all pay taxes at all of these levels.

How about how much will Victoria and the CRD municipalities make in profit if the games come to Victoria? Black estimates $50 million above the $20 million he claims the 1994 Victoria games generated. Could this be true? Maybe, but how do we know? Seemingly, we again have to take Mr. Black’s word for it.

It is worth noting that past mega sporting events, from the Olympics to the Commonwealth Games, almost never turn a profit for the host city or region. Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics clearly did not.

So far, the tally is this: an unknown cost, no business plan that taxpayers have seen, and an imaginary profit that seems to exist without substantiation from any independent body.

What about the impact on the poor? Will there be social housing of affordable rental housing at the end of the games? Unlikely, since Vancouver’s Olympics generated practically none.

What about the impact on civil liberties due to security concerns and how big will the security footprint be in our age of worldwide terror threats? What about environmental impacts? Vancouver failed in all such regards. Can Victoria do better? Again, maybe, but without details how can we know?

All of this is a recipe for a financial train wreck with local taxpayers holding the bag with still more unknown consequences for our city and way of life.

We do know that a backer of the bid is PCL Constructors Canada Ltd., a major development/construction consortium currently in charge of building the Johnson Street Bridge. Who are the other members of Black’s board of directors? They remain hidden from view.

Overall, this bid proposal doesn’t pass the smell test and we, as taxpayers, are being asked to sign a blank cheque on the vaguest of assumptions, many of these demonstrably untrue, about what benefits the games will bring to Victoria and the region.

What it all actually smells like is this: the developers who brought the 2010 Olympics to Vancouver as a massive real estate development camouflaged as a sporting event are looking for newer pastures to exploit and have set their sights on Victoria as the next real estate market to pump up. They are hoping that if they keep the details of their ‘bid by stealth’ proposal from the public, they can achieve their goals.

While we could simply roll over and let it happen by adopting Mayor Help’s blind optimism that all will be well, the following modest proposal speaks to more democratic governance and more than lip service to social license that we have every right to expect.

For starters, the city of Victoria and the other CRD municipalities driving the bid should announce a legally binding referendum on a clear question with equal funding for both sides. The referendum must occur before any contact is signed with the Commonwealth Games Federation.

The municipalities involved should host a series of public debates where all the issues, pro and con, can be evaluated, including the budget and business plan. They should commit to complete transparency at all stages of the bid process and, if the bid is accepted, both before and after the games. And, they should demand a financial commitment from the bid organizers that any cost overruns above the submitted games budget will be borne by these same organizers starting with David Black.

  • Some other things that we, as taxpayers and residents, have every right to expect are:
    – The creation of an independent citizen oversight committee that does not include bid members or public officials of municipalities backing the bid;
    – A commitment by David Black and any board members that they will have no stake of any sort in any future contracts associated with a successful bid;
    – A commitment by Black and the board members that they will provide non-governmental funding for the expected high security costs;
    – Public quarterly financial and status reports at all stages of the games preparations will be released;
    – An independent audit to be conducted before each quarterly report;
    – A binding contract with Victoria, the CRD, and citizen’s groups that a significant fraction of any housing units built for the games be committed after the games to social housing, subsidized housing, and truly affordable rental housing;
    – Binding environmental guarantees to compensate for increased environmental damage and CO2 emissions associated with the games;
    – A commitment to Charter of Rights and Freedoms protections throughout the stages leading to, and during, the games and to include the right to dissent, freedom of movement for all persons, and no attempt to impose “signage” restrictions (as attempted in Vancouver);

These are the very least of the conditions Victorians and others in the CRD should accept for this bid to proceed. The Bread Not Circuses organization that monitored various of Toronto’s bids for the Olympics came up with a much larger list.

The bid for the 2022 Commonwealth Games has the potential to drastically change our city and region, in some ways for the worst. If we don’t demand such conditions now, it may well be too late if the bid is accepted.

We should have learned something from Vancouver’s Olympic shortcomings. Let’s not let the same happen to the region we love by blindly taking on a project that is not yet ready for prime time.