In 2007, I lived in Europe for 10 months. I spent my last night there on the grassy lawn of the Champs de Mars, drinking wine with a small crowd of travellers while the Eiffel Tower loomed overhead. Earlier in my travels, I had enjoyed sipping a beer on the sunny lawn of the university in Copenhagen, on the train to Prague, by a canal in Amsterdam — all perfectly serene, no drunken hooligans in sight.
Since returning, I’ve lived mostly in Vancouver. The city is filled with green parks and beautiful beaches, and on most nights it’s warm enough to sit outside. It’s also wonderfully bug-free. But if I tried to share a bottle of wine in a park with some friends, a police officer could come by, dump out the contents and hand us a ticket.
This annoys me to no end. It’s not just about alcohol. In general, I want Canadians to loosen up a little. We’re much too willing to let a few bad apples spoil things for the rest of us.
Yet I had to think hard about my stance this past June, while working at a United Church camp in Saskatchewan and watching the Stanley Cup finals on a tiny TV with rabbit ears. I stared in horror at the heart-wrenching images of Vancouverites smashing store windows and stealing everything inside, flipping over random vehicles and torching them, or throwing rocks at the heads of police officers. Soon it emerged that many of the rioters were fellow students of mine at the University of British Columbia. There were pictures and videos of them doing terrible things, for which they’ve since apologized in abject shame and claimed they didn’t know what came over them.
The response among some has been that Vancouver should never have allowed so many people to gather downtown (most reports put the Game 7 crowd at around 120,000 people). But we can’t let this be the answer. I was in Vancouver during the Olympics, and the streets were amazing places to be; the city was alive like never before. The problem this past June wasn’t that people were in the streets; it was that the police weren’t in place to deal with the troublemakers among them.
I’m as angry as anyone that Vancouver was apparently unprepared for trouble, but I still say the city was right to encourage the party. The right balance really isn’t that hard to find: ensure the police are able to arrest those who destroy property and hurt others. Let the rest of us, who are the massive majority, have fun and enjoy ourselves.
It works in Europe. In Holland, April 30 is Koninginnedag, or the Queen’s Day. Restrictions against selling wares on the street are lifted, and makeshift markets spring up in towns and cities everywhere. It’s like a giant yard sale crossed with an outdoor concert; literally millions of people mingle and celebrate. And it happens every year. Having experienced the freedom of public life in Europe, I realized how boring Canada can be, despite everything else that makes this country great. In some ways, returning to Canada felt like going back to kindergarten. Do this. Don’t do that. It could be different, if we wanted it to be.
Peace, order and good government should never be taken for granted, but we need to push back on it every so often. It’s part of what makes life worth living.
Keep it free!
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