Canada

Habitat: living up to all non-expectations

JUDITH TIMSON June 14 1976
Canada

Habitat: living up to all non-expectations

JUDITH TIMSON June 14 1976

Habitat: living up to all non-expectations

Canada

The unseasonably vicious wind and rain had already chilled most listeners to the bone. In the name of the new social and economic order, they sat huddled in a large, drafty, converted air force hangar while a disillusioned Indian activist put the damper on a major conference that was barely under way. Bill Wilson, a former executive member of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, was talking sadly about the Canadian government’s treatment of natives, but he was also talking about much more. The attitude of government is, said Wilson, to give the dispossessed “a conference and a little money, let them blow off steam, and they’ll go home thinking they’ve accomplished something. I suggest that that is what Habitat is all about—verbal diarrhea.”

Habitat, the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (over four years in the making, at a cost of more than $ 15 million to Canada, the host country), unfolded in Vancouver this month. And to some it seemed to be a show well worth the money. Where else could one feast on such a smorgasbord of images, ideas and intrigues?

The show got under way as shiny black limousines disgorged delegates and diplomats into the cold grey drizzle of a Vancouver morning to attend opening-day ceremonies at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Vancouver Mayor Art Phillips, who did not want the conference in the first place, shook hands effusively with Kurt Waldheim, secretary-general of the United Nations, Waldheim shaking hands even more effusively, at least while the cameras whirred, with Mexican President Luis Echeverria Alvarez, who happens to want his job and is said to have considered Habitat the first primary. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was on hand to pose as a messenger of love in his speech to the Habitat assembly, and his wife Margaret turned journalist for a television interview with architect Buckminster Fuller. Earlier,

Fuller himself, standing in the rain during a cocktail party at the Vancouver Aquarium, carried on what appeared to be a serious dialogue with some dolphins.

Was it all, as a local newspaper columnist suggested, just a “freebie by-the-sea” for some 4,500 delegates and 1,500 reporters from 134 countries, with enough intellectuals of repute in town to raise the intelligence quotient to a respectable level?

Or was it, as British economist Barbara Ward, a leading spirit behind the conference, put it, the beginning of new hope for mankind, a grand attempt on the part of rich and poor nations to come to grips with the major urban problems of the day and begin the construction of the new social and economic order?

By the end of the first week, it was difficult to say. Habitat never ceased to pour out resolutions, declarations, amendments, position papers, and press releases—mountains of paper that threatened to engulf even the most enthusiastic searchers-for-a-new-order. At the same time, it was difficult to avoid seeing the crueler ironies inherent in the idea of wellfunded, well-feted delegates coming together in opulent surroundings for theoretical talks while teeming millions around the world went on starving and sleeping in shanty towns. Typically, Trudeau was host at a cocktail party for 2,000 people, where the guests sipped champagne and nibbled smoked oysters and shrimps and where Third World delegates appeared to be among the most spiffily dressed. As one East Indian consultant on developing nations pointedly remarked: “No one (out on the streets) has ever heard of the new international economic order.” Some people, she seemed to suggest, were too busy living their poverty.

It was largely left to Barbara Ward, described by some as “the most intelligent woman in the world,” and affectionately dubbed “ladyspaceship earth” by participants in the conference, to provide ongoing inspiration and to dispel some of the cynicism surrounding such an elaborate and loose-ended affair. “We are all going to behave outrageously,” she promised on the eve of the conference, when she and two dozen other global thinkers, including Fuller and anthropologist Margaret Mead, issued the Vancouver declaration—a list of proposals meant to prod government delegates into committing themselves and their countries to radical change.

Some of the resolutions—notably one designed to control land speculation and another aimed at imposing a moratorium on the adoption of nuclear power generation—were exactly as Ward had promised: “Time bombs to go off in various faces.” That included the Canadian delegation, which ended up watering-down the land speculation resolution and meekly submitting to Trudeau’s view on the other—that nuclear power was still very much needed in the world and that the Liberal government in Ottawa would continue selling power plants to developing countries.

Trudeau’s own performance at the conference was curiously contradictory and, in the view of some, not all that impressive. In a keynote address, the PM appealed for “a conspiracy of love” as the only hope for survival in a world whose population is expected to double to eight billion within the next 30 years. In such a “human beehive,” warned Trudeau, it will be necessary “to love one another, or you will perish.” He

added: “In order to survive, we will have to socialize ourselves more and more. From a human viewpoint, it means loving one another. We will thus have not only to toler-

ate one another but love one another in a way which will require of us an unprecedented desire to change ourselves.” Trudeau’s philosophic flight brought a pointed rejoinder from Mother Teresa, the Albanian-born founder of the Missionaries of Charity whose work is centred in the slums of Calcutta. Trudeau, she said, should give his ideas concrete form by sharing his own material wealth with someone who has none. “I think if he [Trudeau] and those people who are involved in this desire of improving and changing,” said Mother Teresa, “begin with themselves, it will be a definite change.”

Some of Trudeau’s remarks on the sale of nuclear reactors seemed to contrast oddly with his earlier sentiments. Canada, he noted reasonably enough, possesses a “very high technology when many countries are starved for energy. They need it [nuclear energy], not to build bombs, but to improve their living standards.” As for the risk that other developing countries might, like India, use Canadian nuclear knowhow to produce weapons, the PM airily observed that “you’ve got to live dangerously if you want to live in the modern age.”

There were other discordant notes. From the start, the prospect had loomed that the presence of an Israeli delegation, as well as observers from the Palestine Liberation Organization, might give rise to unproductive tensions—if not worse. While Waldheim was content to note that Palestine was not on the conference agenda, Trudeau’s view was that it might not be a bad thing if the issue was raised “to make sure that the individual nations, the politicians, understand the message here.” In the end, the Palestine debate surfaced both in conference committee meetings and before the plenary sessions, where the Saudi Arabian delegate demanded that the Palestinians be permitted to return to their homeland to bring “peace and justice to this world.” Later, when the head of the Israeli delegation rose to speak, Soviet, Arab and African representatives trooped out in a ritual protest.

Meanwhile, as the main conference, housed in the high-rise hotels of downtown Vancouver, lumbered through plenary sessions and slowmoving committees, the time bombs Ward had been so proud of were exploding with far greater intensity at Habitat Forum—the parallel conference organized by non-government agencies with the aim of prodding Habitat. It was only a 10-minute drive from the downtown area to the 175-acre Forum site at Jericho Beach Park, but the scene and social milieu were light-years away. The Forum, once an abandoned cluster of battered air force hangars, had been turned into a monument to the doctrines of recycling and citizen participation. Meeting rooms were crafted out of BC cedar, there was an awesome and beautifully functional main plenary hall, U-shaped with hand-sanded multi-leveled seats and arresting batiks covering broken windows. For the sheer fun of it, a social centre with a 242-foot-long yellow cedar bar (said to be a contender for the Guinness Book Of

Records) dispensed imported wines and beer.

A social centre, offering a range of entertainment that included the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, local jazz groups and a children’s circus, was housed in hangar number seven on the site and quickly attracted the attention of Vancouver’s latter-day hippie set—creating the scene for what one Habitat official enthusiastically described as “an intellectual Woodstock.” That seemed a fair enough description of the scene, given the fact that the creators of Forum, funded by the federal government to the tune of one million dollars, were drawn from what Forum manager AÍ Clapp called an “alternative work force”—everyone from convicts to PhDs who, since last January, transformed the site.

As the building of the site progressed, Clapp a former TV producer, went through a series of image transformations. At one point, he was regarded almost reverentially. More recently, after what some saw as rather heavy-handed dismissals of key staff members, Clapp, 47, emerged as a vaguely dictatorial figure, not entirely loved by his hardworking staff. Clapp may not have been very happy with the circumstances surrounding one of his creations—the social centre—which some workers called the house that cocaine built. In the last panicky days before the Forum opened, according to reports, there was more “snow” (cocaine) circulating at the centre than there was real snow on top of Mount Whistler. “Anything to keep going,” smiled one carpenter. JUDITH TIMSON