CANADA

THIS IS NOT VANCOUVER

CHRIS WOOD June 27 1994
CANADA

THIS IS NOT VANCOUVER

CHRIS WOOD June 27 1994

THIS IS NOT VANCOUVER

A riot shatters the city’s laid-back image

CANADA

A police riot squad, Darth Vader-like in enveloping helmets, gas masks and dark uniforms, deploys around three sides of an intersection. A line of restless German shepherds and their handlers guards the fourth. From 35 m away, groups of young men and women hurl rocks, bottles and taunts at the police: “Pigs!” “Fascists!” Suddenly, deep explosions signal the release of another wave of tear gas. The cloud of acrid, stinging smoke drifts slowly along the pavement, glowing luridly red and blue with the reflection of emergency vehicle lights. The youths fall back, choking and retching. In the middle distance there are screams, sirens and the shattering of heavy glass. Says Bruce Walker, a stunned visitor to the city who is trying to find a safe route back to his hotel: “This is Bosnia. This is Oka. This is not Vancouver.” Unhappily for that city’s already wounded pride, it was indeed Vancouver. Thousands of self-styled supporters turned their team’s honorable defeat into a shameful excuse for the worst rioting in the city’s history—even as the weary Canucks jetted home last week after losing the most thrilling Stanley Cup final in years by a heartbreaking score of 3-2 to the New York Rangers (page 46). By the time calm was restored in the small hours of Wednesday morning, one man lay critically injured, city jails overflowed with those arrested and shattered glass from scores of looted shops littered Vancouver’s toniest shopping district. And when the team’s chartered jet finally touched down at about 4 a.m., it was met by riot police as well as 3,000 peaceful fans. Declared an angry Mayor Philip Owen as dawn rose over his shattered city: “The Canucks deserved better.”

But in fact, liquor and youth had at least as much to do with the violence as did hockey. Many of the groups—mostly male older teenagers and young adults—who began

crowding commuter trains into the downtown core even before the game was over, appeared to know little and care less about its progress or outcome. Many drank openly. Within minutes of the final hom in New York City, the first trouble came near Pacific Coliseum, the Canucks’ home arena where several thousand fans were watching the game via satellite: angry youths beat on a parked car with sticks before sending it rolling across the street through heavy traffic. By 9 p.m., as many as 60,000 people had gathered in the city core, many of them packed tightly along Robson Street, Vancouver’s most popular thoroughfare. Some had already turned rowdy, smashing signs and brawling.

The trigger for full-scale rioting came shortly after 10 p.m. A man who had been trying to pick his way along trolley bus wires suspended over Robson Street fell to the pavement and lay badly injured amid the milling crowd. An ambulance tried to reach the injured man, but some in the mob began rocking the vehicle and assaulting its attendants. ‘We tried to get them out,” Insp. Paul Howard, the senior police officer on the scene, told Maclean’s. “But the crowd trapped some of our members and that’s when the bottles and rocks started to fly.” Within minutes, so did the first volley of tear gas.

There would be dozens more during the night as close to 500 police, including riot squads from both Vancouver city and the RCMP, skirmished repeatedly with roving mobs over an area of more than 40 city blocks. At about 10:45, a city police officer fired a crowd-control gun at 19-yearold Ryan Berntt, who authorities later said was an instigator of the riot. Police said the officer aimed at Bemtt’s chest, but the gun’s plastic projectile struck the left side of his head and crushed his skull. In the hour before midnight the fighting became so intense that both riot squads exhausted their initial supplies of tear gas. At 11:30, police Chief Ray Canuel called in RCMP reinforcements. But it took another two hours to clear most of the looters from downtown streets. By then, police had arrested more than 50 people and charged 21 with criminal acts including assault and possession of weapons, filling the city’s jail.

Other emergency services were similarly stretched. The toll of seriously injured was limited to six, including Berntt and two police officers. But even so, the the flood of minor injuries and tear-gas victims overwhelmed 20 ambulances that were on standby before the riot erupted. That forced the B.C. Ambulance Service to put two disaster response units onto the streets for the first time in its history. And Vancouver’s fire department was forced to call in help from the suburbs for the first time ever, as its 38 trucks responded to 120 calls.

As calm returned, store owners emerged to oversee the installation of new window glass and make an accounting of looted merchandise. Gloria Chang estimated losses from her card and gift store on Robson Street at $1,500, mitigated slightly when one item, a painted stone cat, was reported found: it had been used to break the window of an electronics store five blocks away. “I don’t think anybody expected this,” Chang said, shaking her head in disbelief. For other businesses the night’s toll was much higher: looters penetrated as far as the third floor of Eaton’s, taking time to try on clothing before making off with it, and leaving behind 62 broken windows. Across the street, a mob sacked The Clothing Market, stealing an estimated $100,000 worth of leather jackets and jeans. “It looked like Beirut in here,” said the store’s manager, Frank McGrath.

Harder to quantify than lost inventory was the civic embarrassment, all the more acute for coming on the heels of largely laudatory international media coverage of the city’s charms during the Stanley Cup series. “I’m really upset by what the people who live in Vancouver have done,” asserted lifelong resident Velma Greyell, as she browsed in Chang’s store on the day after the riot. “There is just no excuse for it. It really hurts.” Lamented Tourism Vancouver president Rick Antonson: “It’s given us a black eye and we all wear it. It will take time to heal.”

It will also take time to understand how the violence got so out of hand. Many of those who watched the riot take shape blamed it on a handful of determined troublemakers and a sour mood that developed early in the evening. “It was going to happen whether the Canucks won or lost,” asserted security guard Robert Hunter, who was hired to protect a Robson Street shoe store. “You could just feel it in the air.” Others who watched the violence ignite blamed it on heavy-handed police tactics. “I do not blame the I crowd,” said Thane McLennan, g a 47-year-old bookstore managet er who mingled with revelers I until police moved in. “The poi lice turned it into a situation.”

On the day after the violence, B.C. Attorney General Colin Gabelmann ordered the provincial police commission to conduct an unrestricted review of the night’s events and promised to make its report public. Social psychologist Gary Poole of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., said authorities had confronted a highly combustible combination of emotionally aroused youth, alcohol and group dynamics. ‘The anonymity that crowds provide is really quite powerful,” Poole observed.

CHRIS WOOD in Vancouver

In the days following the riot, however, Vancouverites seemed determined to register both anger at the rioters and general approval of the police response. Cakes, flowers and chocolates, as well as thousands of supportive phone calls, inundated police department receptionists. Civilians with home videos of looting sent in tapes to aid police investigators; others called to identify rioters they had spotted on TV news clips. And a city-organized midday rally at B.C. Place Stadium gave 45,000 hockey fans a chance to welcome their Canucks home in a manner more befitting the team’s accomplishment. Still, on many minds was the lingering reminder that, for six frightening hours, Vancouver had shown itself shockingly unable to live up to the disciplined example of its own heroes.