It’s a truism, perhaps, to claim that sport functions as a release valve for social and economic pressures—but the Vancouver street riots that followed the conclusion of the Stanley Cup finals, and the way they have been taken up in subsequent days, points to a broader structural and ideological problem in the politics of late-capitalist, post-imperial, post-labour Canada.
As a long-time Vancouver resident, I can attest to the rabidness with which my fellow citizens cheer on the local hockey team, the Canucks. And it was with a sense of trepidation that I watched the hometown blue and green meander through the first three rounds of the Stanley cup playoffs, finally to arrive at the decisive game seven on Wednesday night at Rogers arena—a few blocks from the CBC’s Vancouver headquarters and the largest Canada Post sorting office in Western Canada. It was also the site of the alcohol-licensed “fan zone” and of the most iconic of the violence, the burning of cars.
It was a scene doomed from the start: many were predicting that violence would break out, regardless of the outcome. When the Boston Bruins defeated the Canucks 4-0, the results were well nigh inevitable. Cars were burned, shop windows smashed, arrests doled out (though most, it seems, will get off with a slap on the wrist). The media coverage post-riot was about what one would expect: Vancouver police chief blamed the violence on “criminals, anarchists, and thugs”—certainly not on hockey fans. There were gestures towards acknowledging cycles of violence, as the riot looked uncannily like the violence that broke out after the Canucks lost game seven of the Stanley Cup finals in 1994.
But most news sources disavowed the relation between hockey, in particular, and the riots. This in a year when the league’s best player, Sidney Crosby, sits out with post-concussion symptoms, and in a series marked by hacks, slashes, and injuries, most of which went without punishment. “Let ‘em play!” Canadian hockey icon and unapologetic right-winger (in the political sense) Don Cherry avers. I would also point to the larger militancy and jingoism of team affiliation—complete with uniforms, prayer for “us” and against “them”, and a fan blog on nhl.com that declares “This is what we’ve waited for, this is it, this is war. All for one and one for all.”
The narrative that has been constructed post facto is disturbing both for its insidious divisiveness and for its lack of nuance. Official channels are making a clear distinction: Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, for example, has pointed to a “small extreme group intent on violence,” and his focus in the days following the riots has been on the cleanup, on the “true fans” that came together from across the lower mainland to help clean up post-looting. So what we’re hearing is that “all for one and one for all” only applies to the positive spin. And, so they tell us, the bad apples are ruining what we should be supporting: hockey-fueled patriotism—a social good, as demonstrated by a plywood board at the site of the riot covered in affective displays of nationalism, jingoism, blind support, and love.
That’s not to say that I reject public declarations of love and support—just to suggest that perhaps they are misplaced. More insidiously, they are a repetition of the team’s ubiquitous ad campaign that informs us that “We are all Canucks.” Is this not interpellation of the most obvious kind? There is here a mob mentality, fueled by a national affiliation (for those who may be unfamiliar, “Canuck” is a slang term for Canadian), a mob mentality that translates simultaneously into an explosion of violence, which is disavowed by the authorities as somehow not perpetrated by “Canucks”, and into an unnuanced affiliation with that same political authority. All of which functions, somehow, as an apolitical ‘coming together’ of hockey lovers across the region to repair storefronts and assist corporate stores to reopen their doors. But it seems to me that the earnestness with which Canucks’ fans have reinscribed their fandom post-riot betrays the insidiousness of the whole enterprise.
And it is an enterprise, at bottom, that is ideological—and an enterprise that sets up further neoliberalizing of an already impressively neoliberal city and country. The Stanley Cup riots are a perfect moment for some disaster capitalism: these riots are the fault of “left-wing pinkos” or “anarchists” or “disaffected youth”—in other words, extremists—so we should pay attention to them rather than the right-wing extremism developed through, for example, new legislation coming down the pike at the federal level—from a recently-elected conservative majority. Parliament is in session and legislation is being passed. And the political push is predictable: tightening controls over immigration and labour, lowering corporate taxes to “jumpstart the economy”, slashing funding to social welfare and arts groups, jacking up funding in order to build new prisons and fighter jets.
It’s a litany of nightmarish scenarios for progressives, yet these polarizing issues have gotten little to no mainstream press. The spectacle of the Stanley Cup riots rings too loud for us to hear what might also be happening, what else might be razed in the name of economic recovery.
To bring us back to the inaugural site of these riots, perhaps labour rights will be the next window to be smashed. Recall that the outdoor “fan zone” on Granville Street—where 100,000 hockey fans gathered to watch the game—was positioned in front of the main Vancouver office for Canada Post. Recall further that the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), after collective bargaining negotiations had stalled, had been engaging in rotating job action, until they were locked out by management one day before the Stanley Cup final. On Wednesday—the same day, mind you, of the game and the riot—Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt announced that CUPW workers would be legislated back to work because the labour dispute jeopardized “Canada’s economic recovery.”
In a piece about the Stanley Cup riots, I don’t have the space to draw out all the nuances of this dispute—though I am mystified by the government’s shifting response, first locking out workers deemed unnecessary, then declaring their work an “essential service.” But I do want to draw a link between these simultaneous events, at the level of ideology: why all this divisiveness—pitting worker against worker in a labour dispute, pitting “true” fans against “loons” in the aftermath of hockey-fueled violence?
There was political action of a sort in front of the post office on Wednesday; it’s disheartening to know that the violence and destruction perpetrated at that site was a response to the outcome of a hockey game, rather than the outcome of a labour dispute. Why not Canada Post uniforms, rather than hockey jerseys? It is the kind of structural violence of neoliberal policies—no less real than smashed windows—that tends to be ignored, while mainstream discourse focuses on the rather unsurprising responses to violent sport. We are all Canucks, but not simply as hockey fans. We’re also part of a system that wants no part of our “extreme” response to its inequalities, whether in the form of empty property destruction or in the form of peaceful protest.