Legal Observers prepare to Watch the Watchmen at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games
I am writing on the eve of the commencement of the 2010 Games in Vancouver, where I will be participating in the BCCLA/Pivot Legal Society’s Legal Observer (LO) experiment. I am participating in the program both because it looks very interesting, and it is civic duty that I feel is essential.
I was never in favour of the Olympics coming to Vancouver. I felt the money could have been better spent on other things, predictable social welfare programs that I regard as essential service. However, the games have been played and the Games are here. I am trying not to be grumpy about it, and I must admit that the feeling in the city is electrifying, and I want to enjoy life as it comes. But it is mainly for pragmatic reasons that I hope it is a success. Taxpayers will be paying for this for generations, and the weaker the revenues it generates, the worse it will be for the public. Since the thing is a forgone conclusion, I am mainly concerned with the hope that that our IOC partners and security forces are accountable for their conduct, or failing that, that their conduct is noted and documented.
The City of Vancouver had argued that it was contractually obligated to adopt temporary bylaws that would supersede the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a result of their relationship with the IOC. Until Chris Shaw and the BCCLA tabled their high-profile lawsuit, there was going to be bylaws limiting language critical of the Games on public property. This was to be enforced by VANOC employees and volunteers, who would confiscate suspect materials.
The Observer program is relatively new as a legal tool. Though it has been done on a smaller scale by Civil Liberties at the ’09 Democratic and Republican National Conventions and the Victoria Torch Run, it which has not been tested on such a large scale and for such a duration.
David Eby, the lawyer who is the chair of the BCCLA has presided over training sessions these past few months, and has been in contact with the security forces and the media, campaigning to have the Observer program recognized as a legitimate legal tool.
Though volunteers are mandated to act neutrally and unobtrusively, the program is geared toward serving the rights of people negatively affected by the event. Accordingly, their observing efforts will focus mainly on security forces at the games, the rationale being that security forces have enough resources pointed toward surveillance of citizens. In my observation, the volunteers present at the training sessions I attended were largely opposed to the event. Of course the requisite activists were present, as were individuals who identified as teachers, professors, lawyers and entrepreneurs .
Though the observers are decidedly not a pro-games crowd, the Pivot/BCCLA’s strategy is to establish participants as impartial observers. This means that Observers do not interfere with police work, participate in protests or get chummy with either actvists or police. Observers have been directed to wear role-identifying T-Shirts at all times while on shift, not to resist seizure of evidence, but to self-identify and provide information as to where police may gain access to data. Participants have also been instructed on how to communicate neutrality and announce their actions in high stress situations. The organizers have said they will go to the board for Observers that are unlawfully arrested, but only if they have followed the guidelines they set out.
During the initial run of the program at the Victoria torch relay, there was cooperation between LOs and the police at that event. When an LO pointed out that a large percentage of the police, many of them actually came up to other LOs and began identifying themselves voluntarily.
It will be fascinating to see whether the presence of LOs will be able propagate a moderating effect to potentially charged situations, and if the program will be able to give precedence to a new legal tool that would legitimize and organize civilian surveillance.