Monday, March 01, 2010


It's three in the morning, many hours after the Winter Olympics came to a close and (more to the point) long after Sid "the Kid" Crosby scored the dramatic overtime goal that gave Team Canada its final, and most dearly coveted, gold medal by beating the USA at (ice) hockey.

Yet even now I can hear the shouts and celebrations on the streets of downtown Vancouver below my apartment window. And I don't even live that close to the epicenter of the extraordinary street party that broke out as soon as that puck entered the net. The celebrations are no doubt in full swing on Granville and Robson Streets, some six or seven blocks away.

In the afternoon and early evening, the so-called Granville Entertainment District and nearby Robson Square were mobbed with thousands of mostly red-and-white clad revelers, chanting "Go Canada Go" or "Crosby, Crosby, Crosby," giving each other high fives and hugs, ringing cowbells and hooting horns, climbing lampposts and bus shelters, and bursting into impromptu renditions of "O Canada!"

This notoriously reticent and self-effacing country has perhaps finally learned the trappings and gestures of nationalism. Of course, Canadians have always quietly considered themselves superior; but the emphasis has been on the quiet sense of distinction. Indeed, the exuberant displays of pride visible over the past few hours would previously have been considered to be precisely the kind of gauche jingoism that Canada had associated with other, more vulgar and less civilized nations.

So one consequence of all the flag-waving and chanting is that Canadians may be a little less smug in the future: they've shown that they can be just as blindly patriotic as (say) their neighbors to the south. As they become more ostentatiously Canadian, they undermine that sense of entitlement that comes precisely from the notion that "ostentatious" and "Canadian" are two words that don't really belong in the same sentence.

The more visibly Canadian they become, the less "Canadian" they actually are.

And perhaps it's for this reason that so many of the most visibly and audibly frenetic of the revelers were the so-called "new" Canadians, the relatively recent immigrants (and their children) from China, Japan, India, and so on.

Vancouver is, after all, an extraordinarily multicultural city; about 40% of its inhabitants were born outside of Canada, most of whom come from Asia though with a significant proportion also from places such as Southern or Central Europe. And yet there are times when this is not so obvious: the various ethnic groups are parceled out around the city and a huge number of Chinese Canadians, for instance, live and work in suburbs such as Richmond, just to the south.

Yet it was clear that very many of the crowds who poured across the bridges (some of which were soon closed to vehicular traffic because of the sheer numbers of pedestrians) to get to the downtown peninsula came from precisely these outlying suburbs.

I wonder if this is because painting your face with a maple leaf or waving the flag from a hockey stick is a form of nationalism that is more available to new immigrants than the rather more insidious distanced self-regard that has hitherto characterized Canadians' sense of themselves. It is a habitus that can more easily be picked up or (better) incarnated, whatever one's background or skin color.

In any case, with the Olympic celebrations, and with the multitude that packed its thoroughfares to shout and holler, Vancouver city center felt distinctly less white than it does on a regular business day.

And it is certain that the experience of the Olympic Canada (literally) on the streets was much more multiracial than the image presented by either the opening or the closing ceremonies, both of which gave us only a tokenism towards First Nations as a flimsy cover for an otherwise overwhelmingly white and European depiction of the country. (As many have pointed out, for instance, there was no official recognition at all of Asian Canada during the opening ceremony held in this most Asian of Canadian cities.)

Almost four years ago, and while recognizing all the legitimate critiques of this over-commercialized festival brought to us by Coke and Visa, I asked "why not rescue something of the (perhaps utopian) commonality that still resides in the Olympics, rather than, inaccurately, damning them as simply another set of enclosures?"

It seems to me that we have indeed seen some of this utopian commonality in action on the streets of Vancouver over the past couple of weeks, albeit (ironically) ultimately clad in a maple-leaf flag. And we have seen both its distance from the official representation as well as the ways in which it potentially challenges, transforms, and ultimately undermines the national symbols around which it seems, superficially perhaps, to be organized.

Update: Mike Cowie says something similar about this being an Olympics on and of the streets.

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