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About one hour before midnight on 19 April 2011, Vancouver City Council went through more contortions than a sideshow acrobat in order to approve a nefarious set of amendments to the Street and Traffic By-law by a vote of 7 to 4.
The meeting agenda gave the item this title: Amendments to the Street and Traffic By-law to Facilitate use of Structures on Streets for Political Expression. The facilitate spin got a strong launch five days earlier in a City of Vancouver press release.
The honest word would have been restrict — not facilitate. There is a very good reason that the bylaw is, to quote the proud City of Vancouver news release, "unprecedented in North America." This freedom of political expression has now been tightly defined in Vancouver. The new definition seems destined to face a court review that seems unlikely to favor the new restrictions.
The councillors who approved the amendment appeared to enjoy the sport of batting the birdie from the legislative back to the judicial again, and some as much as said, if this game costs the taxpayers, well, too bad. We have got to get this birdie out of our court before midnight, or it will become our rotten pumpkin. (Blame the craziness of the situation for these metaphors going wild.)
All of this is prologue to a glance backward at a magnificent structure that occupied many Lower Mainland streets in the service of political expression: the Torch of the Poverty Olympics. In part, this backward-glancing celebration is motivated by the stupidity that would now "facilitate" the Poverty Olympics Torch getting busted on Vancouver streets.
Unlike the Bombardier hand-held torch manufactured by officialdom for the 2010 Winter Olympics — all 12,000 of those sleek corporate clones — the Poverty Torch was one-of-a-kind, a community production from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
Cast from fiberglass-reinforced gypsum cement, anchored in a steel garbage can filled with concrete, bolted to a steel gurney (6.5 feet long, 32 inches high, 30 inches wide), estimated to weigh over 200 pounds at the curb — the Poverty Torch stood a splendid ten feet up in the air.
The Poverty Olympics Torch was there in Victoria on 30 October 2009 for the start of its own official torch relay. It made a trip to Whistler. In the week leading up to the 2010 Poverty Olympics, the Poverty Torch blazed a trail from Langley to Surrey to New Westminster to Burnaby to Port Moody to North Vancouver to West Vancouver. Coming over the Lions Gate Bridge, the Poverty Torch sailed freely through the streets of host city Vancouver itself, subject then to no "facilitation." It now resides with the Museum of Vancouver.
So, read the provisions of the April 2011 bylaw amendments and weep for freedom lost. At least, weep for freedom lost on paper.
Consider only 71B(3)(l) which states that a permit must not be granted for a structure that "measures more than 1.3 meters in height at the highest point". (The ten feet of the Poverty Torch translates into more than 3 meters. Chop the top half off that critter and it still remains unacceptable to the new Vancouver bylaw.)
The Poverty Torch was also proud to exceed the allowable depth of 1.0 meter [subsection n], to occupy a base area of more than 1.6 square meters [subsection o], and especially to possess moving parts aka wheels [subsection p]. Moreover, the Poverty Torch presciently offended the new bylaw by passing within 5 meters of all of the following: building entrance or exit [subsection h]; bus stop, street intersection, driveway crossing, loading zone, taxi zone [subsection i] — and a curb [subsection j]. Not only did the Poverty Torch violate the curb distance restriction, in many instances it crossed right over the curb!
You probably could even say that the Poverty Torch was "attached or affixed to cement, asphalt or other hard surface on the street" [subsection k], if gravity constitutes attachment. Even if not "attached" in the legal sense, the object itself WAS cement.
After weeping for all those new restrictions on paper, smile. Smile as you think of freedom in the street.
[ Much thanks to Rider Cooey for details on the history and construction of the Poverty Torch, and especially for providing the photos now mounted in a companion photo gallery. ]
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This account is one-half of a diptych. The other half tells the weird tale of how Vancouver councillors arrived at these untoward restrictions on political freedoms.