Reading the Riot Act: A Short History of Riots in Vancouver

Official histories tend to ignore riots. To politicians, civic boosters and the ruling elite, riots are aberrations, a loss of control, a breakdown of social order and a reminder that the system they maintain is built on inequality, class distinctions and economic exclusion.

As a former Vancouverite, I read this book with great interest. Local history wasn’t taught much in Vancouver schools and if the 1994 Stanley Cup riots hadn’t jarred my then-teenage mind, the fact that there has been a history of riots neatly paralleling the city’s growth might have been surprising.

Barnholden brings to life historical footnotes like the Anti-Asian Riots of 1907 that targeted the then-young city’s Chinese and Japanese communities and the International Workers of the World-inspired free speech riots of 1909 and 1911. These and more recent examples like the APEC riots of the late ’90s are symptomatic of a system that often has to be forced into making reforms.

Reading the Riot Act has many startling Howard Zinn-like insights. One of them is Barnholden’s interpretation of the 1994 Stanley Cup riots as a sign that Vancouver’s attempt to craft an image as a “world class city” came at the expense of a disenchanted working class shut out of Robson St.’s hyperconsumerism and Yaletown’s ongoing condofication.

Because of these observations, the book also sheds light on the future of unrest in Vancouver. With an upcoming Olympics putting pressure on Vancouver’s government to present a TV-friendly image, and right of centre regimes at all three levels of government, it probably won’t be long before Barnholden will have to add chapters to this book. (Ron Nurwisah)

by Michael Barnholden, $18, 144 pgs, Anvil Press, 278 East 1st Ave., Vancouver, BC V5T 1A6, anvilpress.com

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