Residents seek to show the ‘real’ Vancouver after the riot

Even from her apartment five blocks away, Sarah Surh could hear that something was wrong.

"It sounded like gunshots, a lot of screaming. The sad part is, it wasn't unfamiliar to me just because I've seen so many riots on TV," said the Vancouver-based actress and screenwriter.

Earlier in the day, Surh and her husband, Steve Chung, had cancelled a meeting on the other side of the bridge, as she feared it would be difficult to get home after Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.

The outcome, as it has been well documented, was far worse than she — or anyone — could have imagined.

Similar to last year's G20 protests in Toronto, a fringe group of rioters turned the event into an opportunity for senseless violence and destruction.

Armed with Molotov cocktails, hammers and gas masks, they streamed into the downtown corridor before the end of the final showdown between the Canucks and Bruins with the sole intention of creating an atmosphere of chaos.

But unlike the G20 riots, which were at least partly grounded in political protest, their appeared to be no motive for the Vancouver riot.

"I think initially when it was going on I was really sad, disgusted and ashamed. But later on you realized they actually weren't Canucks fans. A lot of them were outsiders just coming to cause havoc," says Surh.

Images from the riot went viral, triggering global attention, as a shocked city tried to recover.

Once the debris was cleared and the glass swept away, the incident forced Vancouver — and the rest of Canada — to take an honest look at how this could have happened in a place promoted for its friendly, laidback vibe, and, perhaps more importantly, what lessons could be learned.

"Ideally, the riot will enable us to rethink the city, and the image of the city that we want to project. It will force us to think about ways in which to make it more livable, for more people.  It will help us replace empty boosterism with proper, rational debate," says University of British Columbia professor Jon Beasley-Murray.

It also raised questions about whether this would have happened if the Canucks had won, and why the 2010 Olympics, a much larger sporting event, appeared to go off without a hitch.

"There might well have been a riot if the Canucks had won. All the same factors — terrible planning, under-resourced and inadequate policing — were in place, and there would have been even more people on the streets," Beasley-Murray says.

"The difference with the Olympics is the city council tried to achieve the same feel-good effect but on a shoe-string budget and with minimal planning. There were minimal police on the streets, and zero plans as to what to do with revellers once the hockey was over. It was a disaster waiting to happen."

In spite of the outcome, however, some positives emerged.

"So, what's the good news?" asks Beasley-Murray. "Well, above all, and despite what this small group of people is saying, they are not the 'real' Vancouver. The real Vancouver and the real Canada are much more diverse. Indeed, that diversity is their strength."

The "real" Vancouver has become one of the major post-riot themes, as Vancouverites work to take back their city — and its reputation.

Tourism Vancouver manager Amber Sessions says while she's received a handful of emails from concerned visitors, the images of Vancouverites coming together to clean up the mess and write messages of love on The Bay's now iconic plywood wall, has left a strong impression.

"After the riots, there was this outpouring of amazing energy and comments from Vancouverites themselves. It was so much better than anything we could put together," she says.

The organization also created a website modelled after the wall, where anyone can continue the conversation. And now instead of focusing on Vancouver's beautiful landscapes, Sessions says the spotlight is on the residents.

"What really shone was the Vancouverites and how proud they are of their city, how devastated they were at what had happened, so now what we're mentioning [about Vancouver's strengths] are the people."

City Councillor Heather Deal, who has been working closely with Vancouver Tourism, says she was also overwhelmed by the outpouring of humanity in action.

"We were down there fairly early in the morning and every train that stopped, every bus that stopped, people got off carrying brooms and bags, long after there was any glass to pick up," she says. "People were coming down and saying, 'What can I do?' and we said, 'Go buy a coffee from a business whose window was broken. Show them the love.' "

With three independent reviews currently underway, Deal hopes insight is coming into what went wrong, and how the city can do better in the event of another incident.

In the meantime, she's touched by the visible signs of community strength popping up in every corner.

"Just now I was in Granville Market having a lunch meeting and there was a big sign up that said 'We are the true Canucks fans.' In some ways it's made us a stronger city."

(Photo credit: Geoff Howe/The Canadian Press)