Nearly 60 major free public viewing parties were held across Canada on Thursday night for what ultimately became the final showdown in the NBA season, with the Toronto Raptors coming out on top.
The epicentre of the celebrations was, of course, the ‘Jurassic Park’ at Maple Leaf Square outside Scotiabank Arena in downtown Toronto, where the typical designated viewing area — with a capacity for 6,000 people — spilled out of its footprint to adjacent city blocks with rows of multiple large screens, allowing thousands more to take part in the fan festivities.
In neighbouring Mississauga, up to 30,000 people packed a public plaza for viewing parties each game night during the NBA Finals.
Thousands more packed other spinoff viewing parties held in public areas in Montreal and Calgary, which began its ‘Jurassic Park’ in Game 5.
Even Abbotsford had its own free viewing party, but it was held inside the city’s 7,000-seat arena.
However, Vancouver’s fan parties were generally limited to the normal fare of restaurants, bars, or simply from home.
There was an effort to examine a possible free viewing party in downtown Vancouver after the Raptors secured their spot in the Finals, but it was quickly shot down.
On May 25, five days before Game 1, Green Party city councillor Michael Wiebe said he was actively working on setting up a free viewing party at the North Plaza (West Georgia Plaza) of the Vancouver Art Gallery. There could be large screens, stages, food trucks, and security fencing.
The recently rebuilt plaza now carries an event-friendly design for 1,500 people — a small capacity, which becomes considerably less when events add staging, tents, food trucks, and other fixtures. Crowds in this area for previous 4/20 events swelled to 30,000 only by spilling out of the plaza and onto the surrounding busy city roads, and with ‘protest’ leaders completely disregarding city policies and processes.
Three days after Wiebe suggested the idea, the City of Vancouver issued a statement that it will not be hosting or providing funding for a viewing event.
“Events of this nature require adequate lead time to plan and execute successfully, and while we reviewed plans for a potential viewing event, we were not able to identify a location that was suitable and available for a series of up to seven games following the Eastern Conference Finals that ended May 25,” reads the city’s statement.
Major events held in Vancouver today are still being planned in the shadow of the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot; it can be said that the events of eight years ago, on June 15, 2011 — when downtown Vancouver descended into chaotic mob rule after the Boston Bruins defeated the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 — still strongly reverberates in the memory of local event planners, municipal officials, and police.
Every event in the city over the years after the riot has faced significantly more scrutiny — and understandably so. But there were some unnecessary alarmist post-riot media reports at the time over concerns that the forthcoming 2011 Canada Day and Celebration of Light festivities could be at risk for riots, despite these annual events having no prior history for such a level of violence.
Best practices standards on how to manage large crowds and organize and deliver safe and successful public events were developed in the riot’s aftermath, based on the lessons learnt from the incident. Major events that draw large crowds, such as Canada Day and Celebration of Light, have certainly benefited from the new enhanced standards and oversight.
Based on the Vancouver Police Department’s (VPD) thorough post-riot police report released in September 2011, there was no way of predicting the conditions for a riot ahead of time.
“Riots are inherently unpredictable, particularly in cases where there is no ’cause’ or ‘triggering event’ that precipitates the riot,” reads the report.
“Given that the Olympics in Vancouver saw equally large crowds, and even more liquor pour outs on busy nights, the frame of reference for most VPD officers was that this type of situation could be, and would be, handled successfully.”
The Game 7 crowd at the CBC Live Site on West Georgia Street attracted 55,000 people — at least five times the amount for Game 6, which was another Cup-deciding game. Across downtown, there were 100,000 people, including thousands watching from Canada Place.
Crowds arrived early and filled the Live Site to capacity hours ahead of the game’s start time, and they overcame the established viewing zone perimeter by tearing down the security fencing.
“Because there was a Live Site in Surrey in addition to the frequent gathering place at Scott Road and 72 Avenue, as well as people gathering on South Fraser Way in Abbotsford, the VPD initially expected that the crowds wanting to watch the hockey game would be spread out to other municipalities, thereby reducing the pressure on Vancouver’s downtown,” reads the report.
“In fact, for a large proportion of the playoff series’, there were more people in the Surrey area than in Vancouver celebrating Canucks games. It was only as of the last round of the playoffs that Vancouver became the place to go to celebrate.”
The Live Site was originally located on Granville Street, but due to the road’s narrow width there were growing concerns for safety and capacity. A decision was made to relocate the Live Site to West Georgia Street beginning with Game 3.
According to the report, the suggested alternative sites were Robson Square, outside Canada Place, outside Science World, the Concord Lands at False Creek, Andy Livingstone Park, and the vacant land between the Olympic Village and the Cambie Street Bridge, but they were not feasible due to licensing requirements and tight time lines, including the time for notification of property owners.
Widespread concealed alcohol consumption and the demographics that made their mass arrivals in downtown were other major contributors.
Prior to the start of Game 6 and Game 7, liquor stores in downtown were ordered to be closed by 4 pm, while all government-operated liquor stores closed voluntarily. Across Metro Vancouver, liquor stores reported being busy throughout the day, and many stores unaffected by the closure policy continued to be busy past 4 pm.
This liquor store closure policy was effective for Game 6, but not so much for Game 7 as it had lost the element of surprise for the public.
“The closure substantially decreased the number of pour outs and intoxicated youth seen downtown for Game 6 and, combined with the Canucks’ loss, there were far fewer problems than had been seen during Game 5,” continued the report.
“Unfortunately the positive effect did not last for Game 7. The liquor store closure strategies were anticipated by the public as the LCLB gave 24 hours notice of the closure as a courtesy to the store. As a result, there were many reports of line‐ups at liquor stores for large quantities of alcohol before they closed.”
There was ample open drinking during Game 7, with attendees bypassing security and fences at the Live Site by passing alcohol over fence lines, hiding alcohol inside soft drink containers, and engaging in pre-game binge drinking.
The report went on to detail how all three SkyTrain lines were “loaded to capacity, bringing thousands of people, mostly males between 20 to 30 years old, into the downtown core.”
Investigators later determined that the Game 7 crowd was primarily comprised of young intoxicated people, which is “a difficult demographic to police.”
Large crowds for events such as the Vancouver Sun Run, Santa Clause Parade, and Vancouver Pride Parade can be “managed safely, often with minimal policing requirements.”
However, “when an event attracts a large proportion of intoxicated, boisterous, and predominantly male young persons, there is a strong probability of bottle throwing, damage to property, fights, and assaults, which sometimes results in riotous behaviour.”
The level of policing may not have mattered; the number of VPD officers planned for Game 7 exceeded the total number of VPD officers that policed the entertainment zones before, during, and after the Men’s Olympic Hockey Gold Medal Game.
There were 329 VPD officers deployed for Game 7, but as the evening progressed the total number of actual police officer deployments nearly tripled to 928 officers from across Metro Vancouver. Riot control reinforcements grew the VPD officer numbers to 606, and contributions by 20 other police departments — even the RCMP in Tofino and Campbell River — added 322 additional officers.
As for the City of Vancouver’s final policing costs during the 2011 playoffs, it spent a total of $1.241 million, including $614,000 for Round 4’s Games 1 to 6 and $465,000 for Game 7 alone due to the riot.
There was also $117,000 budgeted for the traditional victory parade in downtown Vancouver, just in case the Canucks were actually able to win the Cup.
A separate independent inquiry over the riot, commissioned by the provincial government, also released in 2011, arrived at similar conclusions as the VPD report.
“There were too many people, not too few police. No plausible number of police could have prevented trouble igniting in the kind of congestion we saw on Vancouver streets that night,” read the inquiry authored by former VANOC CEO John Furlong, noting that going far over the 35,000-person street venue capacity “overwhelmed” security checks.
“The VPD had a good plan to police the game and the aftermath… The police came on time [when the riot began]. The problem was that a great many people arrived early; and great numbers were drunk when they arrived or drank openly after they got there.”
At the same time, the number of people in the Live Site and the resulting congestion “stifled riot protection,” and “even when the great majority of people left, it was the gawkers who hampered riot suppression.”
A total of 53 recommendations were made by Furlong’s inquiry for improving the city’s event planning practices.
On the City of Vancouver’s part, there should be a fully-integrated major event planning team that draws on the skills and abilities of relevant city departments and agencies, and improved event-day communications systems and protocols between all parties.
Other recommendations included a regional event public safety plan, contingency plans that can be adapted and scaled based on the evolving situation, and improved temporary venue facilities such as fencing, staging, screen, sound and lighting, and other amenities to help ensure a better experience.
Events that draw large crowds should be complete with programming and activities that help enable a family-friendly event; aside from viewing the hockey games on big screens, there was little else offered by the Live Site.
For the police, Furlong recommended the VPD to adopt early consultation with external partners in planning large events, strategies to monitor crowd volumes on public transit and aerial views from helicopter, contingency plans for deployment and multiple incidents, an analysis of equipment needs, a process to replace faulty equipment, and clear lines of authority and decision making at all times during an event.
TransLink, with its Transit Police force, was also identified as having a major role in helping stem the behaviour of open drinking at events, by conducting alcohol searches on the transit system before crowds arrive to the event site.
Numerous new major annual events have emerged in Vancouver’s event calendar in recent years, including Vancouver Mural Festival, Skookum Music Festival, New Year’s Eve Vancouver, and various street parties.
But all of these events have had significant lead time for planning — a major consideration following the riot. And changes to the global security climate after 2011 have escalated security costs and protocols for public events.
City staff are, understandably, wary of executing spontaneous major events, such as a ‘Jurassic Park Vancouver’, with little-to-no understanding of what kind of turnout to expect for free fan viewing parties for the NBA Finals. The concerns were valid, especially if Vancouver is hosting the region’s only celebration of an impromptu national cultural sporting event.
Based on the Calgary and Montreal ‘Jurassic Park’ crowds, it is likely safe to assume that attendance at a viewing party held in downtown Vancouver would have likely reached a minimum of a few thousand people by Game 6, drawing attendees from not just Vancouver but across Metro Vancouver.
When all aspects of organizing a proper event are accounted for — such as policing, pirvate security, fencing, utilities, staging, audio and visual, lighting, portable washrooms, supporting labour, site cleaning and waste disposal, and any required road closures — the costs per game night would likely have reached tens of thousands of dollars.
This is not to say that safe and successful spontaneous events cannot be successfully planned, which is made evident by all of the ‘Jurassic Park’ events that dotted the country. But it will take more time for Vancouver to fully reacquire the level of confidence it gained after the Olympics in organizing events.
In the general run of things, through a regional lens, the City of Vancouver also carries a far larger and highly unproportional burden of being responsible for Metro Vancouver’s largest and highest calibre public events, despite being just able to draw upon one quarter of the region’s population to help cover the costs.
Vancouver’s population is approximately 650,000, while the entire population of Metro Vancouver is 2.5 million and the entire Lower Mainland, with the Fraser Valley included, grows close to 2.8 million.
Contrast this with the City of Toronto’s population of 2.7 million, which is nearly half of the regional population of 5.9 million residents.
The City of Calgary also has 1.24 million people, with this single city defining the vast majority of the metropolitan region. And geographically, most of Metro Vancouver’s urban land area could fit within the municipal boundaries of Toronto or Calgary.
Both Toronto and Calgary also have a significantly larger and wealthier business community to spearhead for-profit events and help fund and sponsor major public events.
Each city’s capacity to deliver larger scale mandates, including events, is also evident by the annual operational budgets of the municipal governments, with the City of Vancouver at $1.5 billion, City of Toronto at $13.5 billion, and the City of Calgary at $3.5 billion.
If the annual municipal operating budgets of the 15 largest cities in Metro Vancouver were pooled together, they would have a combined operating budget of over $4 billion, including $800 million from Surrey, $487 million from Burnaby, $256 million from Coquitlam, and $217 million from Richmond.
Theoretically, instead of the existing practice of allocating their minuscule standalone budgets for culture and arts, civic events, and ancillary initiatives and activities dedicated solely towards small community-scale events (which are often anaemic and cookie cutter due to budgetary challenges), the pooling of regional resources across the municipalities would enable the creation of a number of major regional-scale events — perhaps even with an international calibre of quality.
This pooling of resources replicates the economies of scale and synergies enabled by the budgets of larger cities like Calgary and Toronto, whereas when Metro Vancouver’s cities are all on their own, they achieve far less.
Obviously, this would never happen — elected officials in suburban cities would almost certainly balk at the idea of sending their municipal funds to support major regional events held in Vancouver.
An example of the regional imbalance on Vancouver’s resources is described in the VPD’s post-riot report on its police force strength in relation to the increased burden major events place on the city.
“The VPD has an authorized strength of 1,327 officers, serving a residential population of 642,843. Due to the fact that Vancouver is the core city within Metro Vancouver, during large regional events in Vancouver the actual population can swell up to 900,000; however, the number of police officers remains the same, unless the VPD requests that other agencies lend officers to the VPD,” reads the report.
“In fact, as the number of people in Vancouver rises dramatically during these events, other suburban municipalities see a net reduction in people.”
One other issue with organizing public events in the city is the lack of suitable venues, especially for larger events that demand more space and the functional flexibility offered by paved surfaces rather than grass fields, which are unusable during the wintertime and necessitate expensive post-event repairs.
To overcome major event funding challenges in Metro Vancouver, senior governments should play a far more active and predictable role in supporting and fostering key annual events.
Hundreds of annual events across Canada, including more than a handful in Metro Vancouver, saw significant one-time boosts in their budgets in 2017 under the federal government’s Canada 150 initiative of enhancing events across the country for the nation’s year-long anniversary celebration.
In Quebec, which has a reputation for going big on culture, senior governments provide annual subsidies to help sustain the province’s largest events and festivals. During the 2016-17 fiscal year, 17 major events in Quebec received $15.1 million in subsidies from the provincial government and $9.7 million from the federal government.
According to a May 2018 KPMG report, these events saw a cumulative attendance of 12.4 million people, including about 191,000 tourists who travelled from outside Quebec for the purpose of attending one of the events.
Events that received funding include La Ronde’s Montreal International Fireworks Festival, Montreal Festival of Lights, Montreal International Jazz Festival, Quebec City Fireworks Festival, Rogers Cup, Osheaga Music & Arts Festival, and Just For Laughs Comedy Festival.
Altogether, the 17 events produced an economic spinoff of $291 million, created 4,600 full-time equivalent jobs, and generated tax revenue of $49.3 million for the Quebec government and $17.3 million for the federal government.
In down under, Sydney’s world-renowned New Year’s Eve fireworks celebrations are organized by the City of Sydney at a public cost of about AUS$6 million every year, with an economic impact of AUS$133 million.
Proven events in British Columbia are eligible to receive funding from the provincial government’s Tourism Events Program (TEP), but the entire grant must be spent on marketing and communications to help promote tourism.
The TEP cannot be used to directly cover expenses such as security, logistics, and programming, which are the real base costs of sustaining an event.
While the TEP could largely cover an event’s marketing budget and potentially create new revenue by helping generate ticket sales, a more flexible general subsidy program allowing for funds to be used at the discretion of organizers would be far more effective for building up a BC event calendar of high-quality events.
Last month, organizers of the Celebration of Light announced they had received $250,000 in TEP funding — an amount that roughly tops up the fireworks festival’s annual budget by 50%. This is one of the largest single TEP grants to date.