The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
July 1, 1995
Vancouver Where the pen is mightier than the spray paint
Robert Mason Lee
THE alternative press in Vancouver has never been livelier, but The Georgia Straight no longer plays a role in it. The Straight has long since lapsed into being a weekly entertainment tabloid. Its liberal politics are seditious enough these days, but hardly on the vanguard of change it occupied in the sixties. Like so many of its generation, the Straight has found it far more comfortable in the pew than in the pulpit.
The alternative paper worthy of the name is now TerminalCity, a free weekly with a circulation of 20,000. While the journalism in the Straight could be reprinted in any mainstream daily without comment, TerminalCity is proud that it publishes not a single item suitable for a family newspaper.
The Straight carries several pages of earnest personal ads, for instance, while TerminalCity has two sexually explicit advice-to-the- lovelorn columns: “Grrrl Trouble” for lesbians and “Savage Love” for gays. While the Straight covers protests, TerminalCity provokes them. The tone of the Straight is caring, concerned and occasionally close to tears; the tone of TerminalCity is sarcastic, raw and occasionally close to throwing a brick. I prefer TerminalCity.
Nowhere is the contrast more sharply drawn than in their politics. The Straight, for a period when it suffered from institutional amnesia, had former Socred cabinet minister Rafe Mair writing its political column. The political writer for TerminalCity is a fun-loving anarchist with a Viking’s red mane known as Brian “Godzilla” Salmi.
When the Straight was convicted of criminal libel in 1968 for insulting a judge, it fought the conviction and overturned it on appeal. Twenty-five years later, a new generation of dissent was reflected when Mr. Salmi was hauled before the B.C. Supreme Court on a contempt charge for his part in the Clayoquot protest. Mr. Salmi informed the judge that he in fact did have nothing but contempt for him and his court. He went to jail. He takes his lumps.
Mr. Salmi is known to me personally and I have never regarded him as a threat to anything larger than a metaphor. (He did once spray paint the radiation symbol on a U.S. aircraft carrier, but it didn’t sink or anything.) So I was somewhat surprised to learn that the Vancouver Police force had investigated Mr. Salmi for causing the Stanley Cup riot.
Mr. Salmi had written a column anticipating the Vancouver Canucks’ entry into the playoffs. The offending passage read: “I’ll be happy to see the Canucks win the Cup because (I) need a new CD player. I’m talking Booze Up and Riot. I’m talking LOOT, LOOT, LOOT! I’m talking Robson Street the night the Canucks win. I’m talking Christmas for poor adults. Start your window shopping now.”
The Vancouver police evidently felt the passage, published three weeks before the riot, was more responsible for it than their own tear-gas volleys and baton charges, delivered without warning when the crowd got unruly.
Under an access-to-information request, the police investigation into Mr. Salmi’s column has now been made public: “SALMI is known to the author as a person with extreme views, a high intellect but a non-violent and a bark worse than his bite,” wrote Const. D. Reece of the terrorist/extremist section of the Vancouver police- department intelligence unit. “Very few intelligent readers take SALMI seriously. However, he writes with great conviction and in the language of the street to the extent that persons of street-level intellect might take him seriously.”
The report then left the realm of social and literary criticism: “SALMI wrote this article with a tongue-in-cheek attitude perhaps with no intent to actually incite the riot. He may not have realized what the consequences of his actions might have been.”
Although Mr. Salmi “has never been a lover of the Police or any type of authority,” it conceded he was fair to police in a follow-up article. A second police report added that, “given the ridiculous nature of the entire article,” it would be difficult to treat the offending passage seriously. Crown prosecutors ended the silliness by determining there was no chance of conviction.
Taxpayers should sleep easier at night knowing the counterterrorist branch is honing its skills at literary criticism while the Air India bombers go free. Defenders of liberty should rest easy knowing the police still allow those who do not love them to walk the streets.
And Mr. Salmi is reassured to learn that police cannot distinguish criminal intent from satire or extremism from dissent. “I think that in heaven, Kafka and Swift are reading this report and doing high fives,” he says. The Disney people wasted their money buying rights to the RCMP image; there was already a Mickey Mouse force in Vancouver.