The Vancouver riots: a backlash against the backlash

True confession time: I still have not told my mother that I was sent to the principal’s office back in Grade Six. The only reason for this is that our principal, Mr. Devine, let me and my friend Sheila off with a stern lecture about whatever minor school rule we had just violated. But Mr. Devine wasn’t the worst threat to our mental and physical health on that day as the two of us stood weeping hysterically outside his office. The real threat would have been facing our parents back home, along with the terrifyingly certain consequences that “causing trouble at school” would bring.

Back then, the concept of logical consequences was perfectly understood by all of us. Everybody – our parents, teachers, friends, neighbours – knew and accepted (along with all physicists since Newton) that for every action, there would inevitably be an equal and opposite reaction. And that parental reaction would be far more painful than anything Mr. Devine could dish out. No exceptions, no excuses, no getting off easy.

That was all part of making sure that we would not grow up and one day decide to set fire to police cars in downtown Vancouver.

So when watching hours of live news footage of thugs terrorizing the streets of Vancouver during last week’s Stanley Cup riots, I couldn’t help but sadly ask myself if we have somehow raised an entire generation of spoiled brats who have never had to grasp the foreign concept of facing logical consequences of their actions? 

CBC Radio newscasters in Vancouver, for example, are already lamenting the mass public hostility now being directed at the thugs responsible for violence, looting and arson during the June 15th riots. They actually sound like they’re feeling sorry for the poor thugs.

What started as understandable public outrage and a demand for swift justice has now somehow morphed into cautionary official warnings to be gentle on these basically normal kids who merely got caught up in the fun of fist-fighting, overturning burning cop cars, smashing store windows, and stealing as much stuff as they could carry out of the 60+ stores they were looting.

It’s a backlash against the backlash.

One such thug is the telegenic (and now apologetic) young Nathan Kotylak, an elite 17-year old athlete who comes from the privileged world of private school, a Maple Ridge mansion, a surgeon father  – complete with a hired lawyer who has announced to the media that Nathan simply made a “dumb” mistake but, unfortunately for Nathan, a mistake filmed by thousands of cameras that night.

Reading from a written statement, young Nathan has apologized on television to his friends, family, teammates, the Vancouver police and the public for “becoming part of the mob mentality that swept through members of the crowd” after the Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley cup to the visiting Boston Bruins on June 15th.

As a mother, my heart breaks for Nathan’s parents who are probably decent, caring people, understandably devastated now by their son’s admitted involvement in the riots. What parent wouldn’t empathize with this couple’s unimaginable humiliation?

But why do I have this niggling suspicion that Nathan’s tearful apology on national television was a carefully orchestrated, lawyer-coached performance designed to mitigate his guilty behaviour and, more importantly, to reduce the risk of suffering the very serious consequences that a criminal conviction will have on the rest of this promising young life?

Yes, he feels bad. Of course, he feels bad. The shots of him and his lighter,  trying to stuff a burning rag into the gas tank of that Vancouver police car (and later setting fire to a trash can) have now been seen all around the globe. That kind of public embarrassment must feel excruciatingly painful.

And the former Olympic hopeful has already been suspended as a member of Canada’s national junior water polo team. He had to miss his own high school graduation party on the weekend. He and his family even claim they’ve received personal threats after their home address was revealed online.

Hasn’t poor Nathan learned his lesson? Hasn’t he already paid a huge price? Hasn’t he suffered enough?

Before you consider those questions, however, imagine if young Nathan had not come from such a privileged background. What if he were instead a First Nations kid from a poor single-parent home in East Van (instead of being a handsome young athlete from a nice white family living in a wealthy neighbourhood)?

Can you picture how the public might react to a similarly weepy apology? My cynical guess is that they’d be demanding that his sorry ass be tossed into Juvie as fast as legally possible.

In one case, burdening a (good) rich kid with a criminal record for life seems unnecessarily harsh. In the other, it’s clearly what the (bad) poor kid deserves.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a tad concerned that this is how justice might play out here.

In a post-confession question-and answer-session, Nathan Kotylak tearfully described how, in just one day, the results of a Google search on his name went from awards and honours to condemnation for sticking a lit rag into a police car gas tank.

Funny how trying to set a $60,000 police vehicle on fire tends to attract condemnation, isn’t it?

We’re overly familiar with televised tearful apologies. Think Tiger Woods here. But many of us wonder if this type of very public contrition means that a person is feeling sorry about the wrongdoing, or merely feeling very, very sorry about getting caught red-handed.

Judges in our provincial legal system are required, however, to take a suspect’s apology into consideration when sentencing an accused. (Helpful hint to Vancouver rioters: start composing your official apology statement now. It helps if you cry, too.)

Some outraged Vancouverites have been working through social media on an spontaneous naming and shaming campaign to publicly identify, humiliate and coerce rioters to turn themselves in to police. These Vancouverites are now being called a digital lynch mob by Canadian  media. The backlash against the backlash has begun.

But many of us do not believe that any suspects would be coming forward at all if they weren’t already fearful of being publicly exposed through these digital mobs. They are now – surprise, surprise! – being shamed into facing the logical consequences of their actions last Wednesday night.

Many Vancouverites are also expressing concern that even the unforgettably distressing images from the riots may not ultimately result in convictions and meaningful criminal sentences for the thugs captured on those images. They predict a puny slap-on-the-wrist punishment, if any. Vancouver’s been through this before, after all, during the infamous 1994 Stanley Cup riots in which, for a six-hour hellish period of unrestrained mayhem, 50 downtown stores were trashed, 200 people were injured, and exactly two rioters were handed brief jail terms.

And if the legal consequences for last summer’s rioters at the G20 Summit in Toronto are any indication, penalties will indeed be puny. 

Consider Jaggi Singh, a well-known anti-globalization protest organizer from Montreal who has a criminal record of previous riot-related convictions. He pleaded guilty following the G20 riots (for a criminal offense punishable by 60-90 days of incarceration) but was instead recently handed merely a suspended sentence, placed on probation for 12 months, ordered to perform 75 hours of community service, and told not to participate in unlawful protests or demonstrations.

Is this the same “punishment” that awaits our Vancouver thugs too? Sure makes all those iPhones you looted from London Drugs last week a pretty darned good score after all, doesn’t it?

In fact, the vast majority of the more than 1,100 people arrested during the G20 weekend protests in Toronto last June were released without charge or had their charges dropped, while 24 pleaded guilty and 56 cases  are still before the courts one year later.

But meanwhile, the social media shaming campaign in Vancouver seems to be working so far (more of the rioters are now turning themselves in to Vancouver police; a number have also been fired by their employers) – even as politicians and police are warning the public to ease up on the poor frightened riot suspects. And some of those being named and shamed are now issuing their own statements online, apologizing and begging for forgiveness.

Vancouver Police have arrested and released 117 people so far, with only eight facing criminal charges. All of those eight so far are male teens like Nathan with no prior criminal records, and are from as far away as Calgary. None live in Vancouver. This fact calls into question for some the earlier statements from both police and politicians that a band of hard-core criminals and anarchists were responsible for the riots. Personally, I suspect this theory is at least partially true. The difference: hard-core criminals are likely savvy enough to conceal their identities when breaking the law instead of sharing photos of themselves online.

Are we watching a self-absorbed generation of young people – rich or poor, and with or without criminal records – who seem blissfully unconcerned about the effects of their behaviour choices on others? Or even on themselves?  Witness the moronic decisions of many to actually post self-incriminating evidence of their stupidity during the Vancouver riots on their own Facebook pages.  See also: Facebook’s Appeal To The Truly Stupid.

Researcher Dr. Gordon Russell, author of the book Aggression in the Sports World, told CBC Radio that some studies of rioting hooligans, particularly those based on European football riots, have described participants as being “young, single males with disaffected attitudes and low-paying jobs”.

But in the case of the Vancouver rioters, he suggests that certain personality profiles may also have predisposed many to riot. He predicts that the personalities of the Vancouver rioters likely include three main traits:

  • impulsive (“acting without forethought”)
  • anti-social (“just do things for the hell of it”)
  • sensation-seeking (“willing to take risks for intense experiences”)

Dr. Russell’s own research on sports-related violence in Finland, U.S. and Canada has identified a number of sociological categories of fans and their potential reaction to violence at or following a sporting event:

  • 2.4% are fighters (destructive, verbally/physically aggressive)
  • 4.7% are agitators (will egg on the would-be ‘fighters’)
  • 26.2% will try to intervene to stop the violence
  • 61.1% will stand idly by and watch the violence
  • 5.6% will leave the venue

That ostensibly leaves about two-thirds of the 100,000 Canucks fans who were downtown during the Stanley Cup riots either hanging around idly watching the rioters, egging on the rioters, or being the rioters. One pundit described this demographic as “being without a moral compass”.

We might well wonder where this apparent lack of ability to connect the dots between their actions and consequences actually comes from.

One of my oldest friends is a recently retired high school math teacher. She told me that over the years, parents have increasingly demanded that she falsely upgrade their teens’ final calculus test scores if they weren’t good enough to ensure the precious darlings would get accepted into the university of their choice. When she refused to alter the scores, the parents’ agitated reactions implied that she was the one who was single-handedly destroying the entire future of the precious darlings.

Her experience reflects comparable results of a recent study commissioned by the Detroit Free Press that found one out of three Michigan educators report pressure from parents or others to change the grades of their students. And at schools that don’t meet federal standards, the tension is even higher: about 50% say pressure to change grades is an issue. Some cave in to this pressure – about 8% say they did change grades within the last school year.

But doesn’t this kind of parental interference serve merely to teach kids that it doesn’t really matter what I do or don’t do – because somebody else will go in and “fix” things for me so I won’t ever have to face the consequences, no matter what?

At least, that’s what child psychologist Dr. David Elkind of Tufts University believes:

“We learn through experience, and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure, we learn how to cope. Messing up, however, starting even in the playground, is wildly out of style now. Although error and experimentation are the true mothers of success, parents are taking pains to remove failure from the equation.”

It’s uncertain yet how many thugs will be blaming alcohol for their actions during the Vancouver riots, but we do know that alcohol consumption has been widely cited as the excuse offered for much of the mayhem, particularly among young males.

Researchers like Dr. Gordon Russell, for example, confirm:

“Alcohol is a powerful contributor to facilitating aggression in young males at sporting event riots”.

But the way they are using alcohol – particularly binge-drinking – appears to be changing, says Dr. Paul Joffe of the University of Illinois Suicide Prevention team. Interviewed for a report in Psychology Today called “Nation of Wimps”, Dr. Joffe explained:

“Binge-drinking is a quest for authenticity and intensity of experience. It gives young people something all their own to talk about, and sharing stories about the path to passing out is a primary purpose.

“It’s an inverted world in which drinking to oblivion is the way to feel connected and alive.”

A newly-emerging defense of the rioters is that (as Nathan Kotylak’s lawyer Bart Findlay is being paid to insist) their destructive actions last Wednesday night at the riots somehow do not reflect their true character.

Wrong conclusion, Mr. Findlay.

There is and always has been only one way to judge a person’s character. True character is entirely revealed through one’s actions.

And remember also the famous words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote:

“Who you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you’re saying.”


NEWS UPDATE July 20, 2011 – Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu reported that he expects “several hundred people” will be charged as a result of the Stanley Cup Riot, according to the Vancouver Sun.

In his first public statements in more than a month, Chu told the Vancouver Police Board that an integrated team made up of 50 police officers and civilian experts are poring over thousands of tips and reviewing more than 15,000 images sent to the police department in the wake of the June 15 riot.

So far only 37 people (30 males, seven females) have turned themselves in, and police are resisting charging them until the investigative team has completely examined all the evidence, Chu said.

The chief said his officers identified at least 202 “recorded incidents” involving anywhere from one to 300 people. To date the department has received 4,300 email tips, 1,700 emails requiring investigation, and 1,500 hours of video.

He said of the 37 people who have turned themselves in, only seven came from Vancouver.  The range of charges being considered range from participating in a riot to assault, assaulting a police officer, theft, robbery, arson, possession of weapons and possession of stolen property.

Anyone with information is asked to contact police by email at, by phone at 604-717-2541 or with Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.

14 thoughts on “The Vancouver riots: a backlash against the backlash

  1. Very good piece Carolyn. The central point is that we have de-linked rights from responsibilities.

    Everyone has “rights” but as soon as something goes wrong nobody wants to be responsible. It is the fault of alcohol or society or something, but never the actions of the individual concerned. This is reinforced by lawyers, social workers and parts of government and the media.

    WE must reconnect actions to consequences and rights to responsibility.

    • Ironic comment from a Dr, when his Doctor brothers are the ones giving the excuses. Doctors are the ones that will name Nathan a victim of mental illness.
      This naming is in order to profit, as in make money. Nathan will need years of therapy and medications for his illness.

  2. You are 100% right. Why this sudden about-face in the media, with the “thugs” now being seen as the poor little victims of vigilantes? These idiots were mugging, laughing and posing for photos during their destructive rampage – hardly “victims” at all.

    The only victims here are the citizens and the reputation of our beautiful city, let’s never forget that. Excellent article, Carolyn thanks for this. I’m forwarding it to my colleagues.

    • Thanks for your comments here. It’s been interesting to see how in just one week, media sentiment seems to be shifting in favour of the beleaguered “victims” (now being embarrassed by being outed in social media).

  3. I think that these youths are sorry only because they were caught. Those tears are real crocodile tears. It seems they have no conscience and probably a low IQ. Anyone with at least an average intelligence or sensitivity would know that what they were doing was extremely dangerous.

    • Not sure if a “low IQ” actually has anything to do with it. There’s “stupid” – and then there’s “stupid”. What these thugs do likely share is a low expectation that they’ll actually have to face any consequences of their stupidity.

  4. it is amazing how people are only talking of just the police car and Nathan. Nathan started doing his violence earlier that day and there is visual evidence. He did not just walk out after the game and get caught up in the moment. He is linked with proof to other fires, a possible assault and looting. His apology reflected just the one incident that was being showed at the time. I do not believe in “my child would never do that!” mentality. I think Nathan finally got caught in a behaviour that goes on when he thinks no one is watching.

    • That’s the puzzling thing, Scott. These rioters were all well aware that hundreds of cell phone cameras were photographing their actions – how could they possible believe “no one is watching?”

  5. Great piece Carolyn.

    I feel the parents of all these rioters, looters, lookers and losers are squarely to blame. They obviously never instilled any sort of morals in their ilk; they never taught them to respect anything or anyone, nor did they teach them that there are consequences to their actions.

    Now I believe there were basically three types of people involved with the riots- those that are just naturally low-Q’s and thugs, those that are closet thieves (wannabe badasses) and those who might be redeemable, got caught up in the crowd power and are truly ashamed (…that they got caught).

    The difference between them and those of us who contribute to the world is their upbringing.

    Now not all of the cretins involved in the riots came from a bad background; some of them came from hard working immigrants who came to Canada to provide a better life for their children – a life where looters aren’t shot on sight and the penalty for stealing does not incarcerate them in prison or labour camps for ten years. How sad that they worked so hard to give their children the opportunity for success that they somehow missed the mark by not instilling values like honesty, integrity and respect.

    Then there are those “normally really good people who got caught up in something and really really can’t believe they did that” lowlifes that are shocked we can’t quite forgive them because gosh darn they just made a mistake.

    They come from successful mostly two parent families – the kind with little white decals showing mom dad kids and the family pets on the back window of the mini-van. They have had the benefit of soccer, hockey, little league, gymnastics etc. and Mom and Dad have been out to support them at all their games, recitals etc. Unfortunately what they haven’t had is the benefit of a smack on their bottoms when they deserved it, literally or figuratively. They weren’t taught that bad behavior could get them more than a “time-out” in real life. These are the same kids that mom and dad would give a wad of money to on Friday nights and tell them to have fun but be good, the kids that walk around in groups kicking in fences. They would never dream of kicking in fences when on their own, but the power they feel in the group easily overrides the weak sense of responsibility and accountability instilled by their parents.

    We need to give these losers the education their parents failed to provide. We need to teach them that there are consequences. The courts will be pathetically lenient so since stoning is illegal, public shaming is really the best recourse at this time. Keep their names and faces in the limelight. Make their parents aware of what they have cast upon society. However IF the miscreant somehow can atone for their actions (financial commitment to their victim(s) being about the only really acceptable form of apology) then that should be made known too; Little Johnny will pay $10,000 towards that burned out police car that is not covered by insurance or Little Sally will pay the wages for the number of days an employee missed while the coffee shop Sally helped to trash was being repaired, PLUS a contribution to the cost of the actual repairs- really this is the only way these people can regain one iota of respect from regular society. I don’t care if their parents shell out the bucks – like it or not it was their responsibility to raise their children with morals and ethics and values and they failed.

    As for those uneducated, unemployed dope-smoking empty pocket dirtballs (especially those who think they can hide behind bandanas and hoodies) the only way they can give back at all is to use contraception – every time.

  6. Very well said. Consequence has become unpopular in our society for those who destroy what is not theirs.

    Unfortunately that consequence still must lay with someone or something (every action has an equal and opposite….). Events like this that go with little punishment shape who we are and our “internet mob” may play a role in reforming this. Regardless of background, setting a police car on fire is bad, and being stupid enough to do it on TV deserves stiff punishment.

    • Thanks for your comment, David. My cynical self wonders what if any “punishment” will be dished out to Vancouver rioters – yes, even ones caught on film trying to set police cars on fire. But as we say in PR: “Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish wrapping” – and already this topic seems to have fallen off our collective radar. Pity….

    • I am a forensic technician and I as well as many police officers spend hours and hours working on cases that seem cut and dry and rarely do any of them make it to court. Crown stays so many charges or they triage the cases and refuse to approve charges and I am talking about files a lot more serious than vandalism and looting.

      I am dismally sure 99% of these will never be dealt with by the courts.

      Public shaming and the few very angst-ridden days some of these people have suffered will be the extent of their punishments, though their names may remain in infamy on the web so future employers can do their own “background” checks.

      • And that’s exactly what we were afraid of. Your comments make me somehow feel better that at least many of the thugs experienced “a few angst-ridden days” – likely the worst punishment they’ll actually receive. Thanks, Susan.

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