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Cascadia, where moral hand-wringing is an Olympic sport

The Vancouver Olympics captured nicely the two opposing impulses of the Pacific Northwest: the desire to extol our green virtues, and to exploit our future.
The U.S.-Canada border could see additional lot of traffic when Canadian shoppers are exempted from sales taxes in Bellingham and Blaine.

The U.S.-Canada border could see additional lot of traffic when Canadian shoppers are exempted from sales taxes in Bellingham and Blaine. Sue Frause

The New York Times last week ran a story about how the Vancouver Olympics had not done much to advance the concept of Cascadia, the idea that the Pacific Northwest is kind of an eco-economic region of its own, stretching from British Columbia to Northern California.

Cascadia is the "Salish Sea" of regional political identity, an idealistic and unifying sense of place, climate, water, trees, and aspirations. The article struck me as interesting because it was an example of how the 2010 Winter Olympics have been freighted with baggage.

The regional concept appears to have been a bit of a bust: there were no hordes of tourists flocking to cross the border between Washington and British Columbia. In fact, traffic appeared to be lighter than usual as American Cascadian locals were scared off, tickets hard to come by, and new border travel rules (got to have a passport) restrictive. British Columbians weren't spending billions to host the 2010 Olympics to advance regional prosperity, but their own. They weren't out to make Cascadia a household word but to enhance Vancouver's global status. Cascadia's other capitals, Seattle, Portland and, arguably, San Francisco, could shift for themselves.

There's nothing wrong with that. When Seattle hosted the WTO Summit in 1999, it did so for parochial reasons: the mayor and a port commissioner led the charge of make Seattle a "world class" city. And each of Cascadia's major cities has hosted world's fairs with the same kind of intent: to be seen as a player in international, and especially Pacific, affairs. Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, Spokane and San Francisco have all hosted expositions (some multiple times) as a way of highlighting themselves as the portal to the future. San Francisco attempted to capitalize on the revolutionary Panama Canal, Portland commemorated the glorious path to the Pacific blazed by Lewis and Clark, Seattle established itself as the gateway to Alaska and the Yukon and as the launch pad for Century 21, and Spokane held the first ever environmentally themed world's fair in 1974.

Within the Cascadia concept, regional and metropolitan competition still booms. In a meeting with Seattle Port Commissioners last summer, I was told that the major threat to our economic future was what the British Columbians were cooking up in terms of Port competitiveness to undercut Puget Sound shipping.

Still, the sounds of the Cascadian dream can be heard in the kind of moral freighting that hosting the Vancouver Olympics carried. Yes, there was the importance of pulling off an Olympics that enhanced Canadian national pride. (Thank goodness our neighbors to the north won the hockey gold medal! I can hardly imagine what the brooding giant would have done had they lost; doubtless no American pig on the border would have been safe due to settling old scores here!) But beyond that, there was a high bar set for expectations. The Olympics organizer's promised that these games would be "the greenest games ever," and that Vancouverites "want to become the green capital and take leadership in the future of the planet."

Vancouver hoped to be a spiritual role model as well, interesting for a city in a province that is so secular (it is Cascadia's most unchurched zone). The Christian community was out in force providing food, shelter and sanctuary for Olympics guests, with a kind of "How would Jesus host" ethos. The blog The Search carried a story about a group of Canadian evangelicals and Roman Catholics called More Than Gold that pledged to offer the "'radical hospitality' of Jesus Christ to Olympic visitors." Which version of Jesus they did not specify, but I think it's safe to assume it was not the "cage fighter Jesus" popular among some of Seattle's evangelicals. He was probably checking out the risky bobsled and luge runs.

Other Vancouverites took the opportunity to engage in some introspection. The Vancouver Sun's always interesting religion and values writer, Douglas Todd, who is a Cascadia concept booster, wrote about how locals were looking for ways to "respond authentically" to the games, meaning, could they participate in such a commercial, expensive and boosterish enterprise without surrendering their souls? The polls, he reported, highlighted a conflict: as of mid-February, 60 percent of Vancouverites thought the games a waste of money, but over 70 percent said they were proud of the athletes.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Mar 2, 8:38 a.m. Inappropriate

Whether you call it a sense of superiority or not, I think we're all aware that we live is a special region of the world and that lots of people and groups are working very hard to live harmonious,creative and productive lives I don't think we're called to be a utopia and to live out someone's vision of a super-region, but to be decent human beings trying to improve our little corner of the planet. When we fall short of the mark, I don't call that corrupt, but human.

Re our Canadian neighbors, watching the Olympics gave me an unexpected burst of appreciation. I liked the qualities of persistence, hard work, a creative impulse, the competitive urge, and a spirited sense of exuberance and good humor. The Canadian national anthem is still rattling around my brain, and I'm grateful.

Thanks for the essay.

Ammons

Posted Tue, Mar 2, 10:38 a.m. Inappropriate

Fun piece, Skip, but the last word should have been "contradiction," not corruption. It's not corrupt to want it both ways, just human. At bottom, we Boomers are all BoBo's (Bourgeois Bohemians), as David Brooks rightly nails us.

-- John Hamer

Posted Wed, Mar 3, 2:25 a.m. Inappropriate

Good post. Other than the regional environment, Cascadia lacks an organizing focus*. No late warlike attacks from without to bond the locals as a group, English as a common language but not much of a distinguishing local dialect (alas, poor Chinook Jargon), people arriving from around the world in dribs and drabs without any single group to crystalize around, a diverse spiritual outlook that is also friendly to the ungodly, and although a local cultural dynamic is slowly emerging, with less than 160 years of local history to build on it still has a ways yet to go. Heck, does Greater Salishistan include Spokane and it's Inland Empire? Where does Alaska end and Cascadia begin? And as you infer, The Bay may or may not be a part of Cascadia, with the unmentioned buffer State of Jefferson inbetween. So, no distinct borders, no identity of as a people, no overarching connection spiritually or historically. What is that which will brand us as distinctive?

*Fishtale Ale excepted. Brewed in the Republic of Cascadia according to the label.

NickBob

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