It was one of Vancouver’s ugliest days in recent memory.
One in which the building joy of a once in a generation run at the Stanley Cup descended into chaos, smoke, and flames as the Vancouver Canucks fell 4-0 to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the final.
The ensuing riot caused nearly $4-million of damage, including mass looting at London Drugs, The Bay, and other shops. 912 charges were eventually laid against more than 300 suspects; $5-million was spent prosecuting them, in a process that finally wrapped in February.
Anatomy of a riot
The night began with thousands congregating in a Fan Zone in downtown Vancouver, joyous at first, but becoming ever more agitated as the hockey game went sour.
LISTEN: Janet Brown, Penny Daflos, and James Lewis report live as joy turns to rage in the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot
Boston’s final empty net goal sent angry crowds pouring out of the Granville Live site, and within half an hour a car was overturned and set on fire.
It began in front of the Canada Post office on Georgia Street and quickly spread throughout the downtown core.
At the peak of the riot, windows of multiple stores were smashed with dozens of people looting, running out of the Bay and London Drugs with armfuls of purses, watches, makeup and perfume.
More cars were set ablaze, including a pair of police cruisers, as onlookers cheered, climbed lamp posts and roofs, and snapped photos and videos.
In one case, good Samaritan Robert MacKay who tried to stop the looting was badly beaten.
Father Glenn Dion, now with the Star of the Sea Parish was then with the Holy Rosary Cathedral on Dunsmuir, and recalls seeing the crowds and rushing to the church to try and protect it.
“[It was] the first time I ever had to experience it, and I hope I never have to again… it comes pretty quickly back to me, the trauma of the moment.”
He says a number of the hall’s windows had already been smashed, and he gathered staff to try and keep the destruction from spreading.
“And then I got my other priests that were handy and I said to them all, wear your uniforms and look big. And we stood in front of the cathedral rectory and just tried to keep people moving along. And pretty soon there was a riot in place, and it was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life, seeing so many people caught up with the violence of the moment.”
Dion says he watched several cars burn, and as the thick smoke began to spread saw the mood of the crowd shift.
“People were beginning to realize that this was not really a funny thing at all and started to cry and scream, and the rushing of the crowd. And then of course when the police started to disperse them it became a bit of a panic.”
Early on, police presence was scarce, but slowly that shifted with mounted and K9 units called in along with the riot squad and officers began to herd the crowd into smaller areas and attempt to disperse it with flash bangs and teargas.
In the end, it was three hours before the streets were cleared, leaving more than 100 people injured and the streets littered with glass and debris.
In the wake of the riot, officials struggled to explain why they weren’t prepared for the chaos – particularly in the shadow of the city’s 1994 Stanley Cup riot.
LISTEN: Officials respond in the wake of the riot
Then-police chief Jim Chu who faced calls for his resignation, blamed the chaos on a small group of trouble makers from the suburbs and B.C.’s interior bent on causing mayhem whichever way the game had gone.
“These were people who came equipped with masks, goggles and gasoline. Even fire extinguishers that they would use as weapons. We recognized some of those same criminals among them as those who took part in the vandalism during the Winter Olympics.”
Chu also praised the force’s efforts, noting that officers had a plan, and executed it, faring better than their counterparts in 1994.
2011 riot by the numbers
- 9 officers hurt
- 9 vehicles torched
- 2 police cruisers torched
- 100+ injuries
- 100+ arrests the night of
- 912 charges laid
- 360 suspects
- $3.78-million in damage
- $5-million prosecution costs
“We got the situation stabilized in three hours. That was our objective. In 1994, it took almost six hours for that riot to be stopped. We had triple the number of rioters last night.”
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson echoed the police, blaming the incident on “a small group of trouble makers.” Asked if the police had responded appropriately by not being more aggressive to break up the riot, he said the VPD had done its job.
“The Vancouver Police department is very well trained at using an appropriate level of force to deal with the trouble that’s taking place, and I think that the way they’ve responded it justified to ensure that it doesn’t get worse.”
Premier Christy Clark was adamant that the offenders would pay, vowing that once the rioters were identified authorities would throw the book at them.
“We are going to prosecute them to the full extent of the law, and they should know this if they are listening today. As much as we are able we are going to publicize who they are, their family, their friends their employer are going to know what role they played in this. They will not be able to hide.”
Police assigned a task force to the case, setting up a website and sifting through an estimated 30,000 photos and 5,500 hours of video.
It took five years, but eventually more than 900 charges were laid against more than 360 suspected rioters. The last of them were sentenced in February.
A 2016 report put the final bill at $4,976,000, finding more than 900 police officers had been deployed, along with 63 firefighters and 44 ambulance paramedics.
It also identified three key events in the riot:
- 316 individual breaking into the London Drugs at Granville and Georgia;
- Rioters began looting the Hudsons Bay department store, forcing employees to close the store early and hide on the top floor. Even then, rioters broke through locked doors and smashed through windows to continue looting;
- Assault of Mr. Mackay, who was swarmed and assaulted by 13 rioters when he tried to stop rioters from damaging and looting the Bay.
The one good news story to come out of the riot was the public outpouring of support for cleanup efforts the following day.
Thousands of people poured into the downtown core armed with brooms and tools to clean the glass, trash, and soot from the streets.
Many were motivated by a sense of shame and disgust at the previous night’s chaos.
They joined cleanup crews from the city and private companies to board up windows and try to restore some of Vancouver’s tarnished image.
For Father Glenn Dion, it couldn’t undo the damage but went a long way towards starting the healing process.
“Lots of people came back downtown with brooms and shovels and bags to help clean up. And of course they put the plywood in front of all the windows that were broken and people started to put sentiments of regret and solidarity with those who suffered. I don’t know exactly where all of those billboards are now, but I think those, in a sense could be in a city museum somewhere for the sake of those who were there at the time. They left a big impression in the days that followed.”