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“Utopia on the Pacific”?

Coping with the Crisis in Vancouver

Labour

November, 2002: Jammed into the downtown library, 2,000 activists roared as the results of Vancouver’s civic election were announced. For the first time since its formation in 1968, the labour/Left-backed Coalition of Progressive Electors swept the race, electing the mayor (Larry Campbell), eight of ten city councillors, seven of nine school trustees, and five of seven Parks Board commissioners. Visions of “Utopia on the Pacific” danced in the minds of campaign workers.

The next morning, even while the new mayor led almost 15,000 people on an anti-war protest across the Burrard Bridge, reality began to sink in. Most real power remained in the hands of developers, landlords, finance capital and right-wing provincial and federal governments. Running the city while remaining true to COPE’s historic, working-class roots would be a huge challenge.

Almost two years later, important changes have been gained, but this city is still marked by wild extremes of wealth and poverty. The level of citizen participation in local decision-making has improved remarkably, but the rich and powerful still act as though they own Vancouver – and they do.

Some had hoped that the pace of change might be quicker. Mayor Campbell, a former RCMP officer who became Vancouver’s chief coroner and supported a safe-injection site for drug users, was a political unknown who pledged to back COPE policies. But the rest of COPE’s 21 councillors, trustees and commissioners were mostly seasoned community activists, many with Marxist or left social-democratic outlooks. Contrary to media reports, which speak of the “NDP-affiliated COPE,” the membership is based among Greens, Communists, non-affiliated leftists and decidedly left-oriented New Democrats.

On some important issues, the COPE majority has been successful. The first year in office saw major progress made to address the city’s housing crisis, with more new low-income and social housing moving forward than during previous entire three-year terms.

A

n Adequate Response to Addiction

While the official “Four Pillars” strategy (harm reduction, prevention, treatment, enforcement) on the city’s addiction crisis remains controversial, the opening of North America’s first legal safe-injection site has already averted many overdose deaths, and may help slow the spread of HIV-AIDS, hepatitis and other diseases.

On some issues related to the far-right provincial Liberal government, COPE has proven an important ally for working people, speaking out against brutal welfare cuts and other attacks on social programs.

For example, City Council, the Parks Board and the School Board have worked together to protect child-care services. As provincial downloading reduces the number of licensed child-care spaces in Vancouver, the three bodies are finding ways to make better use of facilities and create efficiencies to save money and reduce the negative impact.

“Cool Vancouver”: Responding Locally to Global Issues

One of the critical issues for COPE has been the city’s role in responding to climate change and global warming caused by rising greenhouse-gas emissions. The “Cool Vancouver” strategy implemented by COPE has focused on solutions starting at the local level – a wide range of practical measures to conserve energy, move to cleaner fuels and absorb carbon dioxide.

The new City Council rejected the old Vancouver Civic Non-Partisan Association (NPA) argument that municipal leaders have no business discussing international issues. Vancouver was the first major Canadian city to take a stand against the build-up to war against Iraq. The city is among over 150 official members of the StopWar.ca peace coalition, and Vancouver will be the site of a world peace forum in 2006.

Responding to the “race to the bottom” agenda of capitalist globalization, Council will implement an “ethical purchasing policy” for the city by the end of 2004. As advocated by a local coalition of student, labour and human-rights activists, the move will establish a screening procedure to avoid doing business with slave drivers, union busters and exploiters of children.

Headaches and Shortfalls

The long-term effect of provincial funding shortfalls for public schools (a cumulative $100 million over the past decade) has meant huge headaches for the COPE-led School Board. During their first year, the trustees reduced administration costs to “keep the cuts out of the classroom.” But the shortfall was too enormous to repeat this success for the Board’s 2004-05 budget, leading to new layoffs. This struggle will continue during next May’s provincial election. If public pressure is sufficient, the Liberals may crank up spending, which could give the VSB and other school boards some budget relief.

Still, the COPE trustees have won wide support for working closely with staff unions, parents and students on the budget process, for taking a leading role in making schools safer for queer and questioning youth, and for speaking out strongly in defence of public education in general.

Despite these and other successes, the fact is that COPE assumed civic office during a period of severe economic problems, battling “senior” governments, which dump the responsibility for crucial problems onto municipalities that lack political clout and taxing powers.

This contradiction has exacerbated the divisions within COPE. Although its councillors usually vote along similar lines, there have been disputes over issues such as transportation, gambling expansion and spending decisions.

Coalition-Busting: Ways and Means

The city’s bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics, launched years before the 2002 election, landed in COPE’s lap immediately. The approach by the mayor and a majority of council was to use the Olympics to bring new federal and provincial funding for housing and infrastructure. On this basis, they won 64 per cent of voter support in a referendum to back the bid, overcoming arguments for other priorities during a time of severe economic and social problems. It remains to be seen how many of the glittering promises will come true, but already it appears that much of the Olympic Village will become condos, not social housing.

Even worse, it has become increasingly clear that the Olympics are warping regional decision-making processes, especially on transportation. One of the ugliest splits within COPE has been among its representatives on Greater Vancouver regional bodies. Although a severe shortage of buses is widely recognized as the region’s major public-transit weakness, transit bureaucrats and some politicians backed plans to make the proposed RAV line (rapid transit from the airport to downtown Vancouver) the top priority. Votes swung back and forth for months, until RAV’s backers won the day. Many COPE supporters see the votes for RAV by Mayor Campbell and some councillors as a betrayal of their election pledges, and there are strong fears that the project will force higher fares and reduced bus service.

The gambling issue may be another coalition-buster. Unions representing Hastings Park racetrack workers have been among the backers of a plan to revive the track’s declining fortunes by installing slot machines, which would also bring revenues to the city. Some community groups wanted to continue restoring the Park into green space, and others argued that relying on the proceeds of expanded gambling has serious long-term consequences. Since both groups have been under the COPE umbrella, the dispute had no easy resolution. It was settled by the vote of NPA councillor Sam Sullivan, who had previously spoken eloquently about the negative impact of gambling, only to vote in favour of slots at Hastings. (Sullivan, incidentally, received a $5,000 donation from the gambling industry in the last election.)

On election night, the NPA looked shattered and splintered, in contrast to the broad spectrum of forces gathered under COPE. Now, a year before the November, 2005 civic election, COPE’s unity is fragile at best. The 2004 AGM of the organization was delayed due to a huge turnout on the first attempt, exceeding the venue’s capacity. COPE’s staff and the centrist group around the mayor and his closest allies on council appeared shocked to realize that a strong majority of those members clearly favoured executive candidates linked to the more left-oriented city councillors. Lengthy negotiations followed, resulting in a “unity” slate elected by acclamation when the AGM finally took place in late June. That outcome, however, did nothing to resolve differences over some critical issues, and there will almost certainly be interesting contests for COPE nominations in 2005. There are even rumours that Vancouver’s civic NDP, angered by a decision to allow expansion of slot machines in the city, may consider running some candidates.

Fortunately, local memories of the arrogant, dictatorial NPA regime remain fresh. If COPE can pull together a solid campaign, another victory is possible, although the terrain will shift if this fall’s referendum on adopting a system of 14 single-member wards wins a majority. (Given the history of virtually no representation on council from lower-income east-side neighbourhoods, COPE has long pressed for a ward system.)

Situating the COPE Experience

That’s the good news for working people here, and for socialists and progressives across Canada looking for examples of how to move from protest politics to winning elections. The COPE experience shows that building a coalition on the basis of long-term support from the labour movement, social-justice groups and the political Left can bring results. It also shows that enormous patience and commitment is necessary, along with a willingness to build alliances with centrist forces.

But progressives would be naive to ignore the potential problems that have hampered COPE: bureaucratic sabotage, refusals by some elected officials to adhere to established policy positions, right-wing higher levels of government, which refuse to cooperate. There is much to be learned from Vancouver, which could become a beacon for other coalitions, especially if COPE’s grassroots members can ensure that the organization truly fulfills its goals.

Kimball Cariou is editor of the People’s Voice and a member of CD’s Editorial Collective.

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