For a city embraced by mountains on one side and ocean on the other, Vancouver can seem like an unhappy place. And with a civic election scheduled for November 15, smack in the middle of the rainy season, it will take some major mobilizing to improve the mood of left-wing residents.
Sitting mayor Gregor Robertson long ago sold his share of Happy Planet, the company he helped found in 1993, to enter public life, first as an NDP MLA and now vying for his third term as mayor under the Vision Vancouver banner. Most pundits agree that the former juice baron, who has spent the last six years successfully marketing himself as the safe, vaguely progressive champion of Vancouver and is backed by massive real estate money, already has the race pretty much sewn up.
Vision’s chief adversary, the right-wing non-Partisan Association (nPA), doesn’t even have a mayoral candidate as of this writing. The best they have to offer so far is former Vancouver Sun managing editor Kirk LaPointe who is publicly hemming and hawing about entering the race. Mayor Robertson took some heat recently when he referred to the nPA as a bunch of “angry old white men.” After a few half-hearted denunciations of racism, ageism and sexism, everyone in the nPA executive looked around and noticed that it was, well, true.
Robertson promises politics that will make you happy — like the smoothies he used to sell. With the help of the obstructionist nPA, his administration has made building bike lanes look like bold politics. He proposes them, the nPA fights them, and Van- couverites pick sides. Robertson has put vegetable garden plots on City Hall grounds and vowed to make Vancouver the “Greenest City in the World” by 2020: a goal as sweeping as it is vacant. He has also positioned himself as the city’s most prominent voice opposing pipelines and oil-tanker traffic, despite the fact that these decisions will be made at the national, not municipal, levels.
Vancouverites like to bike, they like to compost and they don’t like oil spills. it’s a testament to the province’s environmental movement that it caused Christy Clark to impose conditions (however cynical) on a pipeline agreement with Alberta and prompted former BC NDP leader Adrian Dix to refuse to endorse the Kinder Morgan pipeline during the provincial election last May. But the policies proposed and defended by Robertson and Vision are essentially lifestyle politics: diaphanous, hollow, skin-deep.
Rents and real estate out of reach
Vancouverites are beginning to cotton on. In March, Vancouver was declared the second-least affordable city in the world — just behind Hong Kong — for the sixth year in a row. The average price of a detached home is hovering slightly below $1 million and still rising. Since hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics, rents have increased an astonishing 15 per cent. True, those with bikes can cycle to the beach in safety and those with backyards can grow kale and raise chickens, but pretty much everyone is cognizant of the physical and economic transformation of their city.
Gentrification is not an idle word in Vancouver. It marks the political fault lines of the city and raises the alarm of inequality, unaffordability and alienation. Cultural spaces that have served local com- munities for decades are being emptied at a stag- gering rate. Even newer projects that attempted to work in concert with Vision’s developer-happy poli- tics have either been evicted in favour of those with deeper pockets, as was the case with the new media collective W2 at the revamped Woodwards building, or worse, found themselves replaced by condos, like the refurbished Waldorf Hotel.
Early this year Robertson hosted a $25,000 a plate Vision Vancouver fundraiser where local “condo-king” Bob Rennie invited a hundred of his closest developer friends to pony up. Local-area plans in historically working-class neighbourhoods like Marpole and Grandview-Woodlands that call for unprecedented density increases met with energetic resistance from the communities. There is a real sense that the tide of investment capital washing over the city, driven by untrammeled real estate speculation, can’t be stopped—that Vancouver is no longer a city for students, renters, seniors or young families.
No place for the poor
For many of Vancouver’s poor and marginalized, the concerns are far more serious. The Downtown Eastside development — labelled a displacement plan by advocates for low-income residents — was rushed through Council despite desperate pleas for reconsideration. The 2014 street homeless count doubled the previous year’s numbers — a source of keen embarrassment for Vision and the mayor, who had promised to eliminate homelessness by 2015. The Vancouver police budget has risen every year under Vision and now stands at a whopping $235 million, up from $180 million when the party took power in 2008 (compared to the $16 milliion social housing budget in 2013). The VPD has a record of harassing low-income residents, particularly in the Downtown Eastside, where police have handed out 76 per cent of the city’s jaywalking tickets and a shocking 95 per cent of its street vending citations; none were issued in the city’s four richest neighbourhoods. Vision has failed to stand up to this blatant discrimination and is attempting to block a constitutional challenge to the vending by-law, organized by local legal advocacy group Pivot.
Vision Vancouver and Robertson hope their brand of “happy” politics can paper over the vast tearing of the city’s social fabric. They launched the “Engaged City Task Force” initiative last year to combat both embarrassing voter turnout (a recent poll to pick Vancouver’s official bird attracted almost four times as many voters as Robertson did in 2011) and the troubling fact that according to a survey conducted by Vancouver Coastal Health, one quarter of resi- dents claim to suffer from “social isolation.” “no fun city” used to be a snarky epithet on the lips of cyn- ics and punk rockers — but, with escalating inequality increasing its stranglehold on the city in a way all residents feel, the label has taken on a sinister tone.
A revitalized COPE
There is hope. The traditional left-wing party in the city, the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), has gone through some inner turmoil recently. Their membership recently voted to end a strategic alliance with Vision after electing only two city councillors in 2008 and none in 2011. (A telling flaw in Vancouver’s idiosyncratic ward-less electoral system, COPE incumbent Ellen Wordsworth likely failed to get re-elected because Green Party candidate Adrienne Carr, who earned fewer than 100 more votes, was listed higher on the alphabetically ordered ballot.) Vision, meanwhile, swept to victory, electing all seven of its Council candidates in 2011 and sending Robertson back to the mayor’s seat.
The decision to finally split with Vision has reinvigorated the party. Left-wing stalwart Tim Louis, who objected to the alliance from the outset— arguably costing him his 2005 council seat—has reclaimed his voice within COPE. in addition, a brigade of brash, unapologetically socialist young people—self-identifying as Vancouver’s “Left Front” and connected to a local anti-gentrification publication The Mainlander — have mobilized COPE under diverse, grassroots and anti-capitalist vectors.
COPE claims to be the only municipal party with- out a back room and to have member-driven policy and candidate-selection processes. They have promised to run women-majority slates in the November election and to reserve spots for First nations candidates on council, parks and school boards. They have developed a “bottom-up” Sanctuary City policy drafted in consultation with migrant rights and Aboriginal groups. They have proposed tough, feasible rent control laws and pledged to build one thousand units of social housing per year. Following Seattle, COPE has even promised to establish and cultivate “food forests”—gardens and tree stands bearing edible produce—on municipal parkland.
OneCity: a progressive option?
Not all progressive Vancouverites are thrilled with COPE’s resurgence. Citing personal differences with Louis, a number of COPE executives left the party late last year, culminating with COPE’s only sitting elected official—school board trustee Allan Wong— crossing the floor to Vision. Two of those outgoing executives — former NDP MLA David Chudnovsky and former COPE city council candidate R.J. Aquino — have formed a new municipal party, OneCity. Taking Vancouver’s evident inequality and growing income gap as their priority, OneCity has vowed to take a “positive” approach to local politics and has already won over a number of high-profile endorsers, including East Vancouver MP and nDP Deputy Leader Libby Davies and Vancouver MLA David Eby.
OneCity steadfastly maintains they won’t enter into an election agreement with Vision such as the one they once promoted within COPE; but neither have they taken Vision or Mayor Robertson to task for their role in entrenching inequality in Vancouver. There is some concern on the left that OneCity will pull in union money seeking a safe progressive alternative to the more outspoken COPE, which directly calls out Vision as the neoliberal threat at City Hall, thus undermining a united left-wing civic alternative.
Like COPE, OneCity has put forward a platform calling for more social housing and reaffirming what counts as affordable housing in Vancouver by pegging it to 30 per cent of household income. OneCity will also campaign for a citywide $10-per-day child care system and improved “local” economies — but at time of writing their platform is short on specifics.
For the time being, Vancouver leftists need to live vicariously through the electoral success of their Cascadia neighbour Seattle, which elected socialist city councillor Kshama Sawant last November. But Vancouver is ripe for a real leftist alternative this autumn. If city activists and organizers can mobilize behind a number of convincing and courageous left-wing candidates who can persuade Vancouverites that their city can be affordable after all, there might be something more than bike lanes, composting and locally made smoothies to be happy about.
Michael Stewart is the blogs coordinator at rabble.ca and a doctoral candidate in English literature at the university of British Columbia. He lives and works in Vancouver.
This article appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Canadian Dimension (Politics in the City).