A full house came out to the CIJA-SUCCESS townhall Sept. 23, which featured six Vancouver mayoral candidates. (photo from CIJA)
The refracted nature of Vancouver’s civic politics was on full display at a candidates meeting featuring six of the perceived front-running candidates for mayor. The near-implosion of the governing Vision Vancouver party, combined with divisions among erstwhile Non-Partisan Association members, has led to a race with both the left and right sides of the political spectrum divided and struggling to gain traction in a campaign with 21 contenders.
The afternoon event Sept. 23 was co-sponsored by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and the multicultural organization SUCCESS, which is rooted in the Chinese-Canadian community. Veteran Vancouver broadcaster Jody Vance handily moderated the occasionally raucous meeting.
Housing affordability topped the list of issues, with Kennedy Stewart, a former NDP member of Parliament for Burnaby-South who resigned that seat to run for Vancouver mayor as an independent, said his plan to attack unaffordability calls for building 85,000 new homes over the next 10 years, including affordable and market rentals.
Ken Sim, an entrepreneur who founded Nurse Next Door and Rosemary Rocksalt Bagels and who is the candidate for the centre-right Non-Partisan Association (NPA), responded by claiming that the construction industry does not have the capacity to meet Stewart’s construction schedule.
Wai Young, a former Conservative member of Parliament for Vancouver South, is running with a new party, called Coalition Vancouver, which was originated by a group of former NPA members who felt betrayed by what they call a lack of democracy in that party.
“Vancouver does not have a supply issue,” Young said about the housing situation. “There are no millionaires wandering around Vancouver that are unable to buy a house or a luxury condo. The issue is that we are not able to keep our young people, our young families, here because they can’t afford to buy a house. We have an affordability issue in Vancouver.”
“If I am mayor, we will have a three percent vacancy rate,” said Shawna Sylvester, who is running as an independent but has roots in Vision Vancouver. The rate today is about zero. She supports more co-ops, cohousing and what she called “gentle densification,” as well as addressing how the housing situation has particular impacts for women, who experience poverty in greater proportions than men.
Partly related to the affordability issue is the topic of Vancouver’s reputation as a place that is welcoming of people from diverse backgrounds.
David Chen, who is running with another new party, ProVancouver, noted that racism is alive and well in the city.
“My parents were first-generation Taiwanese [Canadian],” said Chen. “I was born in St. Paul’s [Hospital] because, at that time, it was the only hospital they were allowed to go to. During this campaign, I heard somebody say to me, ‘Go home.’ Well, I am home.” He added: “We haven’t progressed as much as we should or could.”
The NPA’s Sim echoed the experience and extrapolated it to the Jewish community.
“I’m 47 right now,” said Sim, “and I still remember the hurtful comments that I faced when I was 5 years old. It was tough. I think of what’s going on to our Jewish community right now. We still have a lot of issues. I’m acutely aware of what our Jewish community goes through because, when something happens halfway around the world, our friends in the Jewish community have to worry about their physical safety. That’s terrible. We will have zero tolerance for that, as mayor of Vancouver. We’re going to work with community groups, work with the Jewish community, work with all communities identifying threats to our communities and working on solutions to protect us, to protect our communities, and we will monitor our results.”
Hector Bremner, another former NPA member now leading another new party, YES Vancouver, is the only candidate for mayor currently sitting on Vancouver city council.
“Racism is a symptom, it’s not the disease,” Bremner said. “When do racial tensions flare up, when do they happen? They happen in a time when the people feel that resources are scarce and they feel pressure economically. It’s really a function of tribalism and nativism that occurs when people feel that it’s hard for them to make it. We look for scapegoats.”
Sylvester, who among many other roles is director of the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University, said people need to stand up to extremist voices and actions.
“There are forces in our communities, whether we want to acknowledge them or not, that are trying to divide us,” she said. “What we need to do [is] not be tolerant of any kind of hate crime, not be tolerant of antisemitism.”
Stewart said those who don’t subscribe to Canadian ideas of tolerance should be helped to change their minds.
“Immigration is really one of the best things about being Canadian,” he said. “We travel around the world and we brag about it. Multiculturalism is a Canadian word and it’s something we’ve exported. It’s something we should embrace, and most of us do. Those that don’t, we have to help them understand, change their opinions.”
Accusations of intolerance and implications of racism emerged in the debate.
Young, who had originally sought the NPA mayoral nomination, implied that her supporters, many of whom were from the Chinese community, weren’t welcome in the NPA. This brought a sharp rebuke from Sim.
“Guess what, I’m Chinese,” he said. “Here’s the real issue. When you [say] inflammatory statements like that to win a political agenda, you create divisions in our communities. People don’t like that. You put a wedge. That is a problem and you’ve got to knock it off.”
Sim went on to accuse politicians of stoking already existing embers of intolerance around foreign purchasers of Vancouver real estate.
“For political expediency, what politicians are doing is pointing at groups and blaming groups for problems,” he said. “We have a lot of issues with affordability and there are a lot of things that affect affordability and housing. I’m not saying foreign purchases do not affect housing. But, when we point to it and we blame a group, that starts a slippery slope. That’s what’s dividing our city, our province and our country. I call on everyone here to knock it off, because there are a lot of things that affect affordability – permitting delays, interest rates, the economy – but to point to something for political expediency because it wins votes is dividing people and it’s hurtful.”
The meeting took place in a SUCCESS building in Chinatown, close to the Downtown Eastside. Candidates agreed that more needs to be done to confront the seemingly intractable challenges facing that area of the city.
Young said she had visited a seniors home in Chinatown earlier in the day and was told residents are afraid to go outside.
“They can no longer walk outside of their building,” she said. “That should not happen in our beautiful city. There was a time I remember coming down here to Chinatown when it was vibrant, when it was safe, when you didn’t feel like you couldn’t be on the wrong side of the street here.… This city has gotten dirtier and grittier…. There are needles everywhere, there is defecation everywhere. We are one of the top 10 cities in the world and yet, currently, it’s embarrassing to have your friends come visit.”
She promised to be “John Horgan’s worst enemy,” referring to the B.C. premier, in demanding provincial help to address the issues in the area.
Stewart touted his connections with former NDP member of Parliament Libby Davies, who previously represented the area in Ottawa.
“Last week, I was very proud to stand with Libby Davies in the Downtown Eastside and announce that, as mayor, I would immediately strike an emergency task force to deal with the opioid epidemic and homelessness,” Stewart said. “We cannot have the number of deaths that are happening and the number of overdoses. We can’t have the impacts on the people that are suffering through illness and addiction problems.”
Another perennial issue candidates addressed was transportation and congestion.
“Vancouverites spend 88 hours of your life every year sitting in congestion,” said Young. “That’s like a two-week holiday.”
Sim promised an independent review of congestion in the city.
“The number of cars has not increased in the city in the last 20 years but congestion has,” he said. He blamed a range of factors, including bike lanes, left-hand turns, people running yellow lights and getting stopped by police, pedestrians crossing after the indicator says “don’t walk,” and roads that are closed for construction longer than necessary.
Chen said getting people to switch from cars to transit requires improving the system.
“If you use negative reinforcement, you’re not going to get people to switch,” he said. “It’s not reliable, it’s not convenient, it’s not cheaper, it’s not faster. You [improve] those four items and suddenly people may just switch.”
The would-be mayors mooted the availability of culturally appropriate services, such as seniors care, community security for institutions like synagogues and the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, and unisex washrooms.
During the debate, Stewart repeatedly emphasized that he, Bremner and Young were the only ones with elective experience, a tack that may be motivated by the few polls on the race, which have indicated that Stewart’s toughest opponent is Sim.