Today, Vancouver’s City Council, Parks Board, and School Board are all controlled by a relatively new party called Vision Vancouver. How did this party rise from nothing in 2005 to edge out the once mighty COPE, then soundly defeat the NPA three short years later in 2008? This article tells the story of how the threat of a truly left-wing COPE caused Vancouver’s corporate elite to focus their efforts on infiltrating the party. This led to their facilitating the exodus of the right-wing of COPE into a new corporate party, first called the Friends of Larry Campbell, run by Geoff Meggs, and then named Vision Vancouver.
The implosion of the NPA
Since its formation in 1886, Vancouver’s City Hall has been dominated by business elites and real-estate magnates. In 1937, the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) was formed in reaction to workers and tenants successfully organizing and campaigning under the banner of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. For almost seventy years, the NPA represented the interests of Vancouver’s real-estate industry at City Hall.
In 2001, however, a coup was being staged that would completely dismantle the party. NPA stalwarts such as six-term councilor, Gordon Price, jumped ship. A younger and more right-wing city councilor, Jennifer Clarke, positioned herself to take over as de facto party leader. The NPA’s leader, Philip Owen, who had been mayor for eight years, was suddenly excommunicated. Numerous factors were at play. One likely reason for the split was that Clarke and her supporters within the NPA couldn’t accept Owen’s liberal stance on drug addiction, but there were also deep personal conflicts. As Frances Bula wrote for the Vancouver Sun in 2002:
“It was a rupture that affected not just political alliances but very personal ones among the small world of Vancouver’s elite and its old-money families, and what conflicting versions were at play. It came at the end of months of increasing estrangement among the various parties. And it descended, at times, to levels that made it look more like the Divorce from Hell than politics.”
Adrian Dix and the NDP have been defeated in an election that was widely expected to yield a comfortable win for the centre-left party. Over the course of the month-long race, BC politics threw off the political intensity often associated with battles of left and right. Instead of attacking the BC Liberal record, Dix and the NDP chose a strategy of passive precaution, waiting for the other side to falter.
Even if the campaign was marked by few highlights, Dix framed his party’s approach in both lofty and strategic terms, arguing that the new BC NDP had risen above partisan bickering and the petty politics of the BC Liberals. Supporters framed this “21st century” approach as a necessary path for winning government. Beneath the media strategy — the story went — a progressive platform was held waiting to be implemented once in power.
Currently there is a debate raging about the pros and cons of Save-on-Meats in the Downtown Eastside. The latest is a polarizing sandwich token program to help feed the poor. According to the plan, restaurant customers can purchase tokens from Save-on-Meats and donate them to people in the neighborhood. Critiques have been made here, here, and here, as well as at The Mainlander, with Peter Driftmier’s “Beggars Can’t be Choosers” (Peter used to be a sandwich maker at Save-on-Meats).
The reception of these debates runs a winding path but gravitates to the falsely-posed question of whether people “like” or identify with the entrepreneurial genius behind Save-on-Meats: Mark Brand. “The frontier,” Neil Smith wrote in his New Urban Frontier, “represents an evocative combination of economic, geographical and historical advances, and yet the social individualism pinned to this destiny is in one very important respect a myth.” Mark Brand, treated as either a hero or villain of the urban frontier, enters the field of mythology and becomes a new Jim Green figure for our time, garnering a similar respect for balancing “social” and business concerns (if Green started in politics and moved into business, Brand seems to finish where Green left off and moves back into “politics”).
Over the past two years, a proposed development in the heart of North Vancouver has severely divided public opinion. This conflict came to its apex last week when the developer, Onni, announced in a letter that it intends to quit the project at 1308 Lonsdale, on 13th Avenue. The letter came after North Vancouver council voted 4 to 3 in favor of postponing the decision and holding another public hearing in the New Year. Councillors argued that another meeting was necessary because not all interested parties were able to speak at the November 19th hearing.
Onni first brought their proposal to city hall in 2011 prior to the election, where the council at that time voted against it 7 to 0. The vote did not kill the project but instead prompted Onni to revise its proposal, scaling back the height of the project and moving from three towers to two towers. It also prompted Onni to seek better links with city councilors. In the lead-up to the November 2011 election, current mayor Darrell Mussatto received a $5000 donation from RMPG Holdings Ltd, a parent company of Onni, and $5,000 from Pinnacle International, which is owned by the De Cotiis family. Councillor Linda Buchanan also received $1,500.
This is something which councillor Rod Clark feels has overshadowed the process. While it did not amount to a legal conflict of interest, Clark says, “morally and ethically? It stinks.” In response to council’s decision to hold another hearing in the New Year, Onni is no blaming Clark and fellow councilor Pam Bookham for holding back the approval.
Heather Place public housing near VGH, which is slated for demolition and redevelopment in the coming years, has received significant media attention this week. An article in the Straight, called Heather Place tenants wait in limbo, explains how many tenants are uncertain about their future, concerned about suffering the same fate as their counterparts at Little Mountain Housing. On Wednesday, Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation (MVHC), which owns Heather Place, posted on its website a response to tenants’ concerns, in the form of answers to “frequently answered questions.” Vancouver City Councilor Geoff Meggs also appeared on CBC radio to defend the demolition. However, the responses provided by MVHC and Meggs only serve to confirm the fears expressed by tenants.
First, it is now more clear than ever that the majority of the people living at Heather Place will be displaced. There are currently 86 units of affordable homes which house 200 people. After redevelopment rents will increase an extra-ordinary amount. Whereas today the highest rents are around $1,100, after redevelopment two- and three-bedroom units will rent at “competitive market rates” expected to exceed $1,700 and $2,100 respectively. This means that two-thirds of tenants who are not on subsidy will very likely be displaced unless they agree to an extra-ordinary rent increase. For these tenants the Heather Place redevelopment plan is essentially a large-scale “renoviction.”
We all know the expression, “beggars can’t be choosers.”
With one month left before Christmas, Downtown Eastside restaurant mogul Mark Brand Inc has launched a meal token program targeting clientele who would like to support people in need. The idea is that the meal token, which goes for $2.25, can be given to panhandlers in place of spare change. Each token is redeemable for a breakfast sandwich at the window of Save-On-Meats, Mark Brand Inc’s only location affordable for those on modest incomes.
The following description of the program is found in the press release announcing the program:
“The Meal Tokens solve the dilemma that many people find themselves in. The reality is that people are hesitant to give money rather than food to people who they see on the street. With the Meal Tokens, donors can rest assured that what they give will be going towards providing much needed sustenance and at the same time, supporting Save on Meats’ social enterprise.”
Editors’ note: This is the first part of a series exploring the politics of sustainability, development and urban entrepreneurialism. The second part of this series will build on the analysis put forward by exploring specific case studies in Vancouver.
Vancouver has a complicated relationship with nature. Over the last decade sustainability discourses and city policies are increasingly mobilized to defend private development, in particular, condo mega-projects which are marketed as transit-oriented developments. Sustainability is embedded within a broader language and policy framework of urban entrepreneurialism and relentless ‘global city’ posturing. Urban sustainability is constructed as post-political, striving to avoid traditional ideological divisions between left and right…