atrium

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.”[1]


EDITORAL INTRODUCTION | From the start, Vancouver has been marked by a history of racism against Chinese and Asian immigrants, a fact which few commentators can overlook (although not few enough, as this article demonstrates in its sharp critique of Vancouver Courier columnist Mark Hasiuk). Part I of this three-part essay by Nathan Crompton reaches into contemporary Vancouver to find that despite the passage of time, original assumptions and archetypes of race and class have proven indispensable for an ongoing history of scapegoating – a history that has, according to Crompton, reached a peak in today’s discussion of housing in Vancouver. Far from signaling the simple break away from the city’s colonial past, the mystical real-estate economy proves fertile grounds for the re-capitulation of the time-tested logic of political scapegoating. This three-part essay is sure to have an impact not only for its use of historical and empirical research to blow the lid off assumptions that Vancouver’s housing crisis can be explained by Asian capital, but for its direct critique of household politicians and commentators. From Sandy Garossino to Gregor Robertson, few are spared in this militant clarion-call to move beyond the present by clearing out the skeletons of history.

Introduction

At different points throughout the 125 years of its history, colonial Vancouver has blamed its problems on others. The relation between “citizens” and “foreigners” underlying the identity of Vancouver has been at times explosive – as when anti-Asian riots attacked Chinatown and Japantown in 1907. Flashpoints occurred again in the 1880s, the 1900s, the 1930s, the 1970s and 1990s, always with the same result: to draw up new lines of exclusion and discrimination while deepening the political disorientation of the times. At other moments the relationship has been segregated but passive, embedded in the habits and rituals of the city. Today, when it is assumed that xenophobic movements could not gain the same momentum as 100 years ago, the penchant to blame “foreigners” for local problems continues. In an assessment of contemporary Vancouver, Henry Yu once asked presciently, “is Vancouver the future or the past”?[1] If the question reads like a riddle, it is because the answer is equally uncertain. As extreme-right movements today pick up momentum in Europe and elsewhere in the context of financial crisis and long-term economic stagnation, it is now more than ever that we should examine global and local histories of racism and xenophobia.

Fin de siècle Vancouver

There was recently a telling moment when Vancouver Courier columnist Mark Hasiuk used his column to target Vancouver school board trustee, Allan Wong. Hasiuk attacked Wong for a motion put forward at the school board calling on the province to incorporate the history of British Columbians of Chinese descent into the regular provincial curriculum. Curriculum changes were not needed, according to Hasiuk, since there is already too much Chinese Canadian history taught in the secondary curriculum. Hasiuk moreover mocks the Head Tax, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Canadian Pacific Railway as a “holy trinity” in both the curriculum and cultural memory of Vancouver.


Although the Mayor’s “affordable housing task force” is unlikely to drive real change, it could have the positive impact of triggering public debate around the mechanisms and causes of Vancouver’s permanent housing bubble. Much of the conversation, like the task force itself, includes only elites — a monologue of the 1%. The Mainlander‘s COUNTERPOINT series aims to take the conversation out of the board rooms.



As protests in solidarity with #OccupyWallStreet spread across the continent, the “99%’ers” here are beginning to think about what #OccupyVancouver might look like. This is a good thing. Left-wing movements have always known that since capitalism itself is global, resistance to it ought to be global.

For New Yorkers, the most obvious and logical target is Wall Street. Staging a protest camp adjacent Wall Street in downtown New York city is no small feat. New York police are highly militaristic in quashing protests. One can only imagine the intensity of police desire, under pressure from New York power-brokers, to disperse the camp. The bravery of the activists is one of the things from which to draw inspiration.

What does it mean, then, to hold a protest in solidarity with that in New York? In part, it means to be inspired by their courage. That means to take spaces that challenge the real seats of power in our local situation. That may mean taking the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery, but probably not: the reason protests are often held there is that the space is relatively easy to book. An #OccupyVancouver truly inspired by the original would take a space that is non-bookable, that directly challenges power-brokers.

Throughout Canada, there are many appropriate targets: Bay Street in Toronto, the headquarters of tar sands-related energy corporations in Calgary, and so on. In Vancouver, Coast Salish territories, there are many things to consider. Most importantly, the violence of colonization is felt acutely here, where European settlement began more recently than most other regions of the continent. (Indeed, the word “occupy” is often associated with European colonization of the land; it’s possible that the term, with its multiple meanings, may confuse or distract some from the spirit of #OccupyWallStreet: to stage a collective protest that challenges the 1% who run the capitalist economy).

Arguably the dominant function of Vancouver’s economy is that its housing market acts as a ‘sink’ for global capital accumulation. Investors, most of whom are locally-based, store their extracted wealth in Vancouver’s inflated real-estate market. The inflation of housing prices is managed by a realty oligopoly. This has created an affordability crisis for the working-class. While property-owners rely on the development monopoly to keep their home prices inflated, renters, who constitute the majority, are exploited. The city which most resembles Vancouver in these respects is Hong Kong. Vancouver and Hong Kong rank together as the most unaffordable cities in the world, with the median house price costing more than three times the median household income. As a result, residents are being driven out of their homes, onto the streets, out of the city. In Hong Kong, they have clearly identified the seat of power, and began their own #Occupy-like movement earlier this year. The story may serve as yet more inspiration for those thinking about our own solidarity movement.

Toppling property hegemony: “Down, down with the property tycoons!”

Just this past March 26 2011, Hong Kong activists staged a protest in one of [developer] Li Ka-Shing’s supermarkets “because property developers, not the government, were the ‘real enemies of society'” [1]. As an act of creative civil disobedience, protesters filled shopping carts with items, then stood in line without buying anything, to “paralyse property hegemony for an hour.” One protester said: “We chose ParknShop because it is owned by Mr. Li Ka-shing and we all know Mr. Li is the real boss of Hong Kong…We are not expecting this to change the world, or beat down Mr. Li or the property-developer hegemony. But we want to make it a start of a new satyagraha campaign. We used to protest against the government. But it is no use. We target developers because they are the boss of the government and the real enemy of the society.” Another protester, a recent university graduate, said: “Even if we want to rent a flat, the rents are beyond our reach. It is because the influence of developers is too big.” [1]

Readers may know that Li Ka-Shing’s Concord Pacific bought Vancouver’s massive Expo Lands in 1988, developed Yaletown, and still has long-term plans for 10,000 to 20,000 more high-end condos on North False Creek. Concord Pacific, now run by Terry Hui, remains a major player in Vancouver’s developer oligopoly, with most new housing inventory planned beyond 2013 in Vancouver under its control. Concord’s ‘land bank’ comprises a large portion of Vancouver’s undeveloped lands, including much of False Creek, as well as 58 West Hastings – the site of 2010’s Olympic Tent Village. Concord exerts its power over Vancouver housing prices by developing its ‘land bank’ very slowly as high-end condos. These and similar undeveloped properties and empty condos controlled by Vancouver’s monopolist developers (such as the Aquilini Group, Wall Financial Corp., Concert Properties, Holborn Properties, and marketing ‘coordinator’ Bob Rennie) are reasonable targets for #Occupy. So too is the mostly empty Olympic Village.

In the 2008 election, Vision Vancouver and Gregor Robertson recognized that to win an election in progressive Vancouver, politicians needed to talk the talk of progressive politics. For Vision this meant rallying Vancouver around the bold idea of addressing the housing crisis and Ending Homelessness. Electorally, it meant a compromise with COPE, Vancouver’s traditional progressive party. COPE and Vision would work together under the “big umbrella” of progressive change, with COPE running only two councilors.

Today, after three years of a Vision majority on City Council, the progressive spirit chosen in the 2008 municipal elections is nowhere to be found. The party who promised to end homelessness and address affordability has turned out to be its mirror opposite, giving millions in tax breaks to developers, decreasing the corporate tax rate to the lowest in the world, forcibly closing homeless shelters, cutting services, hiring millions of dollars of additional police officers, and deepening the affordability crisis at every possible turn.

This month, the members of COPE will have to decide whether or not to enter into another electoral deal with Vision. Members will be presented with that choice at a COPE general meeting on June 26, 2011. Here are ten reasons COPE members ought to reject the deal as proposed, and instead support an independent progressive party in the 2011 municipal elections:

1. Affordable Housing….

Habitat 67, on the shore of of St. Lawrence seaway in Montreal, was originally designed to be an affordable community. Similar to Vancouver’s Olympic Village, Habitat 67 has since been sold off to the private market and is now considered a ‘failed dream‘.

The Olympic Village was initially designed as a mixed-income housing complex capable of offsetting the displacement and surge in real-estate prices associated with the 2010 Olympics. The original development plan called for two-thirds affordable housing, with a full half of that set aside for those who need support through social (“deep core”) housing. The Village was set to be an ‘inclusive’, socially sustainable community that Vancouver could be proud of. Now, the project has turned into the opposite – an exclusive, luxury complex. Today, few would argue that the Olympic Village has been a success for Vancouver.

A brief look at the history of South East False Creek shines some light on why we have the Village today. The land upon which the Village sits was once an industrial zone, but starting in the 50s and 60s there was increasing industrial disinvestment until eventually the land fell out of use. Taking advantage of unused urban space to create room for people to live, in 1970s the City actively consolidated multiple lots and rezoned the area for housing. The City then remediated the soils and made other public investments.

The Fight HST movement engaged much of the electorate, who were furious that the BC Liberals campaigned against the tax in April 2009 only to go-ahead with it a week after the election.

The Liberals first claimed that the people just didn’t see the benefits. But the more Gordon Campbell and Colin Hansen talked, the more clear it became that their lie was deliberate, and that the the HST shifted burden from large corporations to working people.

The campaign against the tax began with over 1500 volunteers collecting signatures in April of 2010. Volunteers waived signs, canvassed, and collected signatures for five months to meet the strict BC Elections requirements for petitions. In total, more than 700,000 voters signed the petition. The moment will go down in the books as the first successful attempt at forcing a referendum in B.C. history.

For their part, the BC Liberals worked with their friends at the BC Chamber of Commerce and large extractive corporations to unsuccessfully challenge the Fight HST referendum in court. Hoping to wait out the crisis, the Liberals announced that the forced referendum wouldn’t be held until fall 2011. But polls showed that people didn’t forget the betrayal, with Campbell’s approval rating falling below 10% by the time he was forced to resign Nov 3rd 2010.

The tax has been haunting the BC Liberal leadership race. The primary strategy for candidates over the past month has been to