A memorial service for the three men who died in an East Van house fire was held Saturday at the Longhouse Council Native Ministry.

Garland McKay, Dwayne Rasmussen and Steven Yellowquill died on Dec 22 when the porch they were living in at 2862 Pandora St. caught fire.

On Saturday, the Longhouse was filled to capacity with friends and family. The service began with a song led by Traditional Mothers. Morris then asked the mourners to stand up and share memories of the three men. For friends and family, it was a day to honour the men and their strengths. A picture emerged of the men as compassionate, respectful, and selfless.

At Saturday’s memorial, a broad picture of the men’s journey and challenges also emerged. There were many preventable factors creating the conditions for the tragedy.

The three men came from First Nations across the country (Rasmussen from Mount Currie, McKay from Kelowna, Yellowquill from Manitoba) to Vancouver looking for opportunity, but were unable to access appropriate non-market housing. As a result, the only housing that was accessible to them was the unsafe and inadequate “rooming-house” at 2862 Pandora St.

BC Liberal leadership candidate Kevin Falcon’s campaign team sent out a press release yesterday (Jan 4) proposing that BC teachers’ pay should be tied to student performance. Falcon offered only vague ideas on methods and criteria for measuring student performance.

Falcon’s proposal has drawn condemnation from many quarters – not only teachers unions, but also the Vancouver and Burnaby school board chairs. Today, even the Globe and Mail editorial (entitled “Show us the money”) was thoroughly skeptical of proposal’s costs/benefits.

Vancouver School Board Trustee and Vice-Chair Jane Bouey told The Mainlander today (Jan 5) that Falcon’s proposal “assumes the greatest problem facing BC students is teachers. There is no evidence this is true.” If anything, fault lies at the foot of Falcon and his party: “The real issue is chronic underfunding, after more than a decade of cuts at district levels.”

Of Falcon’s proposal, Bouey said “there is no real evidence that merit pay works. Children are not widgets that just need to be produced more efficiently…It isn’t just that it doesn’t work, there is some evidence that it actually can make things worse.”

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

Image by Murray Bush / Vancouver Media Coop

This is the second of five installments of our “Top Stories of 2010″ countdown. Here we tell the story of how the announcement of the “BC Missing Women Commission of Inquiry” and of “Project Sister Watch” were made possible only by the constant advocacy of aboriginal women.

None of these stories would have unfolded or seen the light of day in the absence of community organizing and grassroots activism. The take-home-message of 2010, it seems, is that activism can be effective while defining who we are.

On September 27 2010, the BC Provincial government finally announced an official commission charged with investigating the failure of the police to respond meaningfully to reports of missing women in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside between 1997 and 2002.

The commission has come far too late, is too small in scope, and is chaired by the wrong person. But it is important to recognize that its existence is owed to the persistent advocacy of community activists. The Women’s Memorial March, for example, has continued to be held in the Downtown Eastside on Valentine’s Day annually since 1991.

Community activist Gladys Radek maintains that at least 3,000 indigenous women have gone missing in Canada since the 1970s. Over the years, her organization Walk4Justice has organized several treks to raise awareness of the fact that the Pickton murders are only the tip of the iceberg.

This is the first of five installments of our “Top Stories of 2010” countdown. None of these stories would have unfolded or seen the light of day in the absence of community organizing and grassroots activism.

In 2010, BC Liberal Education Minister Margaret MacDiairmid continued Gordon Campbell’s attrition policy aimed at undermining pubic education. Underfunding rocked school districts across the province. Parents organized against the cuts, and their campaign forced MacDiarmid to at least temporarily reverse cuts to the Annual Facilities Grant.

While many elected school trustees across the province timidly implemented the cuts, the Vancouver School Board (VSB), which had a $17M funding shortfall, fought back. On April 4th, VSB Chair Patti Bacchus suggested that MacDiarmid resign for denying the funding crisis. On April 10th, MacDiarmid asked the Comptroller General to “review” VSB finances. The VSB found out about the review through the media, for which MacDiarmid had to apologize. Bacchus emphasized that the real issue – provincial underfunding – was excluded from the scope of the review.

Gregor Robertson’s 2008 campaign for Mayor rode the Obama wave. At the time, however, positive comparisons between the two were decidedly false. Ironically, present criticisms of the American president apply equally to Vancouver’s Mayor.

In 2008, Obama was an eloquent and inspiring speaker, and Gregor an embarrassing one. I attended an early Robertson campaign event in the Dowtown Eastside, after which the 70-year-old woman sitting next to me remarked with conscious understatement: “not very inspiring, is he?”

Obama was a thinker — almost a pop-philosopher! And while Obama cultivated a blank-slate image onto which voters could project their hopes and dreams, Gregor could not escape the perception that the blank-slate was between his ears.

The most realistic likeness between Gregor and Obama in 2008 was that their supporters were Obama fans. These supporters longed for a politics that appealed to the best in people, a politics confident in the capacity for transformational collective action to overcome inequality, poverty, and discrimination.

In the summer of 2008, neo-liberalism had been thoroughly discredited, and voters had not yet forgotten that responsibility for the financial crisis lay squarely at the feet of right-wing policies. They voted in droves for Obama, who promised hope over fear, and for Gregor, who promised to End Homelessness by fighting day in and day out for the most marginalized in our City.

Comparisons between Obama and Gregor in 2008 were largely false. Ironically, in 2010 the comparison is far more plausible.

Marshall Ganz, who managed the grassroots component of Obama’s presidential campaign, recently published an influential article in the Los Angeles Times, outlining the reasons for Obama’s failure in his first two years. The analysis is similarly useful for evaluating Gregor Robertson.

A house fire on Pandora Street took three lives last Thursday. The event instigated the right-wing NPA to call for an inquiry. However, to ensure tragedies like this do no happen in the future, it is necessary to abandon anti-tenant rhetoric in favour of a more proactive approach that empowers tenants.

No one wants to live in poor housing conditions like those of the Pandora Street house. But in the absence of safe and affordable housing options, renters must choose between inadequate housing and homelessness. And in the absence of strong tenant protection by-laws, fear of eviction condemns tenants to an intolerable status quo.

Several media outlets have drawn attention to the requests for an independent inquiry. Some argue the lives would have been saved had the City shut down the home on account of the illegal living situation. But this would have led to eviction of the nine people living inside, and there were many opportunities for the City to take more proactive action to assist the tenants. Further, it is difficult to ignore that many of the proponents of this ‘eviction solution’ are inspired by intolerance rather than compassion for the tenants themselves (e.g. see the comments at the bottom of this Sun article.)