The Origins of Vision Vancouver


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  left-wing COPE caused some of Vancouver’s real-estate backed politicians 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.

 Sean Antrim is the Executive Director of the Coalition of Progressive Electors.

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]

Other rifts developed due to uneasy relationships with federal parties. Throughout its history of representing the corporate elite in Vancouver, the NPA depended upon a sometimes-challenging compromise between federal Liberals and Conservatives. But, when Philip Owen lost the support of his party to a staunch Conservative during the lead-up to the 2002 municipal election, the Liberal-Conservative coalition was fundamentally shaken.

The rise of COPE

Inner turmoil in the NPA was exacerbated by pressure building from Vancouver’s increasingly mobilized left. During the four-month transit strike in 2001, union members rallied at city hall and transit riders stormed council chambers with wide support across the city. NPA councilors literally fled the public meeting through a back door.[2] COPE city councilor Fred Bass assumed the Mayor’s chair while activists denounced the NPA council. At one point, residents upset with the NPA’s anti-worker and anti-transit policies arranged to have a truck full of manure dumped on NPA councilor George Puil’s front lawn.[3]

In the leadup to the 2002 election, the actions of an ineffective VPD were also in the spotlight. When COPE councilor, Tim Louis, tried to pass a motion that would have started an investigation into missing women in the Downtown Eastside, the NPA’s Philip Owen voted it down and was heavily criticized for doing so. [4]

Meanwhile, the battle against gentrification in the Downtown Eastside had been escalating for decades. The neighbourhood contained much of the region’s last significant stocks of welfare-rate housing. The DTES had developed a uniquely rich and welcoming culture, and a community dedicated to social justice. It was also one of the best grassroots-organized neighbourhoods in any North American city. When the plans to turn the historic Woodwards building into condominiums were revealed in the fall of 2002, activists and residents occupied the building, demanding that the city and provincial governments intervene and convert it into social housing.

Many people from around the region felt that several factors, from the pressures of real-estate developers to the looming Olympic Games, threatened the oldest neighbourhood in the city, and Woodwards became a defining issue for the 2002 municipal election.

All of these concerns were manifested in the huge surge in popularity for the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), Vancouver’s traditional left-wing party originally formed in 1968 by the Vancouver District Labour council to combat corporate interests. In the summer of 2002, even before declaring its mayoral candidate, the party was enjoying a steady increase in members and volunteers. COPE appeared to be in its best position since its historic creation.

The situation spelled disaster for big real-estate. If COPE won the election in 2002, the left wing party would be able to implement the reforms they’d been proposing for decades. Not only would increased citizen input into the development process mean a loss of control over zoning and market regulation by the NPA’s funders, it would also likely lead to an increase in the construction of social housing. If COPE won, there would be a new, well-positioned competitor in the Vancouver real-estate market: the City government itself.

On top of this, many in COPE were highly critical of the potential impacts of the 2010 Olympic Games, which as Bob Rennie later said would act as a “six billion dollar ad campaign” for BC and its real-estate industry.

Enter stage right: Larry Campbell

In September 2002, COPE held its meeting to nominate candidates for the civic election. Two long-time COPE politicians, Jim Green and David Cadman, were vying for the mayoral candidacy. A little over two months before the election, a third outsider candidate emerged as an option: ex-coroner Larry Campbell, who was well-known for being portrayed in the TV show Da Vinci’s Inquest. Less than two weeks before the election, Campbell promised the public that the corrupt days of NPA rule were over. If COPE is elected, he proclaimed, “there will be no sweetheart deals for insiders.”[5]

COPE subsequently won the 2002 municipal election by a wide margin. COPE ran eight out of ten spots for City Council and won all of them, giving a majority position that would have allowed them to finally implement the COPE platform: social housing, affordable transit, tenant rights, community involvement, a ward electoral system, progressive answers to crime and addiction, and more. Larry Campbell himself received almost twice the votes of his NPA competitor Jennifer Clarke.

The Woodwards Squat

When the victory buzz wore off, those suffering from the affordable housing crisis quickly realized there would be no honeymoon. Hours after the election the Vancouver Police Department began to pressure Campbell to support an injunction and evict tenants fighting for affordable housing and social justice in the Woodwards building.

During the campaign, COPE councilors had thrown their support behind the Woodwards squatters. But the day after the election, Larry Campbell met with the other COPE councillors and told them they needed to evict the activists, despite the fact that winter was setting in and many were homeless with nowhere to go. All but one COPE councilor and the mayor were against the eviction. Ellen Woodsworth, Anne Roberts, Fred Bass, Tim Louis, David Cadman, Jim Green, and even future Vision crossover Tim Stevenson were against an injunction. The Vancouver Sun’s Peter McMartin reported that Louis said of the injunction, “I’m hoping we rip it up.”[6]

Four days after the election, the first seams of the quickly sewn new COPE showed their first sign of unravelling. In contrast to their fellow electeds, Larry Campbell and Raymond Louie (who had also been elected under the COPE banner) joined NPA councillors in supporting the injunction and evicting the squatters. In January of 2003, the City bought the Woodward’s building for $5.5 million[7]; eventually the Woodward’s building would become an experiment in gentrification with a sales effort led by “condo-king” Bob Rennie.

Even with COPE’s win, housing activism in the city did not slow down, and struggling renters and homeless hammered the city to do something. In one case, Larry Campbell cast the deciding vote to evict about 100 homeless people who were living in Creekside Park next to Science World.[8] While most of his COPE colleagues voted on side with the squatters, Campbell and COPE councilors David Cadman and Raymond Louie voted with the NPA against them. Jim Green and Tim Stevenson didn’t show up to the meeting, which meant that despite COPE’s majority, the squatters would be removed.

COPE’s internal struggle with Vancouver’s corporate elite

At the same time, COPE’s progressive majority pushed forward on many fronts. A Gender Equity Strategy was approved. A major climate change task force was created and started looking at ways to make the city environmentally sustainable, and a plan was set up to make sure Vancouver exceeded the Kyoto protocols. The tenth avenue bikeway was created. Libraries were opened on Sundays.

Anne Roberts led the fight against the approval of a rezoning for Walmart. Ellen Woodsworth fought for and won the creation of a much needed Child and Youth Advocate.

Despite all this, after two years, COPE’s principled core of strong, activist councilors was outnumbered. As factions fell along lines of people versus profit, the efforts of a few of the most powerful players in real-estate laid the foundations for today’s housing monopoly.

Between the 2002 and 2005 elections, a handful of major real estate corporations entrenched themselves into COPE’s back-circles. By 2004, these firms were donating to COPE instead of the NPA. Bruno Wall (Wall Financial), Ian Gillespie (Westbank), and Terry Hui (Concord), were all seen at COPE fundraisers led by Larry Campbell.[12] That year, Westbank turned soil for the largest tower in the City, the Shangri-La.

Larry Campbell’s first year in office also led to the approval of slot machines, something that even the NPA had protected the city against for decades.[11] Campbell himself had accepted several hundred thousand dollars from gambling interests for his personal campaign.

At a high profile COPE meeting councilor Fred Bass pleaded Larry Campbell that he not be a “trojan horse” for corporate interests.[9] The NPA, in desperation, even said they would be willing to accept Larry Campbell into their party.[10]

In December 2004, the internal COPE split became formalized with Campbell and his entourage forming the “Friends of Larry Campbell” — run by future Vision Vancouver councilor Geoff Meggs.[13] The largest business owners and developers, traditionally seen at NPA fundraiser tables, were now shmoozing with COPE’s right wing: Larry Campbell, Tim Stevenson, Raymond Louie, and Jim Green.

The NPA worried about the fact that they had lost the support of many of the major players in the development industry. The big developers were no longer showing up to their fundraisers, though the old business elite was still allied with the party.[14]

In April of 2005, only six months before the upcoming election, several of Vancouver’s best heeled organized a well publicized fundraiser for Larry Campbell.[15] Led by real estate corporations like Concord, Westbank, Polygon Homes, and Holborn, the development industry began channelling tens of thousands of dollars into the “Friends of Larry Campbell.”

Over the summer of 2005 Jim Green, Raymond Louie, and Tim Stevenson formally transformed the Friends of Larry Campbell into “Vision Vancouver.”

In the 2005 election campaign, the same names – the largest real-estate firms in the City – contributed to Vision Vancouver, including Woodward’s developer Westbank, Concord Pacific ($65,750), Polygon ($12,980.00), future Little Mountain developer Holborn ($11,500), Bosa Properties ($10,000), Rize Alliance ($5,000.00) and many more.[16] The realty coordinator, Bob Rennie, gave Vision a whopping $96,639, setting himself up to consolidate the marketing of new inventory.

Looking back on the Campbell ordeal of 2002-5, local trade-union activist Roger Annis wrote:

The city’s liberal, (and Liberal!), elite did succeed in crushing COPE. They did so by successfully placing a Trojan horse into the midst of COPE’s momentum leading to the 2002 vote, in the form of the mayoral candidacy of Larry Campbell (no relation to Gordon). COPE bowed to the pressure to accept Campbell as its candidate. He was a former RCMP and coroner. His principal mission, on behalf of the elite, was to get the controversy surrounding the Winter Olympics out of the way and get the project up and going. Billions of dollars in construction, real estate and tourism profits were to be made and COPE’s hesitancy to support the bid was risking that the deadline be passed. The party membership was demanding a referendum on the matter. The stakes were very high.

In the lead up to the 2005 election, the battle between Vision and the NPA for campaign contributions intensified, with mayoral hopeful Sam Sullivan criticizing COPE for accepting money from real-estate developers despite the fact that his party had been doing so for decades. Already, even before Larry Campbell’s faction had formally left COPE, journalists were drawing comparisons between the Friends of Larry Campbell and the NPA.[18]

Journalists documented the political shift. Frances Bula described the nascent love affair between “condo-king” Bob Rennie and Vision’s 2005 mayoral candidate Jim Green:

Rennie, who’s had a chance to observe Green’s dealings intimately in the intense planning process, says there’s a side to him that clearly delights in convincing the city’s powerbrokers to accept him and buy into his vision of change … ‘He’s completely disarming,’ says Bob Rennie … Green himself admits that he would love to be a developer full-time … So it’s not surprising that Rennie, along with a number of other major developers, are supporting Green in a political turnabout that has upended Vancouver’s normal election dynamics, which has traditionally seen the left attacking the NPA for being a developer’s council and the NPA attacking the left for being anti- business. Although Rennie supported the NPA’s Sam Sullivan in his fight for the NPA mayoral nomination against Christy Clark because he wanted to see a fair process, now he says he’s backing Green.[17]

Donations to the NPA in 2005 came mostly from their own candidates rather than real estate corporations. Sam Sullivan himself donated $222,000 to the campaign. This would become a theme in elections to come. The largest donors had consolidated their position in the municipal realm with Vision Vancouver. The NPA barely eked out a tight win in November 2005, but with so much real estate money and ruling class approval behind the new Vision organization, the writing was on the wall.


[1] A party divided: The shocking split between the mayor and the NPA was very personal and very bitter. Here’s how it all unfolded. Bula, Frances. The Vancouver Sun, 11 October 2002.

[2] Angry crowd forces Owen, NPA to flee. Luba, Frank. The Province, 27 June 2001.

[3] Strike protest spreads: Pile of manure left at Puil’s house and city council meeting breaks up in chaos. Anderson, Charlie. The Province, 25 July 2001.

[4] Mayor says he’s not uncaring about missing women’s plight: Issue arises over lack of support for initiatives tied to the investigation. Kim Bolan and Lindsay Kines. The Vancouver Sun, 7 Mar 2002.

[5] Campbell vows drug strategy will start day after election: COPE mayoral hopeful outlines plan at major fund raiser Series: Civic Election 2002. Krangle, Karenn. The Vancouver Sun, 4 Nov 2002.

[6] COPE coming apart already. McMartin, Pete. The Vancouver Sun, 22 Nov 2002.

[7] City buys Woodward’s site. McInnes, Craig. The Vancouver Sun, 30 Jan 2003.

[8] Bylaw passed 5-4 to give city authority to remove squatters. Keating, Jack. The Province, 24 Oct 2003.

[9] Bass’s backers pull out long knives. Carrigg, David. The Province, 7 Feb 2005.

[10] ibid

[11] City gets Olympics and safe injection site: A year of firsts for first COPE council. Howell, Mike. Vancouver Courier, 31 Dec 2003.

[12] Vancouver mayor considers second term. Bula, Frances. The Vancouver Sun, 24 Nov 2004.

[13] Larry’s party an indie affair. Garr, Allen. Vancouver Courier, 15 Dec 2004.

[14] NPA serves up old-time fare. Vancouver Courier, 5 Dec 2004.

[15] Developers help bankroll mayor’s faction: Councillors question contributions. Bula, Frances. The Vancouver Sun, 1 Apr 2005.

[16] Hundreds turn out to back Green for mayor. Bula, Frances. The Vancouver Sun, 20 Sep 2005.

[17] Jim Green — mean or serene? Bula, Frances. The Vancouver Sun, 8 Oct 2005.

[18] A party that parties like there is no party. Bramham, Daphne. The Vancouver Sun, 2 Apr 2005.