COPE is Back: A Conversation with Anne Roberts

Anne Roberts delivers a speech in front of City Hall for the launch of The City We Need platform, May 2018 (Courtesy of Anne Roberts)

It’s the end of ‘’Gregor’s decade.’’ Are we standing at the possible threshold of a new era in Vancouver municipal politics? There’s no disputing that the ground is moving. The defeat of the NDP government’s 4.5% rent increase is evidence, among other things, of the power of self-organization from below and of a shift in the prevailing common sense. As Horgan’s ‘’progressive’’ government continues to incarcerate the homeless and support colonial land grabs across BC — both urban and rural — a countervailing force has emerged in Vancouver. Renters are organized in a way that they haven’t been since the rent strikes of the 1970s, and are becoming conscious of their own separate interests within Vancouver’s property system. A large number of them have turned to COPE as their party in the wake of Team Jean’s integration into the COPE umbrella.

In this series of interviews The Mainlander sits down with COPE’s council candidates to talk about the programs and promises of the party and its movement — as well as its challenges and limitations. The following is a transcription of an interview between Editor Andrei Mihailiuk and COPE City Council candidate Anne Roberts. The text has been edited for length and clarity.

COPE: Now and Then

Andrei: What made you decide to run for City Council this year?

Anne: Well, I had been elected to City Council fifteen years ago, 2002-2005, with the famous [COPE Mayor] Larry Campbell and the COPE majority. After that, when the people who became Vision Vancouver split away from COPE, there was a lot of upheaval. Through that, I got pretty alienated from COPE and electoral politics. Pretty bitter, you know, of what happened, in terms of the betrayal of COPE and what could have happened with the council majority. I turned my attention to things like Palestine and solidarity work, which was a good thing to do for a number of years. I became increasingly upset with where the city was going, what was happening to the city, how my kids can’t afford to live here, how people I know are leaving, selling if they’re lucky enough to be able to sell, or trying to find a place to live. So that got me back into thinking about civic politics again.

Then [COPE city council candidate] Jean Swanson ran in the by-election in 2017. I’ve known Jean for many, many years. We go way back, from her work in the DTES and her work on poverty. She had even run for Mayor years ago in the 1980s. Jean doesn’t mince words at all, and she certainly doesn’t move to the middle in order to get herself elected. What was really exciting was the number of young people that mobilized around her, and really around her as a movement. I was somewhat active in that by-election campaign, then a number of people kept approaching me about running again. I think they saw that, like Jean, I have a long history of supporting important causes, and not pulling punches just to get elected.

Anyway, that convinced me over time. What I thought is that I do have something to offer as far as some experience, some legitimacy, and that working with Jean and [COPE city council candidate] Derrick O’ Keefe, we could really bring COPE back. We’ve really been in the wilderness the last while, with nobody elected right now, but I think it’s turning. COPE is back.

Andrei: You originally ran with COPE as a school board trustee back in 1993. Does the kind of energy that the party has right now feel similar to back then, or is it a very different sort of party now?

Anne: We’re a very different party. In fact I was complaining the other day that in this kind of campaign — which is really more like a movement — there’s a lot more work, a lot more things to do, a lot more participation. The party had developed out of the Communist Party. It was very disciplined [laughs]. People met in the democratic-centralist way of those parties; they worked hard, there wasn’t a lot of airing of dirty linen in public. It was more of a top-down organization. The leadership made the political decisions, they decided what to do, they told you which things to show up at, and that was your role.

It was a great time politically though. The Social Credit government of the time was imposing budget cuts and austerity, cutting schools. But right after some of that, [COPE Chair] Pauline Weinstein and COPE had a whole majority on the school board and they refused to pass cuts for the budget. And then they all got fired, and then they all got elected again! It was just so exciting. I came after that, but it still had those structures. I was certainly very inspired by people like Pauline Weinstein, Harry Rankin, and Libby Davies.

But it’s very different now. People are dropping in our campaign office and want to volunteer. It’s a social thing as well as a political thing. It has a very strong sense of itself being a movement, not just electing people and then saying, “Okay you guys, you do it, you bring in the mansion tax.” Because the politicians can’t, they have limited power. Without a movement behind them, things tend to fall apart. So this crowd will keep with us and I hope we can all work together to figure out how to use the city resources, how to amplify what’s happening as councillors, and have that movement that’s continuing to build.

Andrei: It does seem like there’s a lot of alienation among people from what City Council is talking about most of the time. For example, the discussion around the housing crisis in Vancouver; it’s always from the perspective of homeowners, people who want to buy into the housing market, people who already have a stake in private property. Whereas the rest of us, who will never be able to afford to buy a home, or may choose for ideological reasons not to buy a home, are left in the lurch.

Anne: Right. COPE was the first party to even have renters elected. Up until the 1960’s renters were not allowed to vote. You weren’t anybody. You weren’t important unless you were a homeowner. So, you had the beginnings with COPE, of actually saying, “We represent people that live in SROs. We represent renters.”

Ward systems and direct democracy

Andrei: On Council in the past, you’ve spoken about advocating for a ward system in Vancouver, which is something that has been voted on several times and has been shot down. What would a ward system look like in Vancouver?

Anne:  I’d like this time to get a ward system and have some form of proportional representation. We need more representation, a city this size. 660,000 people and having only ten councillors elected at large, it’s not possible to get to know all parts of the city. It’s not possible to get to know the people, the organizations, what people want, what would work in different neighbourhoods. But if you’re part of that, if you live there, if you have a history in the neighbourhood, you can much better represent the community at City Council.

Another thing that’s needed for democracy is devolution of power, so you would actually have a committee in the neighbourhood that’s elected that then decides all sorts of things, like, bike lanes or garbage pick up, or, you know, pedestrian safety or all sorts of stuff that should be done at the local level. Right now, Council grapples with these things. It would be much more appropriate and democratic to have it done  at the local level. And then Council could operate in a much better way because they would be just dealing with major policy issues, and regional issues.

Andrei: Totally. And, that would not only lead to a more participatory form of democracy, but on a more practical level it would make voting for councillors way simpler. I mean, our ballot list for this year is 158 candidates. So basically, it was described in the news as a ballot the size of a pillowcase.

Anne: Exactly.

Anne at the Women Transforming Cities conference in 2012 (Courtesy of Anne Roberts)

Movement journalism

Andrei: Let’s go back a little bit, you moved to Vancouver in the late 60s, yes? And you became involved with the Vancouver Women’s Caucus.

Anne: Right.

Andrei: You ended up covering a bunch of the activism that the Women’s Caucus was doing around abortion through the Caucus’ own newspaper The Pedestal, and also through The Canadian Press. Maybe this is kind of an obvious question, but were there differences between the ways in which you were covering the Women’s Caucus’ activities with The Pedestal, and with the Canadian Press?

Anne: I don’t believe there is such a thing as objectivity in journalism. I’ve always felt actually, that it’s quite okay to be for something; like a revolution, women’s liberation, the rights of people and all that. The best thing is just to be a little bit more open about what our biases are, but, as you might imagine, editors still don’t really accept that position.

When I worked for Canadian Press I had to be completely silent about my politics, or I would have lost that job. But I loved working there, and I loved the opportunity to cover lots of things. So I quickly learned how to cover all of the things that I liked within that standard format.

I believe they valued the coverage because they had never had anybody like that on staff. Back then, journalism was viewed as a trade, a craft. Nobody went to college, and I had a degree, a bachelor’s degree, in anthropology of all things. I felt it was very valuable, and they did too, because I could cover women’s things and issues that no one else had covered. It was a very, almost completely, male-dominated field at that time. They weren’t interested in women’s liberation or abortion or childcare or women organized into unions.

Andrei: Totally. It’s necessary to cover these sorts of activist movements from people on the inside, people who are sympathetic to these sorts of movements.

Upzoning single-family neighbourhoods

Andrei: One of Vision’s last moves as an active council was to ram through a mass rezoning of single family residence neighbourhoods in Vancouver. Basically just changing them into duplexes. This is one way of increasing housing supply but does this really help the people at the bottom in any way shape or form?

Anne: What COPE is concerned about is that this mass rezoning is going to set off some kind of speculative frenzy again. Some of what has happened over this last year with the provincial government’s empty homes tax, school tax, and banning Airbnb rentals — some of this has cooled the market a little bit. But the important thing for COPE is: who obtains the wealth? When a city makes a re-zoning change of any kind, who benefits? As a homeowner, all of a sudden now I can sell my house to some developer who wants to build a duplex. I’m going to get maybe $50,000, $100,000 more for a duplex. I don’t think that private land owners should obtain that wealth.

On big projects, the City, by and large, does take some of the profit back from development — we charge a building cost levy, we charge community amenity contributions, different forms of taxes. But the public doesn’t get anything back in the single-family rezonings. If we’re elected we’re going to find a mechanism to impose tax conditions on zoning.

And the other part of this rezoning is is that they put in no protections for tenants. We know that throughout all of the single-family areas, there’s not just one family. It’s tri-families really, or more. Many single-family homes have a secondary suites or lane-houses that they’re renting. There’s no protection for those these renters that would be turfed out. Four month’s notice and you could tear it down and have a duplex built. That’s really terrible policy. They should have at least a six month notice, and they should get compensation to help with moving.

Many people are talking about repealing the rezoning. I’m not sure if it’s possible. I’m not sure either if anyone would necessarily want to — I’m not opposed to duplexes, I’m not opposed to some densification if you make sure there’s no speculation, you protect tenants and you take the wealth back so that it could be used for public housing, affordable housing. As long as you had those changes.

Defunding the police

Andrei: Two officers have been in the news recently for their seizure of replacement drugs from the Overdose Protection Society. The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) is a very, very well-funded institution that basically protects the private property of well-off people and criminalizes the poor. Are there avenues for trying to wrest some of that power away from VPD, while in Council?

Anne: Yes, yes. Tough, though. Because the police have a police board. And the Mayor is the chair of that police board, though they only have one vote. The province appoints the other people on the board. The only thing Council can vote on to effect the police — and this is important — is the budget. We definitely need to reduce the police budget. And we have to get away from all this ‘more and more equipment, more and more militarization’ of the police force. Take for instance, Italian Day on the Drive this year — these guys were wearing this whole kind of Darth Vader look, right? Big guns, big shields; what did they think was going to happen? We don’t need to fund that.

Plus, if we actually dealt with affordable housing, and provided good housing as a human right, if we provided the services that we need, especially for the fentanyl crisis, we would need fewer police. This is a crazy way to spend your money, to criminalize poor people as you said.

The Mayor: More than just one vote

Andrei: That also speaks to, for better or for worse, the importance of who ends up getting elected for Mayor, if they’re going to be part of the police board.

Anne: Absolutely.

Andrei: The field of mayoral candidates is uh, not great—

Anne: No, I know.

Andrei: —to say the least, but I take solace in the fact that the Mayor, just like everybody else on council, really only has one vote. Even though they do have, you know an amplified voice and the media attention. They’re still only one vote on Council.

Anne:  I don’t want to upset you, [laughs] but I used to think that too. Until I was elected to Council. And the Mayor has enormous power, because all these staff report through the City manager to the Mayor. And, directions are going up and down through the Mayor’s office. The Mayor has a big budget for staff. They have political staff, they have all sorts of communications staff that help them in that role of amplifying the voice and all. They have the main role through to the unions, to the management staff, so they set the direction of things. And it does matter. We’ll do what we can, but it looks like Kennedy Stewart seems to have a lot of backing. I don’t know Shauna Sylvester, and I don’t know how she’d be about things like the police.

Andrei: Somebody like Kennedy or Shauna would be far more sympathetic than the NPA.

Anne: Yes better than a Ken Sim. Calling everyone on council ‘city team members’; saying he’s going to run the city like a business.

Andrei: That’s unsettling.

Anne: It is. He doesn’t come out with much policy. It’s like… glossy pictures and photos of like, athletic people in good shape. [Laughs] Who he’s appealing to, I don’t know. My prediction is that he won’t win, because the NPA has not been in power for a long time, they’re really kind of out of touch with where Vancouver is at. Vancouver is a progressive city, and you know, I don’t think they’re in touch with that.

Anne rallying for $41/month transit passes for working class Vancouverites, October 2, 2018 (Courtesy of Anne Roberts)
Anne rallying for $41/month transit passes for working class Vancouverites, October 2, 2018 (Courtesy of Anne Roberts)

Getting gambling money out of politics

Andrei: On that note, any last words?

Anne: Gambling. When Vision was formed by breaking away from COPE, one of the biggest issues was whether we allowed slots in Vancouver. Up until then it had been very limited, like horse racing at the track. Vision really opened the door to it. It was at that same time that Great Canadian, the gambling company that owns River Rock, had donated money to COPE for the election. After Vision came about, they donated big time. So with Vision in control, that really opened the door to the gambling interests and really expanded gambling — and it was also provincial, it wasn’t just Vision.

2008 is when Larry Campbell was appointed on the board of directors of Great Canadian. He’s been getting $100,000 a year and stocks, now worth $2 million, over all these years. He got his payoff for that vote. Because the provincial government was looking the other way, and Vision wasn’t doing anything about this either, all that money went into real estate. It went through the casinos, through the banks, and into real estate. A huge thing we’re not really talking enough about, how corrupt our real estate industry is. So again, a lot of things started with that period there, around 2000.

This is probably our last chance. If we don’t make a radical left turn, a radical turn of people taking over, Vancouver is just going to be a resort city — totally for the rich. There won’t be a lot of opportunities to stop it, and to stop such a thing now is going to be a major task. All these things about the billions of dollars that have gone through the casino, the banks, the real estate — it’s boggling. You just can hardly fathom it. And how to deal with it, whether Horgan and the province will do enough, whether David Eby will prosecute people… Will they really close it down? Or do they worry about the real estate market dropping. We’re in a very critical time.