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.”
Last week, Vision Vancouver city councilor Geoff Meggs wrote an opinion piece for The Tyee claiming that City Hall is taking bold steps to address the rental housing crisis.
These claims are difficult to accept given that the situation for renters in Vancouver has worsened since the election of Gregor Robertson in 2008. Rents have increased steadily, by 15% over the past four years.
Since 2008, the number of low-income households in Vancouver has decreased by 18%. This is not because wages are increasing, but rather because service sector workers and their jobs have been forced out of the city.
Similarly, public school enrollment has been decreasing steadily at 2% per year, even though private school enrolment hasn’t increased. According to the Vancouver School Board, the main reason families are leaving is that they can no longer afford the cost-of-living. As school funding is tied to the number of students, this has a devastating impact on the school board budget. The Vancouver School Board is now locked into a perpetual crisis of cut-backs, layoffs, and school closures.
The impacts of Meggs’ high-cost market rental buildings
The costs of the affordability crisis are widely acknowledged, and the effects are felt by renters every day. But the reality that our affordable housing stock is being eroded under Vision Vancouver needs to be placed front-and-centre. For years Meggs has argued that only the free market can bring housing affordability. Not only are the market rental units championed by Meggs high-cost (a discussion of the cost of new market housing was published in today’s Tyee), but each new development will have have a net negative effect on the affordable neighbourhoods they are part of. This is for a simple reason: the glaring loophole in the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA).
Last week the Vancouver Police Board voted to dismiss a joint complaint filed in March 2013 by VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users) and Pivot Legal Society. The complaint was based on a freedom of information request revealing that up to 95% of Vancouver’s vending by-law tickets are given out in the Downtown Eastside (DTES).
Pivot and VANDU called on the police to implement the recommendations of the Murdered and Missing Women’s Inquiry, which called on the VPD stop the disproportionate ticketing of poor, homeless, and under-housed residents in the DTES.
Immediately after the Mayor’s decision, PIVOT announced that it will be filing an appeal with Office of Police Complaints Commission. PIVOT and VANDU will also continue with their constitutional challenge against the City’s vending by-law. According to Pivot lawyer Doug King, the challenge will be heard in the courts next Spring, 2014.
Photo credit: DM GILLIS
After ten steady weeks of nightly protests by anti-poverty activists in front of the PiDGiN restaurant in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, police have stated that they plan to arrest picketers. In a press conference delivered yesterday, Vancouver Police Department spokesperson Brian Montague stated that his department is “anticipating an arrest soon.”
A letter issued yesterday by the VPD states that PiDGiN picketers can now be arrested for “shouting, screaming, or swearing.” The statement cites section 430(1) of the Criminal Code of Canada, which means that the VDP is seeking to label the protest a criminal action. An associated VPD release states that the police are issuing the arrest order to prevent Vancouverites from being “denied the lawful use and enjoyment of property.”
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This weekend, Vancouver’s left-wing municipal party will hold its annual general meeting at the Maritime Labour Centre. Before hundreds of Vancouverites file into the 600-capacity hall, I want to reflect on “what now” and “what next” for COPE. My hope is to place COPE within the larger history of Vancouver’s political struggles — in particular the unnamed struggle between the political masses and the rich who oppose them.
Brief history: 1968 — Present
The Committee of Progressive Electors (COPE) was formed in 1968 by organized labour, tenant organizers, and socialists. In 1993 the party was was renamed the Coalition of Progressive Electors, signaling the entry of social movements emergent since the 1960s, including feminist, anti-racist and peace movements rooted in Vancouver.
Throughout its history, the party has been known for its fight to defend public funding for transit and housing, rent control in the 1970s, radical demands for full employment in the 1980s, and more recently, a Sanctuary City policy to confront Harper’s policing and anti-immigrant agenda.
Mass-based and membership-driven, COPE brings together social movements, organizations and communities from across the city. In that spirit, COPE has also struck electoral agreements with Greens and the civic NDP since 1980. At the turn of the 21st century, however, groups within COPE began to argue that the principle of coalition-building should be extended to Vancouver’s business community and developer class.
This week the City conducted its annual homelessness count. As usual, the count was conducted shortly before the closure of several emergency shelters. This April five shelters are set to close, resulting in a net loss of approximately 200 shelter beds. No replacement shelters have been planned. The homelessness count is a public relations stunt timed weeks before the yearly shelter closures.
Since the start of the Homelessness Emergency Action Team (HEAT) program in 2008/9, the annual closure of the shelters in April has caused an exodus of people from shelters onto the
street. In 2010, 2011, and 2012, residents of the closing HEAT shelters were ruthlessly evicted. The shelter closures were largely ignored by the corporate press and statisticians, while limited funding extensions have been repeatedly mis-reported as creating “new” shelter spaces.
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”).