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On Monday hundreds of people, including many Turkish Vancouverites, gathered outside the Vancouver Art Gallery in solidarity with the ongoing protests in Turkey. Addressing the broad anti-government protests in Istanbul and throughout Turkey, speakers at the VAG condemned the Turkish government’s undemocratic tactics, police brutality against the protests, media blackouts, and religious fundamentalism.

Some organizers drew attention to the original event that sparked the movement. “What started everything was a public space, Gezi park in the city centre…The government decided to turn that into a shopping mall and that wasn’t even a lawful decision. There’s a court decision against it,” said Ozgur Sapmaz, a volunteer organizer of the rally at the VAG.

“People occupied the park to prevent construction machinery from getting in there, which was about to start chopping down the trees. There were about 100 protesters there, who started sitting in, setting up tents. Cops came and tried to kick them out, and they used really brutal force…It started getting attention from the artist community. It became this massive resistance against the construction effort.”

Despite the distance between Vancouver and Turkey, the events in Gezi park bring to mind local history. There was the fight to save the entrance of Stanley Park in 1971, the Crab Park occupation in 1984, the successful UBC student campaigns from 2007 – 2009 to stop the privatization of the centre of campus and the UBC Farm, the Olympic Tent Village, Occupy Vancouver, and many other squats and tent cities. If the destruction of Gezi Park — a seemingly innocuous and unexceptional event — can spark such an uprising in Istanbul, could the same not happen here?

“Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in the face of certain defeat.”
― Ralph EllisonInvisible Man

In a serial act of masochism I’ve tried over the last month to digest the daily froth whipped up by the usual suspects around the issue of Occupy Vancouver. But columnists Jon Ferry (The Province), Mark Hasiuk (Vancouver Courier), Bill Good (CKNW) and the editorial ravings of both Sun and Province have become so predictably reactionary and fear-based that reading them  has become something akin to being water-boarded with angry spittle. The consensus among almost all is a mean-spirited act of wishful thinking: that the Occupy movement disappear, evaporate back into the realm of invisibility where it no longer interrupts the neat and tidy discourse of mainstream journalism. The Globe’s Gary Mason, on the other hand, has at least tried to take a measured approach. His columns wear the see-through veneer of fairness with a token attempt at empathy and an obligatory effort at writerly description.

“He was earnest and almost breathtakingly naive, but also charming in his own way,” Mason writes about an “archetypal occupier” in Tuesday’s column, Cold Comfort as Occupy Vancouver washed away with the rain. This is condescension wearing a mask of compassion and it’s typical of the good-cop pundits who think they can ease the consciences of those who want the occupiers to recede from view but without the aid of batons or pepper spray. In fact, “charming and breathtakingly naive,” would not be an inappropriate way to describe Mason’s own stance as he surveyed Monday’s dismantling of the VAG settlement. He gives himself and his privileged perspective away in his first sentence, comparing the colour of the  “mud pit” left by the occupiers to a “dark French roast.” If this isn’t a joke, it should be. And do the rolled and folded tents bear an uncanny likeness to almond croissants? But even if Mason had been unconsciously pining in the rain for his Starbucks fix, he summoned enough feeling to grant the occupiers a few column inches: “We built a family in a pretty short period of time,” he quotes the earnest/naive occupier. “It wasn’t easy…But it’s a growing process and we’re not done yet. We will get through the winter and look forward to the spring.”

These are notes towards — what? — a manifesto? list of demands? Not really. Just three key thoughts/impressions about the Occupy movement that have evolved over the weeks I have been watching, participating in, and thinking about it. Call it “Occupy 101.” There’s a lot more nuance to these issues than I go into here — but I’m trying to be schematic, conceptual. I hope it might be useful in the on-going and collective attempt to “explain” the movement—both to those of us involved in it, and those who remain skeptical or even antagonistic to it.


The problems we face in the world today are diverse, wide-ranging, and complex. But here’s a (hopefully useful) short-hand that gets us right into the heart of the matter, and that short-hand is found in the nexus formed by these two words: ECONOMY and ECOLOGY. Both words derive from the Greek oikos, meaning “home.” Simplifying to the extreme, economy is how we make our living and our home; ecology is where we make our living and our home. Obviously, these two concepts need to be in harmony and balance. But today they are not: our economy does constant and often excessive damage to our ecology.

Our global economic system is based on, driven by, and in need of constant growth. Like a shark, if it doesn’t keep moving, it dies. Or better, like cancer, it only knows growth, regardless of the consequences for its “host.” As long as GDPs keep rising, it doesn’t matter how unequally distributed that wealth is, or how badly people suffer, or what happens to the environment. So our ECONOMICS ignores and surpass all limits. But our ECOLOGIES are all about limits — each ecosystem is limited (by climate, geography, resources, etc.), and the ultimate limit is the earth itself, the entire biosphere. Our current economic system has run right past these ecological limits (the excess registering in global warming, the extinction of species, the loss of the world’s forests, huge Texas-sized patches of plastic floating in our oceans, etc. etc.). In Slavoj Zizek’s analogy, we are like Wile E. Coyote, running off the edge of the economical/ecological cliff. When we finally look down, we’ll fall.

Below, Tristan Markle of The Mainlander interviews Vision Vancouver’s Geoff Meggs, who is running for re-election to Vancouver City Council. We discuss Vancouver’s unaffordability malady: would Meggs make the correct diagnosis, or propose a sufficient intervention? We discuss other cities with similar disorders, but which have more robust public housing programs: would Meggs help implement those programs here, or take responsibility for the ongoing destruction of public housing? We discuss developer contributions to political parties: is Vision passing the buck on campaign finance reform? Finally, we compare 1983’s Operation Solidarity (in which Meggs was heavily involved) to the Occupy Together movement: is Vision misrepresenting, even vilifying, the new movement?

Markle: Why is housing so unaffordable in Vancouver, what’s the main reason?

Meggs: I would say there’s some short term key drivers, and some longer term ones. In the short term, the key reason’s been that the economy’s been quite buoyant here, and we’ve had a lot of people moving here, so it’s been driving up demand, and demand has been coupled with a lot of speculation. Because for about about 15 -20 years housing prices have tended to go up. So there’s a speculative element, there’s no doubt about it. But I think in the longer term I think the bigger picture is that land supply is quite constrained here and the ALR [the Agricultural Land Reserve] is part of that, it’s a positive part but it’s a contributor.

Markle: When you said that speculation plays a part, what exactly do you mean?

Meggs: Well I think many people had an expectation for a long time that if they purchased real estate that they would see gains in their equity that was faster than the rate of inflation. In other words, they could benefit economically by buying real estate more so than buying an RRSP or putting it in a bank account or buying Canadian savings bonds. And for a long time that was true. As a result, there was more pressure on the market than was justified by reality.

Markle: Last year prices went up over 20%, still. So how is that happening?

Meggs: Well I’m not an expert on all of these things, but I believe that because the BC economy and the Canadian economy have been relatively buffered from the global crisis, and because there are a number of underlying factors that make this a very attractive place to live – you know, say, no civil wars or armed conflicts going on, a pretty solid stable legal system, all of these things that are appealing – a lot of people have been coming here to purchase and to some degree to speculate. So we’ve continued to see higher prices than almost anywhere else in North America, certainly in stark contrast to the United States, for sure. That seems to be related to our place in the global economy.

Markle: We hear a lot about people from other countries buying property here on the one hand, but research doesn’t make it so clear that the majority of capital invested in new condos, for example, is necessarily coming from people from elsewhere, at all. You’ve covered some of the research that shows that it’s not so simple as that.

Meggs: I don’t think it’s useful to pursue that line of inquiry at all personally, and potentially dangerous, because it’s a classic deflection in BC politics to blame our problems on outsiders. The reality is that if there are purchases by offshore investors at the high end of the market, it’s not having and impact on anybody that I’m worried about at all. The real problem is at the mid-range.

Markle: Depending on what type of housing you’re looking at, whether it’s stand-alone homes or condos, the median price is way out of proportion to median income. High end properties won’t affect that median much at all. So when Bob Rennie did a study recently which said that all the talk about housing being unaffordable is skewed by the high end, he missed the point. The most simple measures of housing affordability – median income versus median price – are not affected by high end. So what is it then that’s driving up the prices, if it’s for the large part not money flowing in necessarily from elsewhere, not necessarily for high end luxury properties, so what is it?

Mayoral candidates debate against the public

Tonight’s mayoral debate on homelessness and affordable housing was a heated fight — not between the two candidates, but between the City and its residents. Mayor Gregor Robertson and mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton were supposed to face off and debate the issues, but the real debate was with the people of Vancouver.

Rather than reveal disagreements, the event brought to the fore the overlapping politics of Robertson and Anton. If before tonight there was a sense that the candidates’ two parties — Vision and the NPA — were different in their respective policy platforms, tonight’s debate showcased agreement on housing strategy: let the market do it. When asked in vague terms if the market could provide all the solutions, both candidates hesitated, and Anton frequently brought in her party’s history of buying sites throughout Vancouver for social housing — admittedly more than could be said for Vision. But on actual concrete politics, the candidates converged more than they differed. Most importantly, both candidates stressed that they do not support a speculator tax on housing and do not support inclusionary zoning in Vancouver.

Inclusionary zoning is an urban planning policy used in cities throughout the world — including Vancouver’s Oppenheimer district (“DEOD”) — mandating the inclusion of affordable housing in all new multi-unit housing developments. In exchange for pushing up property values and exposing low-income renters to evictions, developers are forced to build a percentage of new units as affordable. In Oppenheimer it’s 20%. Tonight, the question was: “Would an inclusionary zoning policy, one where you require developers to build a certain percentage of affordable units into their projects like Richmond does, be workable in Vancouver?” Gregor and Anton said categorically: no.

Gregor was referring to city staff’s current review of inclusionary zoning in the Oppenheimer district. Earlier this year head Planner Brent Toderian stated that the city will have to make “tough decisions” about inclusionary zoning in the Oppenheimer district. Tonight Gregor repeated this plan for affordability: replace affordable housing in East Vancouver with $300,000 condominiums. Like Anton, who tonight argued for a “common sense revolution” of “removing red tape” for the developers, Gregor wants further de-regulation to accompany more STIR tax breaks.

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Throughout the debate, however, dozens in attendance disagreed with Robertson and Anton, shouting slogans like, “Housing is a Human Right,” “Stop the Evictions,” “Drown Out the Developer Parties,” “Gregor Lies,” and “Three More Years of What?” A big theme of the night was the debate format itself, pitting two candidates “against” each other in a false opposition. Attendees — dozens of them from #occupyvancouver, arriving at the debate with the recent announcement that Mayor Roberston has ordered an eviction of Occupy — rejected the format of the debate, which excluded any political party or candidate not funded by developers.

Ashlie Gough, only 23 years old, passed away November 5th 2011 during a weekend visiit to Vancouver from Victoria. Ashlie passed before her time, and there is nothing more upsetting, more infuriating, than people passing before their time. This lost future has registered public attention because the overdose occurred at a political protest camp — Occupy Vancouver. In some ways, this tragedy was a chance accident in a unique situation. But it is also true that overdoses are far more common in Vancouver than anyone would hope, or than many would prefer to acknowledge.

During the 1990s, the number of lethal overdoses in Vancouver skyrocketed, with hundreds dying every year. Hep C and HIV reached epidemic levels in the injection drug-user (IDU) community, and people across the city feared that the epidemic would spread. In 1997 the Vancouver-Richmond Health Board called a state-of-emergency. The emergency situation was felt most strongly by those in the Downtown Eastside, who saw their friends and family passing away at an alarming rate. In 1997, community organizers filled Oppenheimer Park with 1000 wooden crosses, each representing a preventable overdose death. Over the next three years, another thousand lives were lost, so in the year 2000 the community planted 2000 crosses.

These thousands of lost futures traumatized the community, but also galvanized the community into action. The time of waiting for government to act was over — it was time to take pro-active measures. Organizers began experimenting with illegal needle-exchanges and safe-infection sites in the Downtown Eastside. An epic political battle erupted between proponents of harm-reduction on the one hand, and business improvement associations on the other — depicted vividly in Nettie Wild’s film Fix: Story of an Addicted City. Eventually, public opinion shifted in favour of harm-reduction, and both Mayor Larry Campbell and even Premier Gordon Campbell came to support Insite as an institution.

Preventable lethal overdoses were not the only lost futures. Women and young women were murdered and went missing from the Downtown Eastside every year, but authorities showed almost not concern, despite an endless stream of evidence and first-hand reports. This struggle is ongoing. One year ago, on September 15 2011, 22 year-old Ashley Machisknic fell to her death from the window of the Regent Hotel. Community members believed Ashley had been murdered, and held an overnight occupation of the police station demanding an investigation. As a result, a hotline was established to report violence against women. Just this past Sept 17 2011, on the eve of the annual DTES Women’s Housing March, Verna Simard fell from her 6th storey apartment, again at the Regent Hotel. March organizers dedicated the day to Vera, another life lost before its time. To this day, Occupy Vancouver is standing in solidarity with those protesting the sham Missing and Murdered Women Inquiry at 701 West Georgia Georgia.

Life-expectancy in the Downtown Eastside is well below the rest of the city, and it is well understood by everyone in the community that these tragedies are the result of systemic violence — legislated poverty, lack of appropriate and affordable housing, ongoing colonization, daily exploitation of women, and criminalization of addiction. These are the “hidden tensions” that underlie our society, and which cause so much inequality and injustice.

Today the mayor announced that the city will be attempting to end the occupation of the Vancouver Art Gallery. The announcement comes as a surprise for some who have been following. So far the only candidates in the municipal election calling for the eviction of the VAG have been from the right-wing NPA and their blog at citycaucus. In reality the mayor and council have used forced to shut down tent cities ever since being elected in 2008.

In the three years since 2008, Vision Vancouver and Robertson have evicted all major tent cities and arrested dozens of housing activists at shelters and empty housing projects across the city. Maybe the question today is not why the Mayor has announced the closure of the occupation, but rather why it has been allowed to stay as long as it has?

After setting up on October 15, the mayor stated twice in separate sessions at city council that he would not order the removal of the camp at the VAG. In the weeks after the first tent, the Canadian occupations were deemed harmless to the Canadian elite, framed more as re-enactments of Occupy Wall Street than as local interventions. The Prime Minister argued that “we didn’t bail out our banking sector,” and news outlets across Canada doubled down on the talking-point that the Canadian occupations could not last for long, with no anchor in local issues. This was also the sentiment in the air in Vancouver, where the Mayor judged that the occupation was a “symbolic” protest that would disappear as the winter weather arrived.

Despite feeling safe from imminent eviction, we campers still worried about the ‘NO CAMPING’ signs posted about the Art Gallery grounds, which referenced the city’s unconstitutional structures by-law. In response, Mainlander writers posted an article about whether or not the by-law would be used to shut down the occupation, arguing that we should be ready for anything, since “for the police and city managers of Vancouver, every protest is legal up to a point — in so far as the status quo does not change.”

This turning point was October 22, after the first big march of 1,000 people on the banks.