8 min

A queer look at Vancouver’s mayoral candidates

Affordable housing, rainbow flags and a new home for The Centre

With five months to go before Vancouver’s municipal elections, Joanne Ursino is keeping an anxious eye on the race for mayor.

A board member of Pride in Art, Ursino still bristles upon remembering the cancellation of last summer’s queer arts showcase because of the city strike.

“It’s unequivocal for me that the strike went on for so long and showed such a profound disrespect to the workers of this city,” she says.

Like many others in the queer community, Ursino won’t be backing incumbent Sam Sullivan if he’s once again selected to represent the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) on the mayoral ballot.

Sullivan and Peter Ladner are both seeking the NPA nomination to run as the party’s sole mayoral candidate this November.

Over in the Vision Vancouver camp, Allan De Genova, Raymond Louie and Gregor Robertson have also tossed their hats in the ring, each one hoping for the Vision nod on Jun 15 to represent that party on the mayoral ballot come fall.

Looking over the Vision Vancouver mayoral candidates, Ursino notes that all are on Facebook. While lots of people in the queer community “travel in that way,” she acknowledges, she says she wants more of the face-to-face work of community building.

“I want to hear them say, ‘We support The Centre doing outreach work in various parts of Vancouver, and we support queer and trans health issues, we’re going to launch a campaign on public spaces and we’re going to promote art that looks at these issues so people see themselves reflected in this city.”

Little Sister’s co-owner Jim Deva is also concerned about maintaining community and sees housing as the most important issue in the upcoming civic election.

“I think that’s the number one issue across the city but it’s also the number one issue in our community — the displacement of our community because of high rents.

“If we all have to move out to the suburbs because we can’t afford to live in our neighbourhood, what does that mean, and how are we going to resolve that problem?”

Deva says he’s partial to Robertson who he feels understands the power of community.

“I’ve spent time speaking with him about the importance of our Village, and the importance of a new and vibrant community centre. He gets that,” Deva says.

For his part, Robertson says it’s disappointing to see some of the heart and soul of Davie Village fading under the pressures of what he calls the “Disney-fication” of Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics.

“I see the city [as having] a role in empowering neighbourhoods to express themselves as they choose, rather than clamping down and trying to control the look and feel of the city.”

Robertson adds that the mayor and city hall can play a more activist role in shoring up renters’ rights, pressuring the provincial government to make changes to the Residential Tenancy Act and securing federal tax incentives to build rental housing.

Competing with Robertson for Vision Vancouver’s mayoral nomination is Raymond Louie, who sees the Davie Village as a prime example of the sense of place and distinctiveness that the gay community wants to maintain.

“The removal of the [rainbow] flags I understand has created a stir in the community. I equate it with if people start removing some of the signs around Chinatown, for instance. People would start wondering what’s happening, why are we losing some of our identity?”

As for affordable housing, Louie says the maintenance of the city’s stock of rental housing and the ability to add to that stock are key components to address the shortage in areas like the West End. Like Robertson, he feels there ought to be incentives for investors to build rental housing again.

Allan De Genova, Vision’s third mayoral candidate, also feels the affordable rental market should be explored more aggressively.

He says he’s aware of at least one West End hotel owner who’s interested in converting his hotel units to rental units, something De Genova supports.

“I wanted a certain percentage, like 10 or 20 percent [of the] 300 units, to be at an affordable rate,” he notes, referring to the Coast Plaza Hotel’s proposed conversion plan, which is still being developed.

It’s part of a philosophy De Genova sums up as live above, shop below, bike to work.

Councillor Peter Ladner, who is challenging Sullivan for the NPA mayoral nomination, wants to see the return of old tax laws that would encourage investment in rental housing — the same laws, he claims, that led to the construction of rental housing in the West End in the first place.

For his part, Sullivan points to the merits of increased densification where people live closer to where they work and travel less in cars — part of the Eco Density initiative he has been championing.

Former city councillor Ellen Woodsworth has yet to throw her support behind any one candidate. She’s hoping her party, the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), can reach a common platform with its spin-off, Vision Vancouver, so “we can take the city back.”

Woodsworth wants to have a mayor in city hall who gives strong indications that the queer community matters and who recognizes its distinctiveness.

“When [COPE] had a majority at city hall, we were able to celebrate Pride at city hall in the council chambers,” she says.

It’s an initiative that Vision Vancouver city councillor Tim Stevenson wants revived. He also wants to see the return of a liaison between the queer community and city hall, appointed by the mayor.

“[There’s] no one that the community knows they can go to directly [and] that has had consequences in the last term of having queer issues brought to the fore.”

Also among Stevenson’s concerns is the future of Davie Village which he feels has been “slowly slipping” in the last three years.

“It’s really crucial to have a gay village,” he insists. “And even though many of us live in different places around the city, or out in Richmond, there has to be a focal place as there is in many cities around the world. If we lose that, we’re going to lose a great deal,” he warns.

“Now we’ve got this issue with the flags, and that to me is a symptom of the problem, that city hall under mayor Sullivan has not been concentrating on our issues. These things come and go and [are] not noticed.”

Sullivan points out that the decision to take down the rainbow flags was made by the West End Business Improvement Association, and it’s difficult to tell such an association what to do with their funding, he says.

The removal of the rainbow banners and the installation of the triathlon banners is a temporary thing, the mayor adds.

“I fully expect the rainbow banners to be reinstated. I should point out that it’s the BIA that made the decision to really have the unique colour and the unique designs and the focus on the gay community, which I fully support and endorse.

“I think there’s still a strong commitment from the BIA. They recognize how important the gay community is to their identity.”

Ladner agrees. He says the special banners put up for the triathlon isn’t “a setback” for the gay community. The event will draw “hundreds of thousands of dollars” into the community’s businesses, he points out.

“If that’s the only evidence that there’s some kind of erosion of the identity or the support for the community, I wouldn’t worry about it,” Ladner says.

Vancouver Pride Society vice-president Laura McDiarmid, who is an NPA supporter, feels that a compromise may have been better.

“Considering this is our celebration of the rainbow flag, it was a bit of a shock to see it come down,” she says.

“A mayor and existing council need to be aware that things are happening within the gay community before decisions are made — a little more awareness of our issues.”

The Centre and its attendant issues — accessibility, range of services, and securing a location and funding for a new facility — remain a top priority for many queer community members.

Stevenson believes the queer community and The Centre itself have to be key drivers in ensuring a new centre sees the light of day.

“The place of elected officials is to encourage,” he says, “but it has to come from a strong [Centre] board and the desire [within] the community and the board of the community centre to now take this forward, and then work with us to develop something.”

Sullivan says city council has been active in supporting “the effort on Burrard and Davie,” adding that he worked quite closely on securing a new site for The Centre with former executive director Michael Harding prior to his termination.

“I think because there was a change in direction, there was a little bit of an interruption there. But I believe a lot of the work that he did to initiate that relationship on Burrard and Davie, I believe it’s moving forward. I am looking forward to an accessible centre [at Burrard and Davie]… if I’m still correct that that’s being discussed.

“It is a site that has been identified. I know Michael Harding had at the time initiated that. I don’t know if the new management has pursued that but I could certainly look into it. The last I has heard it was going ahead,” Sullivan says.

Asked if he means the old Shell gas station site at the corner of Burrard and Davie, Sullivan says he “shouldn’t even say” and is “uncertain.”

“I have to be careful about whatever negotiations are ongoing,” he demurs.

Ladner says The Centre seems “caught in between a community centre and a health facility. I think it’s got to find its own definition and be clear about that, and then know where the money is to fulfill that dream and meet that need.”

He sees The Centre as currently offering social services, but says he’s aware that many queer community members feel there should be “general community centre-type activities” provided as well.

“I don’t know whether the people who’ve been running The Centre have sorted that out,” Ladner says. “When they do, that will determine where they have the best chance of getting money.”

Louie says the development of a new Centre is important in maintaining the integrity of the gay village and securing multiple sources of funding, from the private sector as well as the provincial and federal governments. “We need partners to make that happen,” he adds.

Another municipal concern raised by queer community members is safety and security. The battle against homophobia in an ongoing one, say Woodsworth, Stevenson and McDiarmid.

Woodsworth remembers the benefits of having a dedicated Vancouver Police Department (VPD) liaison to the queer community.

“We knew who to turn to [and] we could turn to that person quickly. We’re a population that is still being physically attacked. Aaron [Webster’s] death was not that long ago,” she points out.

Stevenson says it’s a question of continuing education and keeping the queer community “out in the public.”

When people see the city’s mayor endorsing a Pride week celebration at city hall, he feels they eventually understand that “this is just another aspect of our society.”

Robertson, whose mayoral run Stevenson is supporting, says bringing back a dedicated VPD liaison to the community is necessary.

He’d like to see beat cops patrolling the West End and more resources for the police to do their job, but notes that the root causes of crime, homelessness and drug addiction have to be addressed concurrently.

Sullivan says he meets with police chief Jim Chu “every couple of weeks” and is willing to put the reinstatement of a dedicated gay police liaison “on the agenda for consideration.”

His recent announcement about hiring 96 additional officers means it’s possible to do “those kinds of proactive things,” Sullivan adds.

Deva says he doesn’t think there’s any mayoralty candidate who’s unaware of the importance of safety when it comes to the queer community. “I don’t think any one of them addresses it any better than the other,” he adds.

“The mayor can’t make our streets any safer without working with other people,” Deva continues, pointing to the rest of city council, the VPD, the West End BIA, the community policing centre and the city ambassadors.

“They need to know that we’re still not satisfied with the safety of our community on our streets,” he says.

Vision Vancouver will choose its mayoral candidate for the next election on Jun 15 at the Croatian Cultural Centre on Commercial Dr, while the NPA will hold its nomination meeting on Jun 8 at the Marriott Pinnacle Downtown Hotel.