With yet another election looming, Xtra West sat down with Vision Vancouver mayoral hopeful Gregor Robertson Oct 24 to get his perspective on the issues that resonate with queers —from his take on the community’s top priorities, to the influence of BIAs, to safety and the role of the city in finding a new home for The Centre.
Robertson, co-founder of juice maker Happy Planet, stepped down as the NDP MLA for Vancouver-Fairview Jul 15, after announcing his intention to run for Vancouver mayor back in February.
Here’s an excerpt from Robertson’s interview with Xtra West.
Xtra West: A number of high-profile queer community members seem to think that you get it —that you get our community and its needs. What do you think are the top three needs of the queer community going into this election?
Gregor Robertson: Top three needs. Safer community in the West End. That’s number one.
Number two, affordable housing and renter protection. And third… homelessness I always put as the top priority and it’s obviously related to the safety and the affordable housing in the West End —I guess I’m seeing it in a different light here, not as being as a specific need of the queer community. It kind of overarches everything. If we don’t address it, it affects everything else, and therefore does affect the community significantly. It’s hard to rank these.
There’s homeless people in the Village all the time. I think it’s broken our spirit as a city, and certainly in the community. So maybe that’s the order —homelessness, making sure people have homes and that connects to the second priority, which is affordable housing and renters’ rights, so more people don’t become homeless that are on low and middle incomes. And then third would be community safety, in particular in the Village, given that we’re seeing it flare up again. I would say those are the three most pressing.
XW: You have told Xtra West that it’s disappointing to see some of the heart and soul of Davie Village fading under the pressures of what you call “the Disneyfication” of Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics. As mayor, what specifically will you do to maintain the Davie Village’s gay identity?
GR: Ensure that the community has real influence on the decisions related to how the Village looks and feels. I think the issue of the banners was a specific case where there was difference of opinion and the community wasn’t being heard.
We’re changing the look of the whole city for the 2010 Games. It shouldn’t be [a] homogeneous and generic Olympics look, and I think the look and feel of the Village is important. The community should have real voice on that.
XW: You mentioned that people should have more of a say from the village in terms of things like how the Village should look. Do you have a specific sense of how that would be accomplished?
GR: That’s a good question. I’ve talked a lot about neighbourhoods having more voice, more influence on decisions that affect them, and we need to create means for that to happen.
We need to reinvigorate the citizen committees at city hall. We need to empower neighbourhood committees or councils to bring more voice to distinct neighbourhoods, and that’s something I want to look at rejuvenating.
XW: The influence of the BIAs on the look and identity of certain city areas became a hot-button topic, especially for the queer community when the West End BIA removed the rainbow banners from the Village lampposts. What do you think of the WEBIA’s decision to remove those banners?
GR: It was maybe not well thought through and there should have been better communication, better community decision-making there. I think the end result has been a reasonable result. But ideally these decisions get made more smoothly with better communication.
XW: Would you like to see a greater involvement of community residents, who are not necessarily business and property owners, in those decisions at the BIA level?
GR: It’s an interesting question. The divide between a business association and a residents’ association creates challenges and the perception of separate agendas and separate politics. It’s worth looking at bringing those groups together more often into a more cohesive body that can guide the community decisions without it blowing up and being divisive.
XW: In speaking with the executive director of the BIA, Lyn Hellyar and also the new president Robert Graham, they are maintaining that an approach was made to the current mayor Sam Sullivan about issuing a proclamation that the Davie Village be “the core of the gay neighbourhood in Vancouver.” Are you aware of such a plan?
GR: No, I haven’t heard that. No.
XW: Is that something that as mayor you’d consider doing?
GR: If the community was bringing that forward, sure. I’d be open to hearing about it. It sounds like a reasonable request. If the community is into it, then absolutely. We should be supporting the identity of the community in that way.
XW: During Larry Campbell’s tenure as mayor, there was a city liaison to the gay community. Would you like to reinstitute that position at the city?
GR: I think it was an important position connecting the community to city hall. I would like to see that reinstated. The exact design of it is to be fleshed out. We had something that worked and now we need an updated version.
I’m a big fan of more lines of communication and addressing issues, before they blow up, in a more proactive way. I think a liaison is a good proactive voice to help facilitate good decisions and process.
XW: The Vancouver Pride Society has been knocking at the city’s door for several years now regarding the question of a civic designation for Pride.
Is that some thing you will do as mayor?
GR: Yeah, I think Pride week is an exceptional festival and the city needs to support it robustly.
The best ways to do that still need work. It seems there’s funding issues, there’s status issues. I’d like to see us revisit that and figure out how the city best supports Pride to make it even more positive than it already is. It’s phenomenal as is, but with challenges and the city can help to reduce those hitches.
XW: On the issue of safety, what can a city do to curb gaybashing?
GR: The city should be urging the Crown counsel to pursue the Jordan Smith case as a hate crime and keep the pressure on to use that tool in the judicial system. It’s a repeating tragedy in Vancouver, and we need to see hate crimes pursued as such in the system and appropriate action taken in the courts.
We need to have more police presence in our streets and in the Village specifically. Working with the police, and focusing with them on community policing and beat cops and taking care of neighbourhoods like the Village that have specific public safety challenges.
XW: Regarding the issue of a dedicated VPD liaison to the gay community, do you see this as a key feature in tackling gaybashings?
GR: Yes, yes, yes. Certainly.
XW: Have you had a discussion with VPD Chief Jim Chu about this?
GR: Not specifically about this. But I will. We’ve had some discussion to date, but we haven’t gotten into details. That’ll be after Nov 15, I hope.
XW: Segueing to The Centre, it has been searching for a new home for several years. What will you do to speed up that process and find them a new home?
GR: The city can play a role working with the developer on the proposed new site to keep things moving. It sounds like we’re on hold now for some time. I’d like to know if the city can help to speed things up. So we can work on that on the city hall side, ensuring that the permits and approvals and the developer isn’t running into any barriers here. I think the new location is promising…
XW: This is the Shell site?
GR: Yeah, yeah. But it’s moving slowly. I think city hall and the mayor’s office should have a role in facilitating and accelerating important developments that bring much needed community amenities, and The Centre is certainly a critical piece in the Village.
XW: The housing situation. There have been a number of instances in the Village of what people call “eviction by renovation.” One of the most high profile being the Bay Tower/Hollyburn conflict. What role can and should the mayor and the city have in arresting that trend?
GR: It’s tough for the mayor to intervene because it’s provincial legislation. I’ve, as an MLA, fought evictions and the conversions here in Fairview, so as mayor, there’s an important advocacy role in calling for changes to the Residential Tenancy Act, calling for a residential tenancy branch to be relocated, brought back into Vancouver, preferably close to the West End, the most dense rental district in the province.
I can be a strong voice for that. I understand the issue well. It’s critical in Vancouver where renters are the majority of our population.
XW: Finally, why do you think queers should choose you for mayor on Nov 15?
GR: Why the queer community should choose me? That’s a good question to give a short answer to. Hmm… because our values are shared, and I walk my talk. I will not hesitate to stand up and fight for queer rights, for affordable housing, for empowering community as I’ve done as an MLA.
I will continue to be that kind of voice and leader, and expect the community to hold me to it.