News
12 min

Gregor’s vision

Vision has proven to be queer-friendly, but some LGBT voters say accomplishments are cosmetic

“Vision’s been very responsive and tuned in to the needs of the queer community,” says mayoral candidate Gregor Robertson, who promises to maintain that course if reelected. Credit: Shimon Karmel

On the face of it, Vancouver’s queer community appears to have done well by Vision Vancouver’s six-year municipal tenure.

Less than a year into its first term in office, Vision created an advisory committee specifically dedicated to LGBT issues in July 2009, and the community has had the government’s ear ever since. Four years later, the Vision-dominated city council granted Vancouver’s Pride parade civic event status, offering long-sought recognition and waiving costly parade-staging fees in the process.

Since Vision came to power in 2008, city hall has officially kicked off Pride Week in Vancouver each year, raising the rainbow flag at 12th Avenue and Cambie Street to proclaim Pride and inviting community members to take over city councillors’ seats for a session to share their life experiences.

City council also officially acknowledged the Davie Village as the historical and cultural hub of Vancouver’s gay community, a recognition now embedded in the West End community plan that council approved in November 2013. In keeping with the West End plan, city staff painted permanent rainbow crosswalks at the intersection of Bute and Davie streets in the heart of the gay village, and staff are now considering options to memorialize Jim Deva, the late co-owner of Little Sister’s bookstore who died in September.

Vancouver’s Vision-led school and parks boards each passed queer-friendly policies in 2014 as well, despite significant opposition from some parents to the school-board policy. The school board now once again leads BC’s 60 districts in anti-homophobia policy, this time amending its own groundbreaking policy to make it more explicitly supportive of trans students.

The parks board, meanwhile, accepted the recommendations of its Trans and Gender-Variant Inclusion Working Group and passed its own groundbreaking policy in April, intended to make Vancouver parks, pools and recreation centres more welcoming to trans people.

As mayor, Gregor Robertson has also been responsive to policing issues around gaybashing and supported, with the rest of Vision’s caucus, Councillor Tim Stevenson’s mission to Sochi, Russia, to lobby the International Olympic Committee during the 2014 Winter Games for more gay-friendly host-city policies.

“Vision’s been very responsive and tuned in to the needs of the queer community,” Robertson says. “We’ve had a big focus for six years on supporting the community, advocating vigorously both locally and globally, ensuring the LGBTT community is valued and vibrant.”

Nor has Vision been deterred by adversity, he says, citing, for example, the contentious debate that emerged around the school-board policy.

“The school board did incredible work fighting against the homophobic attacks of two NPA trustees that participated in US homophobic attack ads and went after the school board’s LGBTTQ inclusion policy,” says Robertson, referring to former Non-Partisan Association (NPA) trustees Ken Denike and Sophia Woo, who were expelled from the party’s caucus in June.

If reelected, Robertson says he and Vision intend to maintain and continue the work done so far. He cites the search for space to house a queer community centre — for which $7 million in community-amenity contribution funds has already been allocated — as a work in progress. “All the pieces are coming together now, so I’m hopeful we’re within a few years of that opening.”

***

Robertson’s main challenger for the mayor’s seat is the NPA’s Kirk LaPointe, who describes himself as “reasonably familiar” with the LGBT community and a careful observer of social justice issues in a media career that spans more than 30 years, including managing editor of The Vancouver Sun and a founding editor of the National Post.

“I’ve watched everything from how society dealt with HIV/AIDS to how it was opening doors around same-sex unions and marriage, then financial and other rights. I don’t think there’s a single issue I haven’t intersected with or haven’t either covered or directed coverage on,” he says.

LaPointe bristles slightly at an attempt, made early in this municipal election campaign, to portray him as hostile to gay people. While editor of The Hamilton Spectator 15 years ago, LaPointe penned a piece about the paper’s decision not to run a photo of a same-sex kiss, explaining, in part, that “the image itself would be offensive to a number of our readers.”

That editorial decision was criticized in an anonymous article entitled “Does Vancouver’s Conservative Mayoral Candidate Still Find Picture of Gay Men Kissing Distasteful?” published in August by Press Progress, a Broadbent Institute project.

LaPointe says that he argued in favour of publishing the photo but that the rest of the newsroom’s leadership demurred.

“It was a very different era,” he notes. “At the time, the community standards were much more conservative. Hamilton is a vastly more conservative city than ours is, and I was at the vanguard of what I believed to be the requirement for us to shed greater light and to, frankly, be more inclusive.

“My team and the leadership at the newspaper didn’t agree, and they were persuasive,” he continues. “They had been in the community a lot longer. They had, frankly, a better understanding of what the community standards would be like.”

LaPointe considers the resuscitation of the kissing photo an attempt at fear-mongering, which he lays squarely at Vision’s doorstep.

“I thought it was a mean-spirited personal attack that had no bearing and no relationship to my body of work,” he says, “and to the extent that we’re discussing it just suggests that it’s worked in stirring up fear among people who often feel vulnerable.”

He says there’s no question that as mayor he would be inclusive and celebrate diversity. “Our diversity defines us here, but also our inclusiveness defines us,” he says, “so we don’t necessarily look at diversity as being differences as much as we look at diversity meaning we find common ground and celebrate.”

Asked which LGBT-specific initiatives he would champion, LaPointe cites the need for dedicated community space, Davie Village improvements, stronger safety programs to further reduce gaybashings, a stronger Out in Schools program, and ensuring LGBT people have access to facilities as they age.

He says that he would also like to see Pride celebrations extend into other neighbourhoods during Pride Week and that he would like Vancouver to host a large-scale conference to bolster the city’s international reputation for leadership on human rights.

Presented with a partial list of Vision’s queer portfolio actions, LaPointe contends that a lot of them “happened under NPA recognition.” He says the NPA has a long history of being “intelligently inclusive” and ahead of its time, as evidenced in the election of Gordon Price, Vancouver’s first openly gay city councillor, who served six terms with the NPA from 1986 to 2002.

Councillor Tim Stevenson balks at LaPointe’s claim that the NPA has been a friend to the queer community. “It’s totally ridiculous,” he says.

Stevenson notes that it was under the 2002 to 2005 tenure of COPE and then-mayor Larry Campbell that Pride celebrations were first held at city hall. Nothing happened when Sam Sullivan and the NPA returned to power in 2005, Stevenson says, though he credits Sean Bickerton, who ran for city council with the NPA in the 2008 and 2011 municipal elections, with being a vocal proponent for civic status for Pride.

“He’s trying to remake some kind of history,” Stevenson says of LaPointe’s assertions, adding that he wonders what “intelligently inclusive” means. “I’m not going to say he or the NPA is homophobic, but they just didn’t do anything.”

***

Kevin Dale McKeown, who sits on the executive of the Green Party of Vancouver and writes a monthly nostalgia column for Xtra, is less impressed with Vision’s list of queer-friendly accomplishments. He finds them mostly cosmetic, beginning with the city’s LGBTQ advisory committee. He sees it as a select group of community members with political connections meeting in an echo chamber.

“We’re not immune to cronyism,” McKeown warns. “When we see our community leaders being given this kind of access, for some reason we think we’re getting this kind of access.”

He would like the community to have seats at a larger advisory table of minority and marginalized groups “so that we’re not just retelling our stories to one another, but others are hearing and we’re hearing others, and maybe some sort of real understanding can be achieved.”

McKeown says he’s hard-pressed to think of any issue that he considers really important — such as housing, transparency in governance, affordability, homelessness, aging or education — that isn’t shared by everybody. He’d prefer the community work in partnership with other communities on such issues.

McKeown doesn’t think the queer community has pushed Vision hard enough on the West End’s current development model or the city’s affordable-housing prospects.

“As long as the community is livable for a diverse selection of age groups and income groups, the queer community will find its place in that,” he argues. “Our community is the people we live with in the area; our community is not all queer, and getting less so. There has been a queer visibility in the West End for as long as I can remember. I would rather see more common cause being made with other people we share the area with.”

Filmmaker Aerlyn Weissman agrees, adding that the queer community is itself diverse, ranging from highly paid and placed people in the financial sector to senior women and recent immigrants, who are not faring as well. “We have to keep in mind, when we talk about the impact of Vision and the current policies, that it doesn’t affect our community equally,” she says.

Weissman says she voted for Robertson and much of the Vision slate in 2008. In that first outing, Vision was running against an NPA council that was “heavily funded, heavily loaded” by developer interests, she recalls.

She remembers meeting Robertson at a housing forum on community engagement and development meant to serve rather than constrain the community. Now, she says, Vision has betrayed that initial promise of being a real alternative to the NPA.

“If I want to go lunch with Gregor now, I’ve got to fork up $25,000,” she quips. “And who’s at that lunch? It’s not people like me.”

Asked if his party has been too friendly to developers, Robertson says Vision is focused on building a city, with an emphasis “first and foremost” on constructing rental and social housing.

“We’ve got a rental-housing boom happening which was long overdue; that’s been a big focus in dealing with developers,” he says. “People are coming from all over the world to live in the world’s most livable city, so we have to keep building and doing that sensibly. It’s a delicate balance to keep up with the growth pressure and to ensure that there’s affordability coming, too.”

McKeown says Vision has bought into the myth of sustainable growth, which he dubs an oxymoron. “You cannot grow forever; we have a finite amount of space. At what point do we just say we are full up; this is as dense as we can get?”

Vision’s urban development philosophy is predicated on endless densification, he argues. “At the rate it’s going, the West End is going to be as full of towers as False Creek and Yaletown, and I won’t be able to afford to live there. That will really piss me off,” adds McKeown, who has lived in the area, barring brief absences, since 1969.

Robertson says that the mayoral task force on housing affordability targeted households earning $21,000 to $86,000 as the ones for whom more housing was needed.

If that’s the range, says Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr, “developers are going to tend to come in at the higher end of that range; they’ll make more money when it’s at that range.”

Weissman calls it a cleansing of communities by income. “To the extent that there are parts of our community that are far from wealthy, that are living on government assistance and have few options for lucrative employment, our community is being affected.”

Robertson maintains that affordability and support for the LGBT community is central to the West End community plan and that a wide range of housing — “from laneway infill to taller buildings in some places” — will increase supply and ease vacancy pressure.

“There’ll be some change, no doubt, but the important piece was to do an extensive community plan to ensure voices were heard and concerns around affordability and rental-housing supply were addressed,” he says.

Robertson adds that he continues to push both the provincial and federal governments to back affordable housing. “Their support has dwindled, so we’re not seeing co-ops and rent supplements to the level we need, and the city’s tax base isn’t big enough to do much more,” he contends. “We’re putting city land on the table in some cases for bigger projects to get more affordable rental.”

***

Much has been made of the level of community consultation in the West End and the 5,000 people reached during the community planning process. Weissman says consultation is a word that can be used to describe a range of feedback.

She thinks the consultation process was top-down and offered participants only limited options to substantively shape the neighbourhood’s development direction.

LaPointe also challenges what he sees as a lack of genuine discussion about issues under Vision, saying public hearings aren’t much more than staged evenings where citizens are essentially asked to tick a box.

LaPointe has also championed the issue of transparency throughout his mayoral candidacy. It’s very difficult to get information out of city hall, he says, making it challenging for residents to do anything more than rubber-stamp proposals.

He has repeatedly labelled city governance under Vision as secretive. “What holds today is routine withholding of information, and if you want it, you have to argue for its disclosure,” he contends. “Public servants, the respected experts in these fields, need to have the muzzle taken off them; they need to be able to first of all talk to the media, to others, in a way that furnishes their expertise and enlightens us.”

LaPointe says he doesn’t fear transparency. “It is the essential form of respect for those you serve to furnish information and to have access to that information so that they can then make their decisions about their own engagement with the city in a far different way.”

However, when challenged by Georgia Straight editor Charlie Smith to disclose the NPA’s donations before the Nov 15 election rather than 120 days after, LaPointe deflected the query.

Valid question, LaPointe told audience members at an Oct 22 mayoral debate at Langara College, then said the question of where campaign funding originates should be aimed at Vision. If Vision discloses, the NPA will be happy to, he pledged.

For his part, Robertson said Vision Vancouver is working within current laws and has been rigorous in meeting reporting requirements in the last six years — a reply that elicited scattered hissing from the crowd.

At press time, Vision Vancouver, which said it would reveal its donors’ list at the beginning of November, had not yet released its figures. The Green Party has already gone public with its donors’ list, while the NPA has promised to release its figures by Nov 7.

(Vision subsequently released a list of donors and their contributions Nov 6, which amounted to more than $2 million. Corporate donors contributed more than $1.4 million, while $320,000 came from unions and $492,000 from individuals. According to the documents, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is the largest donor thus far, its BC division contributing $152,000, with $40,000 and $34,000 given by Locals 15 and 1004, respectively. The biggest individual donation came from BC restaurateur David Aisenstat, who contributed $100,000, while The Charles F White Coporation, owned by Aisenstat, gave $75,000. 

The NPA has also released its donor list, a Nov 7 new release indicating that the party has raised about $1.89 million in campaign contributions.)

“There’s always room for more transparency,” Robertson tells Xtra. “We’ve made progress on that since taking over in 2008, when we opened all the books on the Olympic Village mess. We’ve taken important steps with open data, reporting expenses and releasing in-camera minutes. But we continue to want to achieve best practices with transparency; that’s key.”

Robertson says he’s been very clear with all of his priorities and commitments since he first launched his mayoral campaign in 2008. “People know where Vision stands on issues. We’re very transparent with our priorities, and we deliver results.”

***

LaPointe, who has spoken about growing up in poverty and being raised by a single mom, says he’s more attuned to struggle and lack of privilege than Robertson.

On social justice issues, he suggests there isn’t much difference among candidates but says he will shine in managing the city’s finances while running city hall with a greater culture of openness and consultation than Vision.

Meanwhile, Robertson hopes the electorate gives him and his “very experienced and stable team” a third term at city hall. “Everyone might not agree with some actions, but we’ve always said what we’ll do and followed through,” he says. “Vancouver is a city with great change, and we need to shape that change as best we can.”

As for McKeown, he obviously wants a greater Green Party presence in the city’s governance but doesn’t think any one party should be so dominant as to shut out other points of view.

Even if the vast majority of the population came around to the Greens’ way of thinking, McKeown says, he hopes that the party would run only enough candidates to have a solid swing-vote minority on council. “If public opinion were that clear, other parties would start drifting our way as well. We’d be in a better position to persuade them.”