It’s “Do you remember?” time. Do you remember when we had a gay city councillor named Gordon Price? He was a whiz at transportation planning and urban renewal issues (he had much to do with the way Yaletown and Coal Harbour were redeveloped). Price was our one out gay member of council for the longest time, but his interests lay elsewhere than nurturing the gay community’s emergence-and he was refreshingly up-front about that. Price was the token gay person put forward by the Non-Partisan Association (NPA)-the rightwing party with strong ties to the development industry-and because he could get elected in an at-large system with votes from across the city, we in the gay community could never hold him accountable for lack of action on our community issues.
Do you remember Alan Herbert? With the help of the gay community, he managed to get himself on the NPA ticket for the 1996 civic election. And then he started speaking up for the gay community’s needs at council meetings and in NPA caucus meetings. The result? The NPA threw him out during the candidate selection process in 1999. Herbert has since run twice as an independent, and was not elected because the at-large system strongly favours parties over independents. And that leaves entire communities without a voice at city hall. Herbert is an advocate for wards.
Do you remember the West End Policy Plan? No, of course you don’t. Few of us do. That’s because our community was never formally consulted when this plan was drawn up in 1987, despite the presence of a gay city councillor. The only mention of the gay community in this plan was a small note that the annual Pride Parade transected the West End. The result: development in the West End does not have to take into account the reality that it’s the Capital City of Gay Vancouver. Development could get approved even if it would be deeply injurious to our community.
Do you remember the last Vancouver election in 2002? The winning party, the centre-left COPE, drew a strong gay vote, a gay vote fed up with the way our community’s collective aspirations-as opposed to our aspirations as individuals-have been ignored for decades. Sure, COPE promised our community a lot in that election-including wards, a longstanding desire of our community-and has delivered much of what they promised. But the election of a party that understood our needs as a community is not evidence that the at-large system is working for gay Vancouver.
Those opposed to a ward system point to the number of gay politicians elected in the at-large system. They’re missing the point. It’s not about how many gay individuals get elected in the kind of COPE landslide we had in the 2002 election. It’s about what city councillors do for the collective aspirations of the gay community. We don’t even need gay politicians. What we need, and a ward system can best deliver this, is politicians who care about our issues and the issues of other minority communities.
Our kinds of issues don’t do so well in an at-large system. Think about it. If you’re a politician who can ignore the sometimes controversial demands of the gay community because you can get elected without the gay vote, what would you do? Would you fight for a new gay and lesbian community centre, help queer homeless youth get off the street, overhaul plans for Davie St to emphasize its stature as the Capital of Gay Vancouver, help fund the Pride Parade, increase funding for arts and culture, and-most importantly these days-reform policing?
Our community is large enough to be able to be the kingmakers in at least three of the proposed wards-West End, Strathcona-Grandview and Kitsilano-Fairview. Other minority communities are large enough to do the same. Imagine the kind of rainbow coalition of progressive politicians-regardless of party-that a ward system could birth. Imagine the opportunity for minority communities to bring our issues, our desired policies, onto centre stage.
But this will only happen under a ward system, where the person you vote for truly needs your vote. Where there is direct accountability.
That’s why I’m voting yes to wards. I want my slice of the pizza pie.
* Xtra West and the Gay & Lesbian Business Association are co-sponsoring a debate on wards. It’s Tue, Oct 5, 7-9:30 pm at The Roundhouse, 181 Roundhouse Mews at Davie St. Audience participation is encouraged.
Gareth Kirkby is Managing Editor for Xtra.