6 min

Interview with outgoing city councillor Ellen Woodsworth

'You can lose 91 votes in so many different ways'

Credit: Sarah Race photo

COPE’s Ellen Woodsworth says she was expected to win her bid for reelection to city council on Nov 19 but fell short by 91 votes. Conversely, people didn’t give her much of a chance in the 2008 municipal election, but she prevailed there, Woodsworth observes.

Xtra sat down with Woodsworth to take a look back at the recent election, the issues that informed the work she did over the last three years, and her perspective on the issues that still need to be tackled.

Here’s an excerpt from that interview:


Xtra: How would you describe your term on city council over the past three years?

Ellen Woodsworth: I was able to really work hard on the issues of housing and homelessness, civil liberties and human rights. I fought to get the city advisory committees up and running, the women’s and LGBTQ advisory committees. I stood up against the structures bylaw and issues around the Olympics. I’ve been able to really take forward the issues around electoral reform and chaired a cross-party committee to really address the questions of campaign spending limits by both organizations and individuals, and the need for a ward-at-large system in the city so that big money doesn’t drive the agenda as it just did in this election. Unfortunately, that passed at council unanimously, and it stopped at the provincial level, so more work has to be done there.


Xtra: How do you account for your loss at the recent polls?

EW: Our party doesn’t take corporate donations. Vision and the NPA both take donations from corporations and spend around $2 million each. COPE became invisible at that point. We were putting out a couple of press releases a week on our new policy and the agenda we wanted to move forward on, and we couldn’t get the coverage. Vision and NPA were able to wrap newspapers in their ads, and they both had mayoral candidates so they were given high profile by the mass media, and I went from being really well known to almost invisible. I got emails from all kinds of reporters saying they thought I’d win. It’s a serious question when if you’ve got a lot of money, you can win an election.

Adriane Carr, she’s run so many times before, and her name is a C; it’s at the top of the list. The Green Party label is very good, even though there isn’t really a municipal party at all. It’s got a label that draws people, and it probably drew people from the rightwing to the leftwing. It’s the first name people come to at the top.


Xtra: Did people who would normally rally around you come out?

EW: I did very, very well for a party that only spent like $340,000 compared to $2 million. I was 91 votes short. There were people who were really disillusioned and didn’t vote, so that cost me. There were also people who said, “Well, I voted for you, but I didn’t want to vote for so and so on Vision, or so and so in another party,” and they gave their vote to Adriane. They didn’t understand vote-splitting. It never even occurred to them that that could have knocked me out of the race. You can lose 91 votes in so many different ways.


Xtra: A case where if people stayed home, it mattered . . .

EW: If people stayed home, it mattered. Having $2 million mattered. The fact that we don’t have a ward system mattered. Some of my supporters in various media, when they wrote me up, they supported me, but they’d add a little rider, like I was too idealistic or something. That can cost me 20 votes. All of those things add up.


Xtra: In the United States, it’s lefty loonie. Here there’s the idealistic tag. How do you respond to that?

EW: I believe in democracy. I believe in the power of neighbourhoods and social movements. I think if people don’t fight for what they believe in we continue to slip back, and Vancouver becomes the city of the wealthy.


Xtra: What are your thoughts about this newly elected council? Do you have any concerns?

EW: COPE is a 40-year-old party that stood up for people and for democracy at the city level. That voice is going to be missing. The Green Party stands for certain things, depending on who’s leading the Green Party. They’ve had a conservative banker as head of the party nationally; now they’ve got Elizabeth May, so I don’t know how they’ll perform on council quite frankly.

We know what the NPA stands for because they have been the government in this city for many, many years. Through Suzanne Anton, their position’s quite clear. They clearly want more density, they like spot rezoning, they like tall buildings, they are very critical of the greener city agenda that Gregor has fought for. They disbanded all the city advisory committees. They’re a rump vote; they don’t have a majority. Vision’s committed to keep the LGBTQ committee and the other committees. Green and the NPA will be supporting each other to get their motions on the table.


Xtra: You don’t see Green and Vision being natural allies, you see Green and NPA?

EW: During the election campaign, Adriane Carr was usually very, very critical of Vision. I don’t know whether she’ll vote with them or what she will do. I think she’s got some homework to get up to speed on. She doesn’t know city issues. We’ll have to see.

Both George Affleck and Elizabeth Ball will have to toe the NPA party line, to rebuild the NPA. That’s going to be their responsibility, so they have to stake out some territory to indicate who they are and what they stand for other than what Suzanne Anton has clearly laid out. She was really critical of the greener city agenda, she was critical of Occupy Vancouver, she loves tall buildings.


Xtra: The mayor said in his election-night victory speech that mistakes were made but “we learn from our mistakes.” What’s your reaction to that?

EW: The West End needs to really make sure that the area plan has teeth and that the neighbourhood is thoroughly consulted. We’ve defeated the casino and we have to make sure it doesn’t come back in another form. I was very disappointed [in] the structures protest bylaw that has an impact on anybody who wants to set up tents and protest.


Xtra: Are you concerned about the future of freedom of expression in this city?

EW: I think there’s a huge pressure on across the world to silence dissent. I am concerned we have a very rightwing prime minister, a conservative provincial government that are going to do everything they can to not allow that democratic discourse about what are the pressing issues of the day: the extremes of wealth and the disappearing middle class, not enough funding for our social safety net and privatization of our public service, the attacks by the federal government on our unions. These are things that are seriously going to change the nature of Canada, and we need to be talking about them and we need to have ways in which we can get together to figure out what to do about them and build organizations.


Xtra: Do you think the Occupy movement is resonating in Canada as much as it is in the US?

EW: I think unfortunately in Vancouver, the goals and the visions of Occupy were reduced to whether a tent should be allowed in a public space. And the greener city agenda was reduced to chickens and wheat. There was a lot of trivializing of very, very important issues, and I think that Occupy Vancouver may have vanished, and the occupations across North America are being dismembered, but the issues are not going to go away.


Xtra: You’ve been instrumental in liaising with the gay advisory committee. What do you think the committee’s priorities should be during this new council term?

EW: The committees do a lot of good things in terms of inclusive policy at the city, making Vancouver’s harassment-free policy probably the best in BC, maybe the best in the country, including sexual expression, and obviously we supported Bill Siksay’s motion including trans in Canadian hate crimes. I think violence against the LGBT community is a huge one, and we need to do work around the whole city. We’ve done some good work with the Davie St community, because it’s well organized, but I want to be safe wherever I live in Vancouver and in the Lower Mainland.

I think affordable housing is also an issue in the queer community . . . and probably more work on our aging demographics. At school board, we lost a huge advocate in Jane Bouey, who really pushed the LGBTQ agenda. We need to make sure we keep working with the school board to advance the gay-straight alliances and curriculum in schools.


Xtra: What now for Ellen Woodsworth?

EW: I’m going to take a bit of a break first. My partner and I are going to find out who we are, because we haven’t had much time together for three years. I have to look around for a job, refigure out what I’m doing because you don’t get unemployment insurance as a councillor.


Xtra: Any desires about where you want to go professionally?

EW: I just need to step back right now and reflect on what I’ve been able to achieve and where I go next, so right now I’m open to seeing what calls I get and what possibilities are out there. I’m still just coming to grips with having lost the election.