6 min

No special treatment

Sam Sullivan won't let voters get in the way of policy

Credit: Xtra West Files

As a Non-partisan Association (NPA) city councillor in Vancouver, Sam Sullivan hasn’t voted in favour of very much at all.

A few examples: he voted to postpone a motion in support of federal recognition of same-sex marriage. He voted against granting gay bars in the Davie Village the same liquor service hours as the Granville Entertainment District, and he voted against the Pride Week celebration launch at city hall this year.

Xtra West sat down with Sullivan Oct 19 to find out why he thinks queer people should support him in his bid to be Vancouver’s next mayor.

Xtra West: You say of course that you don’t endorse one group over any other group. The reality is your record has not shown that you’ve stepped up for queer people. Why should queer people vote for Sam Sullivan for mayor?

Sam Sullivan: If any group wants me to subvert policy for their group…

XW: The mayor has a pivotal role in setting policy. When you get elected, you won’t be able to hide behind policy.

SS: My personal values are that I endorse human rights. I endorse people’s rights to be who they are. In fact, I don’t want to get too involved in the whole issue. I am wholly supportive of gay people-gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people being who they are. I believe everyone should be who they are.

I think they should be supported by the community. When it comes to any group, be they developers, bar owners, casino owners, residents, or ratepayers groups, I don’t endorse giving one group an advantage over another.

XW: You voted against the $5,000 the city spent for the kick-off for the Pride celebration at city hall this year.

SS: Absolutely, that was outrageous.

You know, it’s all wonderful. This is the first grant that did not go through our process. It was put on the table at the meeting as a grant to a group in an election year that had no professional advice or oversight. If we start giving it to one group, what precedent do we have to say no to any other group?

I am against politicians picking or choosing their favourite groups without proper process in staff. There’s another one where I was called homophobic. I’m against decisions by politics. I favour decisions by policy.

If we are going to change our policy, change the policy. Say ‘we’re going to have a $5,000 limit for any parades or any community things.’ Put $100,000 in and then let staff review the appropriateness of each one.

I think it’s appalling that, in an election year, councillors should start making decisions on grants. We have worked hard in the NPA to professionalize the granting system.

XW: You voted against extended liquor licenses to gay spaces and you voted against giving the Davie Village the same hours as the Granville Entertainment District.

SS: I voted against the effort to make any neighbourhood arterial or commercial area vary their hours. For instance, [the Davie Village] wanted to make themselves competitive with the Granville Entertainment District.

We went through five years of development policy of the Granville Entertainment District. The idea was that it would have more liberal liquor policies around that. All the other neighbourhoods in the city go to a less liberal standard. The only real difference is between Monday and Thursday I think.

We were warned by our staff that if we allowed one neighbourhood to vary their hours to be the same as the Granville Entertainment District, that had not gone through the five years of consultation, we would not have any rationale to be able to say no to any other neighbourhood.

I supported staff policy. There were 30-some-odd angry people that showed up. I was the sole person who would speak against it. A couple of people called me homophobic because I wanted to support the staff policy-the deliberated recommendation of staff. The key thing with me is no matter how many people come and shout at me, no matter what names they call me, I will support the policy.

For some people I think it looked like I was against gay people and that’s just not true. I supported the recommendation of staff and I don’t apologize for it.

It means nothing about my opinion of gay people.

XW: Queer people being afraid to go to the Granville Entertainment District because they’re afraid for their personal safety: that’s not about getting an advantage. For people to want to be able to hang out in a neighbourhood where they feel safe and be able to interact socially with each other in an environment where they feel personally safe, that’s not asking too much. That’s not asking for an advantage, that’s just demanding a little safety.

SS: It’s unacceptable. Gaybashing or anything like that is unacceptable in this city. What was the issue around Davie St were people were coming up and saying, ‘yes, there are places on Davie St that are open 24 hours a day’. That’s always been an issue.

I’m very opposed to violating the policy of our liquor program to put one neighbourhood at an advantage over another neighbourhood. We had the Yaletown group come to us and say ‘now you’ve put us at a disadvantage. Our patrons are going up the street.’

XW: Were they concerned about their personal safety? Were they concerned they were going to get smashed in the face if the folks that lived in that neighbourhood had to walk up to Granville St? That was the message of the folks who came to council that day from the Davie Village.

SS: Those are the essence of the problems of politics. It’s never good versus bad. It’s one bad policy versus another bad policy.

The reality is the staff highly warned us against doing this because we were going to get all the other neighbourhoods… It was going to set a bad precedent that would put us in difficulty with all the other neighbourhoods.

XW: If somebody gets killed on Granville St because they can’t go for a drink on Davie, that’s a horrible precedent. That’s a lot worse than folks in another area who want to make some more money saying, ‘you did it for the gay people, how come you can’t do it for us?’

SS: My point is it’s totally wrong to say that I’m against gay people because I voted for the staff recommendation to keep the integrity of our liquor policies.

I know I’ve had gay people come to me and tell me it’s incorrect to think that all gay people go to bars and that’s where they get their so-called community from. That’s totally untrue. They go to where everyone else goes. There is a small group of gay people where that is where they find their community.

XW: I know you have a fiscally conservative view of government. Does any of that carry over to social conservatism?

SS: I challenge gay people to recognize what I’ve recognized in my disability. You are who you are and you shouldn’t let society tell you to be someone different.

For people who have a disability we’re always getting that. ‘Be someone you’re not. You’ve got to walk, you’ve got to stand up and look after yourself in certain ways.’ I was told that for many years. ‘Why can’t you cure yourself? Why do you have such mental weakness?’

After my injury, people said, ‘look at the other guys who broke their necks. They’re okay and now they’re walking. Obviously you are not trying hard enough. You have to be like the rest of the community.’

That is the heart of what I learned in my experience with people with addictions: I said ‘my God, their addiction is actually an integral part of who they are now. Who am I to tell them to be someone different than they are?’

They need help functioning in the community living full and productive lives and I would say that most people are shocked to find the leader of the NPA taking that kind of tolerant, liberal attitude toward some of the most discriminated-against people in the city.

I think addicts are discriminated against more than people with physical disabilities and people who are gay.

XW: Isn’t that a case of you as a politician choosing a group to support?

SS: Remember, these people have criminal sanctions against them for being who they are.

XW: So did queer people a few short years ago.

SS: Which is what I’m opposed to.

XW: We still wrestle with institutional discrimination. Even after laws are passed to protect us, it carries on and is very real and is much more difficult to change than law.

SS: It’s in the culture. We’re getting it out of the institutional framework. Legally there’s no support for it any more. We want to go there. People with addiction don’t have that.

XW: Do you have a final message to the queer people who read Xtra West?

SS: I’ve been told our fundraising isn’t doing as well because I don’t play ball with business people who want special deals. I don’t do it for developers, I don’t do it for bar owners, I don’t do it for any community group. That’s who I am and I’m not going to change that.

I hope they will realize that this is a good thing for the city.

I’m here offering myself. I hope people will vote.

XW: How do you forge policy without politics?

SS: Politics drives decisions that make policy, but once you make policy, then you don’t make exceptions…

Once you develop policy and it’s well deliberated, and it makes sense and it’s rational and it’s intellectually defensible, you don’t go around adjusting it for any group that happens to come by. I believe that’s the difference… you develop policy with a veil of ignorance.

You know John Rawls and the theory of justice? You don’t see the individuals and you just make the policy based on intellectually defensible principles. Once those principles are established then you stick with them. You start varying them all over the place without really good reasons, then why have the policy?

I have to make that caveat: without really good reasons. Your issue about violence and gaybashing: it makes me pause and say whoa. We have to think about that and how that fits into this. There are cases where you have to vary.