9 min

‘Squalid’ camp undermining Occupy Vancouver: mayor

But right to protest must be upheld, Robertson says

"I've been very consistent in representing the community and standing up for queer rights, being solid with our police chief against gaybashing and embracing every opportunity for the community to engage with city hall and vice versa," says the mayor Credit: Janet Rerecich photo

“I’ve been occupied,” Mayor Gregor Robertson apologizes as he arrives 15 minutes late to his interview with Xtra.

“I think it’s the first time I’ve said that,” he adds after a pause.

Hard to believe, as the topic of Occupy Vancouver has fuelled mayoral debates between Robertson and his main challenger, the NPA’s Suzanne Anton, who accuses him of failed leadership. 

Robertson sat down with Xtra on Nov 9 to discuss how well he’s addressed the gay community’s concerns in his first term, plus freedom of expression, the Occupy movement and the challenges its Vancouver incarnation poses.

Here are some excerpts from that interview.


Xtra: How successful do you think you’ve been in meeting the queer community’s expectations?

Gregor Robertson: I think I’ve been very consistent in representing the community and standing up for queer rights in Vancouver, being solid with our police chief against gaybashing, and embracing every opportunity for the community to engage with city hall and vice versa. I think we’ve seen good growth and deepening of relations; that’s been good for the city.

Xtra: Apart from gaybashing, has there been anything the community, maybe individuals, have brought to your attention in the time you’ve been in office?

GR: Definitely on the fun end of the spectrum, Celebrate Queer Vancouver and the Chosen Family initiative was a great one, definitely having a prominent float in the Pride parade for the first time, and restarting the launch of Pride Week at city hall again after that got canned by the last council.

Xtra: Suzanne Anton, and specifically Sean Bickerton, have mentioned designating Pride a civic event. Is that something you’ll be able to do if you’re given a second term?

GR: I see it as a good, strong possibility. We’ve faced a very tough budget these last three years, and I can’t commit the additional funding yet until we see the numbers for 2012, but there’s no question it’s the biggest parade and a crucial event for our economy in the summer, and certainly warrants strong support. It’s a question of being equitable with other parades and celebrations that haven’t gained that status.

Xtra: The NPA has mentioned taking money from the Car-Free Day budget, which they say is around the $650,000 mark, to put into the designation. Is that feasible?

GR: I think that was last year’s budget for Car-Free and other street animation. We’re trying to increase the street life and vibrancy in Vancouver and catalyze new programs, so that was an investment in triggering more activity. We do want to maintain a solid budget to keep investing in celebration, so it becomes a question of how we maximize the impact of the city’s investment and support for Pride.

Pride’s been so successful over the years and very resourceful, and  there’s that question of does Pride need more civic support in their budget, or should that go to other organizations that don’t have that capacity? There’s a budget there; it’s a question of the best way to spread that around.

Xtra: Just tacking back to gaybashing: you said you’ve been liaising with Jim Chu. What kind of discussions have you been having with the chief about gaybashing? We have had another gaybashing at Davie and Granville St lately.

GR: My commitment is to increase the VPD’s budget to hire 30 more officers. The VPD is proposing they create metro teams, so those 30 officers are able to move around the city wherever visibility and intervention is needed, so it gives the police a new tool to actually have feet on the street and address hot spots.

Xtra: How much do you liaise with the city’s gay advisory committee?

GR: I would say from time to time. Tim [Stevenson] and Ellen [Woodsworth] do a lot of work with the committee on a very regular basis. I get to see a lot of the members of the committee at events, and we have presentations to myself and council on a fairly regular basis, so we feel like we get a good flow of perspectives and ideas. It’s been really helpful these past couple years. It’s a really valuable committee for the city.

Xtra: Can you specify in what ways or areas they have advised council and you?

GR: Definitely on safety issues. As we’ve continued to have problems and vigils and press conferences and police adjusting their approaches, I think the committee’s useful on that. The other elements, Outgames, Pride Week, having such a big celebration and hosting this year, the committee did a lot of work to support that, making sure the city was making the right moves to support all those events.

Xtra: Have they suggested anything to you regarding how to handle the violence that still happens?

GR: The consistent theme is more police presence, quicker response, particularly on weekend nights in the Granville Entertainment District when it’s bubbling over. Their advice has certainly helped shape the police GED strategy, and we’ve seen a dramatic reduction in problems on Granville, but it’s still a huge challenge to manage.

Xtra: How important is freedom of expression to the city of Vancouver?

GR: Essential. And we are grappling with the messy side of it with Occupy Vancouver. It has its very challenging elements, no question. It’s at the heart of being Canadian.

Xtra: Why have you shifted from your original position that Occupy could stay at the VAG indefinitely to saying the time has come for them to vacate?

GR: This has been misreported. What I said from the beginning was the protest can go on indefinitely. Everyone has the right to protest in Vancouver, and we must uphold that right. The tent camp has never been an indefinite or permanent aspect of this. We’ve been patient with the encampment side as it was considered a key element of the larger protest in over 1,700 cities around the world, until serious life-safety concerns emerged with two critical incidents and a death, with the fire department discovering propane bottles and flammable materials in tents and the tarping system and access problems. It was clear that conditions in the encampment had seriously deteriorated, and the city needed to intervene to put safety first.

I continue to say we want to support and enable the protest. The protest has very important concerns being raised globally, but the problems and life-safety risks in the camp are now undermining the important concerns of the protest, and everything is all about the squalid conditions and whether they’re dangerous enough to shut down.

It’s happening in other cities. I’m in touch with other mayors, the chief with other police chiefs, all the time. This is a pattern around the world where the encampment has turned into this very problematic and unsafe situation that’s dragging an important protest down.

The city has sought an injunction. We’ve just had news coming out of the court today that we have an interim fire injunction to enforce the fire bylaw to the full extent to ensure that the camp is safe from fire danger, but the court will reconvene next week to consider the bigger issue of the encampment and its presence there, which is excluding other people from the site.

Xtra: Have you been down there yourself?

GR: Yeah.

Xtra: What’s your observation?

GB: It has definitely degenerated over the weeks. I haven’t been wading through the tents and into the nooks and crannies, but it’s visibly become rundown, and I think many people now feel uncomfortable going into that public space, which is not okay. If it excludes the 99 percent of Vancouverites that use that space, that’s not okay, and I think it undermines the broader goals of the Occupy movement, which probably most of us are very supportive of and want to see change at national and international levels.

Xtra: Did you change your position because of Suzanne’s constant charge that you are showing a failure of leadership on this issue?

GR: What changed my position? I haven’t changed . . .

Xtra: That they could stay indefinitely at the beginning when they moved in . . .

GR: They could protest indefinitely. You can’t camp out on public land. The city has never tolerated tent camps because they become unsafe, and so I haven’t changed my position. There was an inseparability of the protest and the tent camp from the outset, which I think was inaccurate, because a lot of protests happened without tent camps and vice versa. I’ve been very troubled by Suzanne’s hard-line, ultimatum-style approach, which has incited conflict in other cities that have gone in with a heavy hand. I want to see this resolved peacefully, and that style of leadership that says just get rid of it, well, it hasn’t worked anywhere else. It’s the wrong direction in Vancouver. We need to find a peaceful and sensible way to resolve the tent camp issue and enable the protest to continue and raise their concerns.

Xtra: You’ve said the tents must go but that doesn’t signal the end of the Occupy. What does the Occupy look like to you minus the encampment? 

GR: I’m hopeful there’s an Occupy 2.0 that focuses on the key issues that need to be changed. It’s challenging at a local level to tackle the global economy and income disparity and climate change, but there’ve been some important issues that have international attention now, and Vancouver could be a city that demonstrates that this is more than a tent camp movement, that it is about those big concerns, and globally we need that change. Occupy protests in many cities are struggling with this transition to not be dragged down in the muck of a tent camp conflict, but to get back to the original intentions of the movement, which has been unprecedented in its success. I don’t ever remember a movement that erupted in 1,700 cities with so much passion . . .

Xtra: The encampments have been a critical part of the visible face of it. People are engaging either negatively or positively, which suggests that the visibility itself is a key aspect of that movement’s ability to get its word out. Is there another way for the city to engage with Occupy Vancouver without moving the encampment?

GR: We’ve been pursuing that and offered to maintain the stage at the art gallery and power for the PA systems. We’ve tried to dialogue with occupiers to look at other ways we might support the protest with the tent camp out of the equation, but it’s very amorphous leadership, and it’s been very difficult to get to any kind of agreement on what the protest and encampment evolve into. And this is happening in other cities where they’re trying to find the next level, where there’s a strong presence, where there’s good organizing but it’s not undermined by a protest camp that’s not safe or sustainable. They’re going to need to evolve beyond that or risk a complete focus on the right to camp on public land, which is a whole different issue from the original intent of Occupy.

Xtra: Do you see your own principles as being in tune with Occupy Vancouver?

GR: I went into politics and public life to make change and address inequality and environmental degradation, problems that we can only address collectively. We need our governments to be at the table and be a new leadership that will take on these challenges rather than ignore them. I feel like an activist in politics now. I may look like the establishment now, but there’s many of us who’ve chosen to be in the system to make change.

It’s still very important for people to be outside the system applying pressure in creative ways that’s non-violent, that’s respectful, that has an edge to it, and I tried to do some of that in my business career to make changes in how businesses operate, and doing that in politics.

We all have to find the path by which we can make the most-needed changes in the world, so I have absolute respect for people that commit their energy to make good change in the world, whether that’s on a protest stage or a march or at city hall or in a boardroom.

Xtra: What do you think of their proposal of a Robin Hood tax?

GR: I do agree with it. It’s sensible given the volume of financial transactions that have had huge impact on the global economy and been very problematic in the income disparity globally. I think there’s a real opportunity there. Part of my frustration is that the Occupy movement hasn’t focused more on something like the Robin Hood tax. It’s unfocused and stuck on tent issues primarily, which I can’t see making much difference in the scheme of things. It’s been such a successful movement in attracting attention, and yet it hasn’t channelled that attention into a specific change that can make a real difference in many lives.

Xtra: There are some aspects of the Occupy movement that say they don’t recognize the authority of the city. The authority that exists is part of the problem. What do you say to occupiers with that opinion?

GR: Generations have protested and fought and even died to create a democracy with a rule of law that may not be perfect, but we live by it. I think it’s naive, it’s disrespectful of First Nations, and we’re just starting to grapple with the rights and title to this land. I think it’s a red herring. There’s some big ideals that are always worth considering, but to tie the whole protest to a sovereignty issue for whoever shows up next to cerate their own laws and rights and title, I think that’s wrong.

Xtra: Finally, why should the gay community vote to keep you in office?

GR: I think I’ve been a good leader and representative for the community, and I have more to do and offer with my Vision team and our COPE colleagues. We have a very clear dedication to working with the community and a record we’re proud of.