It’s been just over a year since Gregor Robertson won the mayor’s seat in Vancouver. Xtra West sat down with Robertson Nov 26 for an update on his campaign promises to the gay community. Here is an excerpt from that interview.
Xtra West: During last year’s election you said: “I will not hesitate to stand up and fight for queer rights,” and that you expected the community to hold you to that. What have you done to make good on that promise?
Gregor Robertson: Specifically on queer rights, that’s a good question. We’ve had a focus on looking after the community better through housing and homeless initiatives, through representation at city hall and ensuring there is more direct voice here. In this year, there haven’t been a flood of acute issues on queer rights in the city for us to work through.
XW: We’ve seen in the city, over the last year, 12 reported gaybashings. During the election, you said “strong messages” about “zero tolerance” for gaybashing needed to be sent. You attended the May 2 anti-violence forum and, especially in the wake of the Ritchie Dowrey attack, you told the community you would call a press conference to announce zero tolerance for gaybashings. Where is that press conference?
GR: Yeah, it hasn’t happened yet, and that’s where I think ensuring that we maximize the impact of these statements is critical for really pushing forward on this agenda.
The next step needs to be demonstrative, and it felt like the media attention drifted off and I didn’t want sort of a half-assed show of support.
I looked at somewhere around the Pride week but it didn’t fit with the celebration and the issues, it didn’t look like the media were going to bite for that.
I also have been looking forward to the work of this LGBTQ committee to bring forward a really clear set of recommendations and steps that the city can take.
I can say repeatedly we need to be zero tolerance, we need to be hate-free, but what I found through the sequence following that meeting was we really don’t have a game plan here, and we need to have a plan and a strategy for dealing with this, and we need to be sure we launch this with enough attention so this registers.
XW: But don’t you think a statement coming from the mayor’s office, from city hall, indicating that this is a problem in the city doesn’t need to wait on a particular event or a particular moment?
GR: The mainstream media doesn’t pick up many of my statements. That’s been a sobering reality. On some issues where I’ve made a statement like that, unless there’s been more heft behind it or it’s topical, it gets ignored.
That’s my concern: this needs to register. I’d rather wait and be sure that we’re getting the message through loud to a wider audience, particularly people outside Vancouver who in many cases are the attackers and perpetrators.
XW: During the campaign you repeatedly assured the gay community that you’d heed the call for more police presence in the village to prevent gaybashings. Community members at the anti-violence forum in May said they still didn’t see that presence. Is the community going to see more beat cops in the West End anytime soon?
GR: We approved 48 more police officers in this year that have come online, which should increase the beat cop presence more.
XW: In the West End specifically?
GR: Well, it’s broadly felt around the city. But it should be noticeable through this year in the West End.
XW: Do you have any sense how many of those cops will be in the Davie Village?
GR: No. That’s District One, it’s the downtown. There is typically a lot more activity in District One and Two. So there is likely to be more presence in the downtown and West End relative to the southern parts of the city.
It’s work that the Chief is very conscious of, and shifting focus to police presence is a priority for him.
XW: You’re chair of the police board. Have you actually called personally for more beat cops in the gay village area?
GR: Have I called for more specifically? The police board is responsible for the broad policy of the Department — this is the drill. We hear results of the operations. The operational decisions are all made by the chief and executive, and they determine where police go in the city and what the priorities are day to day.
XW: I’ll turn to the queer community centre. Several queer community members are in the midst of registering a new society towards making a multipurpose centre a reality.
One of its members, philanthropist David McCann, says there are several wealthy people in the community who view this new venture favourably.
What will you and the city do to help this new group acquire space for a new centre?
GR: We’ll be making a new centre a priority in the amenity package for new development in the West End. We’re looking at options to fast track including a centre through these upcoming projects. There are a couple that are in the system now.
XW: Are there specific sites that you’re looking at?
GR: There are a number of options right now that we’re aware of. The details haven’t been worked out.
XW: Are they in the West End area?
GR: Yeah. In the West End. It’s premature to tie a direct investment in a centre to a project until the project gets approval. It’s too early to know exactly what and where. But I’m really encouraged by the possibility of this happening… soon. Decisions will be made next year.
XW: McCann says the old Shell site at Burrard and Davie is an ideal location for a new centre. Is that option still on the table?
GR: That one is not on the short list right now. We’re keeping an open mind to possibilities and I think location is very important. Council is clear that proximity to the village and the community is critical, so that will certainly factor in decisions around which site and how soon.
XW: My understanding is that there will be a Dec 8 meeting with you, Qmunity, and the new centre working group. What do you hope this meeting will accomplish?
GR: I’m hopeful that we can find common ground and a good strong working relationship between all groups in the community working towards the centre and community harmony. That’s my goal, is to make sure we’re inclusive and building bridges to make this work.
It’s not easy bringing a diverse community together on a project like this. So it’s understandable when there’s differences of opinion and some strain. I’m hoping we can work through that and find a good path forward because we’re working towards a real community benefit here that’s long overdue, and hopefully everyone can rise above and find the best solutions.
XW: If there is no agreement between Qmunity and the new working group to work together on building a new centre, will the city then work with the new group to find space for the new centre?
GR: We don’t have any certainty around how we’ll sort things out if there’s a rift. I’m just focused on getting everyone working together and figuring it out from there. So if we need a plan B, we’ll look at that when time comes.
A rift does not serve the community ultimately. We need to get beyond that. This is too important. It’s been a long time coming, and so part of the community building exercise here is how do we make something work for everyone. That’s my goal.
XW: One of my final questions is about the Olympics. Queer and other civil rights activists are concerned about the constitutionality of Olympic security measures. You have said you and the city council are “absolutely committed” to protecting Charter rights and freedoms. How specifically do you plan to ensure people’s rights and freedoms when you also have commitments to VANOC?
GR: We actually today just released the final draft of our 2010 Olympic bylaws. So we’ve had staff focused on ensuring there’s a clear distinction between the commercial obligations we must respect by contract to Olympic sponsors, and the Charter rights, which we must uphold in the city.
It’s been challenging and it’s been really important to have community voice and critique to improve the bylaw. We’re obviously very conscious of the pitfalls and implications. We’re doing our best to strike that balance but ensure that the city is a free speech zone…
XW: The entire city, as opposed to designated…
GR: Yeah. The entire city. The Olympic venues specifically are, you know, the commercial sponsors have their rights, and so we will focus on the potential exploitation of commercial opportunity around the venues.
We’ve done a lot of work on this. Staff have been working for many weeks now to improve and ensure that we get the right language, and the next step is that the police enforcement is done well, respecting rights, so it’s a challenging piece.
XW: MP Libby Davies asked that a code of conduct govern security forces that will be here. Have you discussed having a code of conduct for security forces with the Games’ Integrated Security Unit?
GR: I haven’t. No. City has no jurisdiction over the ISU and their responsibility is within the venues. They’re not responsible for the city. The VPD is still charged with upholding the laws of the city.
I’ve had conversations with the ISU, and we’ll be watching it closely. But ultimately, our police have jurisdiction over the city, and they have lots of experience with protests and have done great work historically, particularly compared to some parts of the world.