COPE firebrand Tim Louis launches a political comeback
For some Vancouver political observers, the most interesting municipal story isn’t who will become mayor of the city. It’s whether or not COPE firebrand Tim Louis will succeed in staging an amazing comeback and gets back onto city council—six years after he was forced into political retirement by the voters.
The diminutive Louis, who gets around in a wheelchair, wasn’t even expected to be on the ballot for the November 19 election. He was an opponent of COPE forming an electoral alliance with the ruling Vision Vancouver party, and this put him in conflict with the left-wing party’s establishment, including councillors David Cadman and Ellen Woodsworth. Under this arrangement, COPE is only allowed to run three candidates for the 10 available seats on council, which ensures the party will remain in a minority even if everyone is elected.
The conventional wisdom was that Louis, a lawyer and two-term city councillor, would fail to even get a nomination because party members would rally around those who supported the deal with Vision: Cadman, Woodsworth, and Filipino-Canadian activist R J Aquino. Even Louis’s long-time political ally and friend, former COPE councillor Fred Bass, declared before the nomination meeting that Cadman and Woodsworth would be renominated on September 18.
But in an unexpected twist, Cadman came fourth behind Louis and the other two. And Louis—who served two terms on council and two terms on the park board—is now on the verge of becoming the Lazarus of Vancouver civic politics.
“It’s a testament to his grassroots abilities,” Joseph Jones, a retired librarian and creator of the Vancouver Council Votes website, tells the Georgia Straight shortly before a candidates meeting at the Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House on October 22. “He came from within a party with many that did not want him, and the people chose him—unlike somebody else who really made no effort to connect with the people and assumed that the party owed him.”
Jones describes Louis, former chair of city council’s finance committee, as an “independent and rational voice” with a strong grasp of the issues. “He has recently displayed how fully aware he is of the dire financial situation of the City of Vancouver, and I don’t hear other candidates talking about this,” the city-hall watchdog notes.
When the candidates meeting begins in front of about 100 people, Louis is the first speaker. He only has two minutes, so he delivers his message in his trademark rapid-fire style, insisting that his top priority is neighbourhoods.
“I want to see the City of Vancouver provide this neighbourhood house and all neighbourhood houses with the funding they need to provide the programs that the neighbourhood democratically designs, delivers, and funds,” Louis says. “That’s called democracy at the grassroots. Let’s get rid of…so-called democracy at 12th and Cambie [his favourite term for Vancouver City Hall], where 11 people in a small, dark room make decisions, and democratize decision-making at the grassroots.”
Louis doesn’t let up in his later comments, suggesting there should be less money for renovations at Vancouver City Hall and more funding for daycare. He also says local residents should have a far greater say in the development process. “Let’s take the big rezonings out of the hands of 11 people at 12th and Cambie and [put them] into the hands of the neighbourhood,” he declares to loud applause.
Later that day, in an interview with the Georgia Straight, Louis elaborates on this idea. Sitting in his law office near the corner of Broadway and Main Street, he talks about creating elected neighbourhood councils, which would have control over large developments that have a “fundamental impact on the neighbourhood as a whole”.
“It’s going to force the developer to put forth a proposal that’s not there for the benefit of just the developer but for the benefit of the community,” he claims.
Louis says this is necessary because, most of the time, councillors are not directly affected by their decisions to approve skyscrapers. However, they benefit from the campaign contributions when they vote in favour of large rezoning applications. This is why he wants the provincial government to change election-financing rules to ensure that developers aren’t allowed to be the “majority funders” of municipal political parties.
“I’m not opposed to development,” Louis emphasizes. He then quotes former councillor Harry Rankin’s line that if it weren’t for developers, everyone would be living in caves. The real question, in Louis’s mind, is who should be the beneficiary of large-scale projects.
The Vancouver Council Votes website documents how the mayor and the councillors have dealt with several large rezoning applications. It demonstrates that while Vision Vancouver politicians almost always supported the planning department’s recommendations, the two COPE councillors frequently sided with neighbourhood residents in opposition to certain aspects of the developments.
Jones, who lives in the Norquay Village area, maintains that Louis would be a strong addition to council because he would be inclined to listen to people living in different neighbourhoods. “While Ellen Woodsworth has been an excellent person, I think he can articulate more and faster—and we really need that kind of an independent voice,” he says.
Louis likes to describe himself as an “overpaid sponge”, because he enjoys soaking up ideas from people in the community. Several years ago, when Louis was on council, Vancouver writer Tom Sandborn convinced him that the city could take a positive step to counter the use of sweatshop labour by creating an ethical-purchasing policy. Louis worked with another councillor, Raymond Louie, to make this a reality in February 2005 regarding city expenditures on apparel and fair-trade agricultural products, including coffee.
A decade earlier, when Louis was on the Vancouver park board, animal-welfare activist Annelise Sorg persuaded him that a new bylaw was necessary to prevent more cetaceans from being captured and brought to the Vancouver aquarium in Stanley Park. Louis recalls working cooperatively with then–NPA park-board chair David Chesman to craft North America’s most restrictive policy on the capture of whales from the wild.
“I don’t want to take credit for that,” Louis says. “I want to say it happened because of the public: the No Whales in Captivity group, Annelise Sorg, and others. They did a great job.”
Over the phone, Chesman tells the Straight that he won’t comment on Louis’s candidacy for city council, and he readily acknowledges that they disagreed on most matters. However, Chesman, a lawyer, also mentions that he enjoyed working with Louis to make the park board a more collaborative group. “I thought he was constructive in that regard,” the former park-board chair says. “The NPA could never figure out how I could get along with him, but it was really according him the appropriate respect you should accord any other elected commissioner as chair. To his credit, he responded in a reasonable manner to that.”
For his part, Louis attributes many of the world’s environmental and economic woes to the refusal of the moneyed and governing elites to listen to ideas from average people. “The ordinary person not only has very little meaningful input into decision-making but maybe a lot of the time no input at all,” he claims.
Fred Bass tells the Straight by phone that Louis was easy to deal with, and he praises his former colleague for his diligent work ethic. Bass also characterizes Louis as an “economic conservative” because he dislikes wasting taxpayers’ money. In addition, Bass describes the COPE candidate as a “strong environmentalist”.
Louis says that the book Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappe, and climate change have convinced him to stop eating chicken and red meat. “The meat industry produces an enormous amount of greenhouse-gas emissions.” he adds.
The COPE politician takes great delight in telling how he helped end catered meals for park-board commissioners in the early 1990s. He recalls that before each Monday-night meeting, commissioners would meet with senior staff for what he describes as a “high-end dinner with an open bar”. It was a classic Louis issue, putting him in a head-on collision with senior bureaucrats over what he perceived to be a foolish use of public funds.
“If you asked them why they did it, they would say: ‘Because that’s the way it is,’ ” Louis says. “They could never give a coherent benefit for that expenditure of taxpayer money.”
According to Louis, the commissioners would finish their meals and “stumble downstairs” to the meeting, where they would vote to “cut little items that were very important to people in their neighbourhoods”. Louis would often oppose the cutbacks, saying there was no need to reduce those services when the board could simply reallocate money spent on taxpayer-financed meals for the politicians.
This enraged the then-chair of the board, Art Cowie, who became so frustrated that he eliminated the dinners. Louis maintains to this day that there was no need to feed the politicians in private. “What really happened was the real park-board meeting occurred over the food and drinks with the senior staff,” he states. “The park commissioners were forming a symbiotic relationship with the senior staff.”
Over the years, Louis has observed how many politicians appear to undergo an unhealthy transformation after winning public office. “People identify with their fellow community activists before they get elected,” he says. “And then there is this metamorphosis that occurs, and they begin to identify with the corridors of power. I don’t know exactly what causes it or why it happens.”
He says that this symbiotic relationship not only exists between politicians and senior bureaucrats but it also occurs in the corporate world, where boards of directors have a tendency to identify with senior executives, no matter how incompetent they might be.
“That’s not to be disparaging to senior staff, but it does happen,” Louis claims. “I hope I’m correct in saying that I have never allowed that to happen to me on any board that I’ve been on, and, in particular, I never allowed that to happen on city council.”