Paul Houle: COPE renews commitment to grassroots at fall general meeting
There is a new tone at COPE meetings. After the serious losses that the 44-year-old organization suffered in the last municipal election, there is a mood of wanting to put aside past differences and work to salvage a great, but battered, political organization.
This was apparent at Sunday’s (September 9) autumn COPE general meeting. I was excited to see COPE returning to what it does best—reaching out and really listening to grassroots communities and the people of the neighbourhoods of Vancouver.
To begin with, much of the practical organizing of the meeting was done by COPE’s smart, dynamic (and workaholic) young new executive director Sean Antrim. But equally, if not more importantly, the COPE executive board has worked together to stage a series of general meetings where serious policy issues are considered. But, not only that, the idea is to genuinely use the resolutions and ideas generated at these gatherings to form election policy platforms and make changes to the COPE constitution and bylaws.
The meeting itself was held in the Killarney neighbourhood. The general focus was on seniors’ concerns. However, it also brought in very important voices from the Indo-Canadian and aboriginal communities. As well, an array of reports were presented from established or new COPE subcommittees. Included in these was a newly minted arts, culture, and heritage committee, which I chair.
Charan Gill, a long-time champion of human rights—especially the rights of Indo-Canadian farmworkers—presented inspiring words about his current work to provide care for Indo-Canadian and other seniors.
Gill is the founding president of the Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society. Gill noted his group’s recent advocacy for seniors’ care for members of the gay, lesbian, and transgender communities.
Housing advocate Gail Harmer highlighted a real problem in the Killarney neighbourhood of seniors not being able to get rent receipts from landlords. Without these receipts, seniors are not able to claim rent subsidies from SAFER (Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters). Harmer described landlords not issuing receipts as simply “tax avoidance”.
Musqueam Band member Rhiannon Bennett outlined in moving terms the efforts of her community to protect ancestral burial grounds at the social-called “Marpole Midden” (1338 Southwest Marine Drive). The land is now under development for market housing.
Bennett noted that the bones of small infants have been excavated from the burial grounds: children who may have died in one of the devastating smallpox epidemics that hit the aboriginal population.
Bennett said that Canadian laws do not recognize aboriginal burial sites as “graveyards”. Rather, they are seen as “archeological sites” from which human remains can be removed as long as they are not destroyed. The bones are apparently being stored in a trailer at the construction site.
Sunday’s meeting included a number of “breakaway” policy discussion circles. The guest speakers, as well as these groups, generated a range of policy recommendations: most of them focused on ways of creating more affordable housing as well as protecting aboriginal rights. COPE member Connie Hubbs outlined the resolution of one group that a “housing authority” be created with a mandate to protect existing affordable housing stock as well as create new housing.
So, it was a breath of fresh air to attend a COPE meeting where we could focus on what COPE’s policies should be in regard to important Vancouver issues, instead of the endless debate about how COPE should frame itself in relation to Vision Vancouver.
I hope that COPE does not go down the dead end of another subservient marriage with Vision. COPE is the organization that is best positioned to represent the concerns of the average citizens of Vancouver, no matter which cultural community, minority, or neighbourhood. Sunday’s fall general meeting was strong evidence of that.
Vision has clearly shown itself constrained in its ability to represent average people with its dependence on big bucks from the development community. Likewise for the NPA as the “junior” developer party. Vision and the NPA may continue to represent mostly the “one percent”. COPE must represent the “99 percent”.
I heartily look forward to more policy conferences as COPE demonstrates it is best at formulating the most relevant and meaningful social and economic policies for average Vancouverites.
Paul Houle is currently the chair of the Coalition of Progressive Electors’ arts, culture, and heritage committee and previously served seven terms on the COPE executive board.