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.”
Unlike some wheelchair-bound politicians, including former mayor Sam Sullivan, Louis generally avoids discussing his disability. He’d be the last politician to try to turn this into a political advantage. When the Straight asks about his “health”, he playfully replies, “My political health is something that is in the hands of the electorate.”
He follows this up by slyly remarking: “I’m a much more advanced specimen of humanity. The bipeds, who are the older version of humanity, continue to walk around on two [feet]. I use electric—four wheels, far more energy efficient and much more advanced.”
Then he quips that his reliance on four wheels might be an indication that he’s a little lazier than bipeds because he gets other people to do things for him. He can get away with this joke because lazy is the last word anyone would use to describe Louis. During his two terms on council, from 1999 to 2005, he provided a written reply to every citizen who ever wrote to the mayor and council. And to prove it, he still has all the correspondence in his office.
Eventually, and in a very roundabout way, he acknowledges that he has a neuromuscular disability. Even then, he tosses in another joke: “It means I’ve got very limited motor power, but the rumour is no cognitive impairments.”
On a more serious note, he concedes that his disability probably made him work harder and become more involved in social issues when he was younger. “To what degree does a person’s membership in a minority affect their world-view? I’m certain, to some degree, I’m a very different person, a richer person, a more complete person, because of that fact.”
The “limited motor power”, as he puts it, didn’t prevent him from moving out of his single mother’s home at the age of 17, putting himself through law school, cofounding the HandyDart system for disabled transit users, and getting elected to the board of Vancity Credit Union, which he later chaired.
“I’ve always tried as hard as I can to apply as much discipline to my activism as my mother applied to raising children as a single mother,” he says.
A key turning point was witnessing how legendary COPE councillor Harry Rankin juggled his political role with a busy legal career. Rankin signed a letter that helped Louis gain admittance into law school, and Rankin later brought him on as an articling student. “If you looked at Harry, he would be at a public hearing until the wee hours of the morning,” Louis says. “He would be back in his office again at 7 in the morning, so we’re full circle back to that word discipline. He believed that social activism wasn’t a hobby. It was something you did because you really believed in it.”
Like his mentor, Louis has attracted admirers from the other side of the political spectrum. NPA mayor Philip Owen was the epitome of the establishment politician when he oversaw the city from 1993 to 2002. In a phone interview with the Straight, Owen describes Louis as “highly qualified” and “very bright, very focused”. “He is a very smart person, and he does his homework,” Owen says. “He reads all of the reports and he brings a perspective which I think is healthy for debates in council.”
Not only that, but Louis has also “mellowed”, according to Owen. So does that mean the former mayor will put an X beside Louis’s name on the ballot? “I’m going to seriously think of voting for him,” Owen replies. With a laugh, he acknowledges that his comments could get him into “all kinds of trouble”.
Now that he’s trying to stage a political comeback, Louis is declining to discuss what might be the most painful part of his political life, which was the split within COPE that developed after Larry Campbell was elected mayor in a landslide victory in 2002. Not long after the party took power, two factions emerged; the media dubbed them COPE Classic and COPE Lite.
The COPE Classic councillors—Louis, Cadman, Anne Roberts, Bass, and Woodsworth—refused to buckle under to Campbell’s demands that they vote against the party’s own policies, which included a freeze on transit fares and opposition to slot machines in the city. The COPE Lite politicians couldn’t understand why the others, with the exception of Cadman, opposed Vancouver hosting the Olympic Games.
At one point, the labour movement demanded that all COPE politicians support a TransLink plan even though it called for fewer buses than earlier proposals. When the COPE Classic councillors stood their ground, a rupture became inevitable.
Campbell was supported by business-friendly COPE councillors Tim Stevenson, Raymond Louie, and Jim Green. They created Vision Vancouver, leaving COPE to deal with a sizable debt. In the 2005 election, Vision Vancouver was bankrolled by real-estate developers and casino companies, and Louie and Stevenson were reelected. The voters bounced Louis off council.
On October 22, Louie happens to be in the audience at the Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House candidates meeting and agrees to be interviewed about Louis’s candidacy. Standing outside in the hallway, the Vision Vancouver councillor expresses confidence that he can work with Louis in the future if they’re both elected, pointing out that they jointly spearheaded the creation of the ethical-purchasing policy. “I hope that if Tim does get elected and if I get the opportunity to serve again that we can continue to find these common grounds where we can move these initiatives forward that are for the betterment of our city as a whole,” Louie says.
Louie, like Louis, is in no mood to discuss the schism within COPE that developed shortly after they were both elected in 2002.
Even though they’re civil on the surface, they still have political disagreements, which raises questions about how long the COPE–Vision alliance will last after the election. In their most recent term of office, Vision politicians have voted to shift part of the property-tax load from businesses to residential-property owners. Louis remains one of the most vehement opponents of this practice, saying there is no need to take money out of the hands of residents and put it into the pockets of the banks and other large businesses. However, Louis says he would like the province to introduce legislation to allow city councils to charge lower property taxes to smaller businesses, noting that he is a small businessperson himself, having run his own law office for 27 years.
Louis also favours reducing the Vancouver Police Department budget, which accounts for about 21 percent of all spending, whereas Vision politicians have consistently voted for larger allocations to the police.
“Suppose we were to do an analysis of the police time,” he says. “How much of it is spent on crime that is a direct result of homelessness? We could reallocate part of that budget to hiring street workers who can work with homeless people to provide them with the services they need.…What would happen if we literally reallocated part of the budget to youth workers in community centres?”
Notwithstanding his disability, Louis describes himself as “an incredibly fortunate person”. Sitting in his tidy law office, he is surrounded by signs of success. To his left is his life partner of 28 years, Penny Parry, who has witnessed more political ups and downs than most political spouses. There are numerous photographs, including one of a young Harry Rankin, and another of Vancouver businessman Bob Laurie standing with a huge smile beside Louis.
Laurie, who led the Vancouver Board of Trade’s crusade to shift property taxes away from businesses, is wearing a bright-red shirt emblazoned with the face of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. It’s a playful take on Louis’s oft-stated admiration for Guevara, who gave up a medical career in Argentina to become a left-wing revolutionary across Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s. And this is not the only image of Guevara in Louis’s office. Opposite his desk is a framed photo of Guevara, emblazoned with one of his famous quotations: “Let me say, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”
When Louis is asked about the significance of this quote, he replies: “If you look around your neighbourhood, if you look around your country, if you look around your world, and you’re not motivated to do good things for humanity, then there is something wrong with you. Che did what he did, moved from being a doctor to being a guerrilla—at enormous personal sacrifice with a very, very bad case of asthma—because he was motivated by love. He looked around his community. He looked around his neighbourhood. There were people in the main without any health care, in the main without education, and not because the country didn’t have enough money.”
Louis then points out that reporters often focus attention on his admiration of Guevara, often at the expense of examining his position on a range of issues. But he readily acknowledges that he has been heavily influenced by the famous Marxist rebel, who was captured in Bolivia and executed in 1967.
“So to come back to that question about love, I honestly and genuinely believe that the true revolutionary is motivated by love,” Louis declares. “We’re not motivated by ego. We’re not motivated by selfishness. We’re not motivated because we want to be a careerist, which is another criticism I have of certain elements of the left—and the right as well. I used to believe—very naively, until 2002—that the world was neatly divided into two sides, that all careerists and opportunists were on the other side of the fence, and that’s not the case.
“But Che was not a careerist. He was motivated by love.”
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.