Is There Hope for COPE?

Less than 18 months after its landslide victory over the NPA, the party that rules Vancouver is divided

A civil war on Vancouver's civic left appeared almost inevitable just before the most recent annual general meeting of the Coalition of Progressive Electors.

In early April, negotiators representing the party's two warring factions—the so-called COPE Classic and the more business-friendly "Diet COPE" contingent—failed to break an impasse over which candidates should run for the 11-member board of directors of Vancouver's governing civic party.

Since coming to power in 2002, the Diet COPE contingent, led by Mayor Larry Campbell and supported by party staff, has consistently favoured organized labour over grassroots neighbourhood groups whenever their interests collided.

COPE Classic councillors Fred Bass, Tim Louis, Anne Roberts, and Ellen Woodsworth, meanwhile, have been more willing to accommodate the interests of community groups. This has occasionally infuriated some leaders in the labour movement, which is a major financial contributor to COPE.

On the afternoon of Saturday, April 3, shortly before the AGM's scheduled start at Library Square, the dispute was in the open for anyone to see.

As hundreds of COPE members wandered downstairs to the registration table, they received leaflets listing two different slates for the party board.

One sheet of paper promoted a list of "Coalition" candidates who pledged to include all COPE members in policy development. Most telling, this group also promised to keep Bass, Louis, and Roberts in the party.

The Georgia Straight has previously reported that the COPE executive narrowly voted 10-9 last month against removing Bass, Louis, and Roberts from caucus after the trio opposed TransLink's 10-year transportation funding plan.

The other leaflet promoted a "new executive focused on victory in 2005" and featured a quote from Mayor Campbell: "We're uniters, not dividers." The "Unity" leaflet didn't say how its slate of candidates would treat dissenting members of caucus.

The division between the NDP- ­friendly Unity supporters and the Coalition camp stood in sharp contrast to what occurred at the same location on election night in November 2002.

After the polls closed, hordes of COPE supporters converged on Library Square to cheer then- ­mayor-elect Campbell and celebrate the party's stunning landslide victory.

Now, less than 18 months later, Mayor Campbell had to endure a few jeers as he descended the staircase to the Alice MacKay Room for the party's AGM.

To many observers, it appeared as though Bass, Louis, and Roberts enjoyed the support of a majority of the COPE members in attendance.

"In my view, both Tim and Fred support the [COPE] program," long-time COPE member Bryan Belfont told the Straight. "There are members of the leadership who are violating some of the principles of the program. The program has always been opposed to slots. It was even opposed to the RAV line before it was called the RAV line. So that if you're not supporting the program, you shouldn't be in the party."

One of the mayor's supporters, B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair, told the Straight that he thinks the party needs "unity" to move forward. He described the current dispute as "growing pains".

"It's the best city council we've had in years," Sinclair said. "I think COPE has done a hell of a job."

As the Straight reported last week, COPE booked an area that accommodated 500 people, even though the party has more than 3,000 members. A half-hour after the meeting was supposed to begin, all three rooms in the basement of the library were full and more than 100 people were still waiting in line at the registration desk.

Because of the huge turnout, the party cancelled the meeting before any ballots were cast. COPE organizer Nathan Allen told the Straight that another meeting will be held within three months.

"Three weeks ago, we didn't expect that we would have this big crowd here," Allen said.

Louis said he hopes a huge number of members will show up at the next meeting. "I am very, very elated with the large turnout of long-time COPE supporters," Louis said. "I am very, very optimistic that the membership will have an opportunity to democratize the party."

COPE's constitution requires its directors and COPE's 21 elected politicians—mayor, eight councillors, five park-board commissioners, and seven school trustees—to sit on the party executive. Neither COPE nor its elected politicians have publicly disclosed which members of the executive voted to banish Bass, Louis, and Roberts from caucus.

However, two COPE directors, Paul Houle and Mel Lehan, were on the "Coalition" slate that pledged to keep the three councillors in the party.

Four other COPE directors—former mayoral candidate Carmela Allevato, former NDP government deputy minister Doug McArthur, union organizer and provincial NDP executive member Kelly Quinn, and union employee Anita Zaenker—were on the "Unity" slate backing Mayor Campbell.

Before the annual general meeting, the Straight asked one of the mayor's closest allies, Coun. Jim Green, if he thought COPE councillors should be removed from caucus for voting against TransLink's plans.

"I have no idea," Green replied before walking away.

George Heyman, B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union president and COPE member, also refused to say if he thought councillors should be dismissed for opposing TransLink.

Heyman, who is Zaenker's boss at the BCGEU, would only say that the party must develop a process for making decisions that respects a diversity of opinions.

By now, the differences between COPE's two factions are well-known to anyone who follows Vancouver civic politics.

Former COPE school trustee Phil Rankin, son of legendary COPE councillor Harry Rankin, told the Straight on April 3 that the "COPE pragmatics" want to get on with the business of making business.

Rankin said they are pitted against a group of more left-wing, ideologically partisan councillors.

"I think there is a great deal of disrespect between one group and the other," Rankin said. "COPE doesn't have to be a party of unanimity, but they do have to be a party of respecting each other. They aren't that at the moment."

The so-called COPE pragmatics, also referred to as Diet COPE, include Mayor Campbell and councillors Green, Tim Stevenson, and Raymond Louie. More recently, COPE Coun. David Cadman, who loaned the party $50,000 after its election victory, has moved over to their side on issues of interest to organized labour, such as slot machines and TransLink's 10-year plan.

THIS DIET COPE group appears to have no difficulty making compromises with senior levels of government. It has led negotiations to purchase the Woodward's building, open a supervised injection site, and take control of the Pacific National Exhibition from the provincial government.

The Diet COPE faction also embraced the city's Olympic bid, strongly supported 4 a.m. bar closings, lifted the city moratorium on slot machines, and pushed through the TransLink plan, which included a controversial underground transit line along Cambie Street.

Sinclair's former assistant, Geoff Meggs, works in the mayor's office, so it's not surprising that Campbell's Diet COPE faction maintains close ties with the B.C. Federation of Labour and the Vancouver and District Labour Council.

The labour movement lobbied heavily for TransLink's $4-billion plan. TransLink documents show that after spending this money, the percentage of rush-hour trips taken by transit is expected to rise from 11 percent in 2004 to 13 percent by 2013.

Canadian Auto Workers national president Buzz Hargrove issued a news release last February urging local politicians to endorse TransLink's 10-year plan. It includes the replacement of Vancouver's trolley-bus fleet by Winnipeg-based New Flyer Industries Ltd., which employs CAW members.

A previous TransLink plan, which collapsed with the death of the controversial vehicle levy in 2001, pledged to increase the number of buses to 1,800 by 2006; the new plan calls for only 1,600 buses by 2013.

Some union-controlled pension funds have invested in Concert Properties Ltd., a major developer that employs unionized building-trades workers. Canadian Labour Congress president Ken Georgetti is a director of Concert Properties, which joined a consortium that made an unsuccessful bid to build the $1.5-billion to $1.7-billion RAV line.

When the Straight asked Sinclair at the COPE AGM if councillors should be kicked out of caucus for voting against TransLink's 10-year plan, he responded: "I'm not here to judge that, and I don't have a vote on that, okay? What I'm hoping for is that obviously, on the major issues, that there is unity so we can act."

When asked for his definition of the "major issues", Sinclair said: "Well, I think building the city, the policies around the issues that people care about, which is really a livable city, around transportation, those kind of issues. I hope they get to unity."

Sinclair, a resident of the Hastings Park area, said he also supports slot machines in the park to preserve the racetrack and hundreds of jobs. "It's an important institution in our neighbourhood," he said.

Since the last civic election, Mayor Campbell and his allies on council have alienated a growing list of grassroots citizens' groups, including the Stop the Slots in Hastings Park Committee, the Multicultural Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, Fair Vote Vancouver, the Cambie Heritage Boulevard Society, the Coalition for No Whales in Captivity, and the FalseCreek Landlease Action Committee.

Members of some of these groups showed up at COPE's annual general meeting to register their displeasure at the unsuccessful attempt to remove Bass, Louis, and Roberts from caucus.

Jim Hamm, a cofounder of the Stop the Slots in Hastings Park Committee, told the Straight that progressives should be wary about working too closely with organized labour.

Hamm, a documentary producer, claimed that many labour leaders are no longer progressives and now embrace "corporatism", meaning they are solely interested in creating unionized jobs regardless of the social costs. As examples, Hamm cited their support for slot machines, which he called "poor social planning", and for the RAV project, which he described as "poor transit planning".

He also alleged that organized labour is forcing Vancouver's political activists to endorse creating jobs regardless of costs or else they'll have no chance of obtaining NDP nominations in the next provincial election.

"I don't think we can keep hiding this because every time, for 30 years now, the NDP has stabbed progressives in the back," Hamm alleged.

COPE Classic councillors Bass, Louis, Roberts, and Woodsworth appear to be more receptive than the rest of council to hearing from community groups.

Bev Ballantyne, a former Green Party candidate and cofounder of a group called Putting Pedestrians First, told the Straight that Vancouverites voted in record numbers because they wanted council to pay special attention to the transit system, pedestrian and cyclist mobility, and the environmental impacts on water use and air quality.

"I believe the COPE majority has missed a golden opportunity to make substantive and long-term improvements to the livability of our city in an economically sustainable way," Ballantyne claimed. "I am quite sure that there are thousands of very disappointed voters."

But is there still hope that COPE will resolve their differences before the next election in 2005? At this stage, it's hard to see how that can occur when the members of council carry such divergent views.

At the end of March, Roberts wrote an open letter criticizing the RAV line as "an extravagantly expensive project that will put public transit into private hands and drain money away from the needed investment in buses".

"It's true that we need to improve transit, but it's not true that any transit project is worth the cost," she wrote. "If we took RAV out of the tunnel and put it at grade in the lanes next to the Cambie Heritage Boulevard, we could build it for half the cost."

Diet COPE members sometimes appear less concerned with the finer details of public policy and more interested in expanding COPE's appeal across the political spectrum.

Green, a former social-housing developer and provincial NDP candidate, frequently attends arts and cultural events and sometimes drops by the Sikh Temple on Ross Street. Stevenson, a former NDP MLA, regularly hobnobs with people in the tourism and entertainment sectors.

The mayor's supporters at the COPE party office run a separate nonprofit group, the Think City Society, which hosts community discussions featuring speakers from academia, business, and labour. Anyone who attends these events is encouraged to sign comment cards.

The Think City directors—COPE chief organizer Neil Monckton, Quinn, Zaenker, Web-site developer Matt Smith, and Simon Fraser University political scientist Kennedy Stewart—all have ties to the NDP.

COPE organizer Nathan Allen, also a Think City volunteer, said the civic party has increased its membership from less than 100 in 2001 to more than 3,000 today through constant organizing. Its e-mail list now numbers 6,000 recipients, who receive regular bulletins from the party office.

In addition to the Think City events, the COPE organizers try to attract new members by sponsoring rock concerts, weekly bowling, and softball games. Zaenker and Quinn have even encouraged COPE members to join the next Sun Run.

"I've seen more get done at three innings in a COPE softball game than I have in three hours of an exec meeting," Allen said. "I think that's good politics to get that happening."

Although this approach creates camaraderie and helps develop a political machine, it hasn't papered over the huge chasm in the COPE caucus over policies concerning gambling and transit.

These fights aren't new on Vancouver's civic left. As researcher Donna Vogel pointed out in her 2003 book Challenging Politics: COPE, Electoral Politics and Social Movements (Fernwood Publishing), the old Committee of Progressive Electors fought bitterly with the Civic New Democrats before a 1993 merger. Since then, the party has been called the Coalition of Progressive Electors.

Vogel's book also pointed out that progressive movements have not fared very well after winning municipal elections in Europe, California, and Montreal.

"The District Advisory Committees set up by the MCM [Montreal Citizens' Movement] city government had a very limited scope and no decision-making power," she wrote, "while the council executive committee implemented a series of rules aimed at silencing debate within the council caucus and preventing dissident councillors from rallying opposition among the general population or the MCM membership to specific policies."

Vogel's book makes the point that left-wing political parties have trouble accommodating the views of new social movements, which are often not hierarchical and don't always focus on economic redistribution.

"Analysis of COPE's organizational structure and political strategies revealed a general lack of fit between the radical democratic impulses of new social movements and COPE's political practices," Vogel wrote.

The COPE party office appears to have a very active outreach program, but it hasn't gone out of its way to become a transparent organization.

For example, COPE doesn't post its financial statements on its Web site (, nor does it provide a list of party directors. Motions passed by the party executive are not posted on the site for members to see. The party also barred the media from its annual general meeting.

Civic Non-Partisan Association Coun. Peter Ladner—who, along with Sam Sullivan, is one of only two non- ­COPE members of city council—told the Straight that he is especially concerned over COPE's refusal to reveal where it has gotten its money since the election.

"I think it's very unsettling that the public doesn't know who is bankrolling this party," Ladner said.

COPE officials were expected to release financial statements at the April 3 AGM, which would reveal how much progress the party had made in reducing its debt. As of the end of 2002, the party had a $400,000 debt.

After the recent meeting cancellation, however, Monckton sent the Straight an e-mail saying the financial statements won't be ready until the next annual general meeting, for which no date has yet been set.

On April 6, the NPA's Sullivan introduced a motion asking Vancouver city council to endorse the principle that councillors should be allowed to vote "according to their conscience and not be bound by policy decisions of their political organizations".

Sullivan claimed that the motion would dilute the power of party directors, who are not elected by the public.

COPE Mayor Larry Campbell and the COPE caucus voted unanimously in favour of Sullivan's motion, but only after deleting the phrase about not being bound by their political organizations.