Vancouver’s bright lights challenge the status quo

Our city is known around the world for many things, including its scenic environment, supervised-injection site, and the architectural phenomenon known as Vancouverism. But the strength of any city is really in its people. So for this Best of Vancouver issue, we’re highlighting eight local residents who are trying to make Vancouver a more humane place for the rest of us.

Sarah Bjorknas assists U.S. war resisters
Sarah Bjorknas
War-resister supporter, unionist, hostess

Between her full-time work for Burnaby public libraries, where she’s also a union activist, and going home to her “guest”-filled house in Strathcona on September 10, Sarah Bjorknas somehow found time to poster Commercial Drive. The posters invited the neighbourhood to a September 13 rally against the Conservative government’s deportation of American war resisters. Her four houseguests were souls “in transition”, finding solace at the Catholic Worker home she shares with nun Sister Vikki Marie. They ran the gamut from the homeless to folks in the midst of job or relationship change.

This was a typical day for the Simon Fraser University grad. Bjorknas admits she’s “always on”. But to her, raised by hard-working, socially engaged farmer parents in Langley, all facets of her activism flow together into a comfortable lifestyle. How does she pack it all in?

“I admit, I am a single person. If I had children or a partner, it wouldn’t be realistic,” she told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “So there’s a certain freedom with that. Plus, living in community makes it possible. If I have to go to a meeting after work, I know there’s other people around to take the dog for a walk and take care of the cat.”

For the past month, Bjorknas and her cross-country colleagues have been in overdrive with the War Resisters Support Campaign ( On August 22, resister Robin Long was sentenced to 15 months in a U.S. military jail after being deported from Canada. Jeremy Hinzman and his family, which includes two young children, are to be deported on September 23—thus, the September 13 pan-Canadian day of action to stop the deportations. Officially, there are about 50 war resisters in Canada making their way through the immigration process, Bjorknas said. Unofficially, she believes, there are hundreds more, working under the table, surviving.

On June 3, all Canadian opposition MPs voted together in the House of Commons to let the war resisters stay. Bjorknas said she’s baffled as to why the Conservative government is intent on flushing them out.

“We formed WRSC in the summer of 2004, but I never thought I’d still be doing it in 2008,” she said. “The whole concept of war in Iraq: I constantly have to remind myself not to be so naive. People are dying, there doesn’t seem to be any objective, and I think it can’t last. But it has.”

Fortunately, so have Bjorknas and her seemingly endless supply of energy.

> Pieta Woolley

Robert Fung is transforming Gastown
Robert Fung
President, the Salient Group

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Gastown was on the decline, with an excessively high vacancy rate in its empty, old buildings. The area’s historic nature was protected in provincial legislation, but property owners couldn’t breathe life into the neighbourhood because of a financial straitjacket imposed by the cost of rehabilitating properties to meet modern building codes.

The situation changed in 2002 when the NPA–controlled council of the day granted Gastown heritage-building owners “residual density” of 5.5 FSR (a floor-space ratio of 5.5 square feet of building for every one square foot of property). Residual density is granted to owners of smaller buildings so they will have more air rights to sell to other developers to help cover the rehabilitation costs.

In 2003, the COPE–controlled Vancouver city council approved other incentives to encourage heritage conservation in Gastown, Chinatown, Victory Square, and the Hastings Street corridor. The heritage-faí§ade rehabilitation program provided grants for up to 50 percent of the cost of restoring the front of a building.

That has resulted in a flurry of activity, turning Gastown into one of the most vibrant areas of Vancouver. Robert Fung, the 42-year-old president of the Salient Group, has been at the forefront. The former Concord Pacific executive rehabilitated the 97-year-old Taylor Building at 310 Water Street, winning awards from the City of Vancouver and the Urban Development Institute. Then Fung’s team added two storeys to an existing nine-storey heritage building on Beatty Street called the Bowman Block. Recently, Fung led a tour of the Flack Block, a recently completed heritage project at the corner of Cambie and Hastings streets. The Salient Group also plans to rehabilitate a heritage building in New Westminster called the Trapp Block.

“It’s a big building, 50,000 square feet, right on Columbia Street that has been vacant for 35 or 40 years,” Fung said in an interview in his Gastown office. “It’s because the building is in terrible shape. Nobody could lease it up.”

Fung, the son of well-known Toronto financier Robert Fung, also described his company’s biggest project to date: the restoration and redevelopment of the Terminus, Garage, and Alhambra buildings in Gastown in three phases. There’s already a bunch of construction work under way near the statue of Gassy Jack at the corner of Water and Carrall streets. By the end of the third phase, it will include live-work strata units, offices, and retail space.

“We tried to put together a mix that we feel pretty strongly helps reinvigorate the local economy and the local area while also maintaining the heritage context and bringing in some really high-styled design for the modern components,” Fung said.

The city has imposed a moratorium on the creation of new transferable density from Gastown until it can determine if there’s a surplus, which will lower its value in the market. Fung said that without this program, his company wouldn’t have been able to complete its recent projects.

With all of his business activity, Fung still sets aside plenty of time for community service. He has chaired the Dragon Boat Festival and volunteered with Science World, the Vancouver Economic Development Commission, and a multicultural think tank called the Laurier Institute. He is also on the boards of UBC and Covenant House, which provides shelter for street kids and helps them become self-sufficient. When asked why he takes on these tasks, Fung replied that one of his influences was financier and local philanthropist Milton Wong.

Fung also has three girls between the ages of three and six, which means he doesn’t have a lot of free time. “But my schedule pales in comparison to my wife’s,” he quipped.

> Charlie Smith

Lynda Gray empowers aboriginal youths
Lynda Gray
Executive director, Urban Native Youth Association

One sunlit Sunday afternoon has Lynda Gray tapping away for two hours at her laptop in a neighbourhood café in the 2600 block of East Vancouver’s Hastings Street. She’s working on her first book.

“It’s called First Nations 101,” Gray told the Georgia Straight. “It’s an educational resource so that people understand the issues and the context that brought Native people to where we are today. If I educate myself, I become empowered. If I also educate you and other people, it helps to strengthen the Native community, because you’ll have a better understanding of us. It’s empowering both ways.”

Gray, executive director of the Urban Native Youth Association, says she intends to discuss exactly 101 issues in her book. These will touch on matters ranging from economic development to child welfare, the residential-school system, and youth concerns. These are the same issues in which the Tsimshian Nation mother of two grown children has immersed herself as an activist and community worker for more than a decade.

She oversaw efforts from 2002 to 2005 to revitalize the former St. Michael’s Residential School facility in Alert Bay into a community and arts centre.

“People think that we’re born to be alcoholics or live on welfare or can’t take care of our children—those are just symptoms of what happened,” the UBC–educated Gray said about the stereotypes of aboriginal people that reflect some of the tragic effects of the residential schools.

Approximately 140 such institutions operated from the 1840s on in Western and Northern Canada, with the objective of assimilating Native children. The last one closed as recently as 1996.

Gray said she doesn’t know whether or not her late mother ever went to one of these schools. But she remembers hearing “occasionally from my mother, if she was drinking”¦about all of the racism that happened to her when she was young, her struggles as a Native person”.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on June 11 this year in the House of Commons to survivors and the families of those who attended residential schools, Gray was reminded about the stalled project to put up a Native youth centre in Vancouver.

She said that UNYA hasn’t received any commitment from the federal and provincial governments to fund such a centre, which will serve as a hub for various programs, ranging from childcare to sports and career development. She believes this is indicative of the lack of government commitment to help First Nations people.

“The last election, we barely heard anything about First Nations issues,” Gray said during the interview on September 7, the day Harper triggered a fall election. “They’ll [federal politicians] keep talking about economic development”¦but Native people aren’t on that gravy train that’s going by because they’re not providing meaningful opportunities for our youth.”

Aside from education and employment, aboriginal youths also have to deal with racial profiling by the police, according to Gray, a former director with the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre. She remains an adviser to the VACPC, which is working to improve relations between the police and Native youths.

The recognition of old aboriginal values is an important issue for Gray. In April this year, she cochaired the first national aboriginal gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and two-spirit summit.

“We called that conference We Are All One because it’s a reminder to members of our community that for our ancestors, everybody had a place in the community,” Gray said. “Everybody was thought to have gifts, and those gifts were used to strengthen the community.”

> Carlito Pablo

Emily Jubenvill takes green living to a new leve
Emily Jubenvill
Environmentalist and sustainability coordinator

Some of us recycle. Others take public transit. Many food lovers enjoy growing fresh produce in gardens. And then there is Emily Jubenvill, who does all these things and so much more and who could soon be voted the greenest person on the planet.

Jubenvill, 22, is the sustainability coordinator at North Vancouver–based Canadian Bioenergy Corporation, which supplies biodiesel to municipal and private vehicle fleets. Earlier this year, she entered a “greenest person on the planet” contest. Visitors to SFU business professor Boyd Cohen’s Web site ( whittled 50 semifinalists down to five finalists, including Jubenvill, the only Canadian on the list. Her competitors live in the United States, China, Malaysia, and Venezuela.

The winner will be announced next Wednesday (September 24) at the 2008 Sustainability Festival, which will be held at SFU. “I’ve always been very passionate about communicating the science behind climate change and all of that and getting people engaged and involved,” Jubenvill said. “It’s kind of given me a platform to do that.”

Jubenvill was born in North Vancouver and moved to Bowen Island when she was in Grade 7. She credited a middle-school teacher on Bowen Island, Pam Matthews, for encouraging her to get so interested in sustainability. Jubenvill went on to obtain a degree in environmental science from Royal Roads University in Victoria.

She lives in the West End, and every day she cycles to work, either across the Lions Gate Bridge or by taking her bike on the SeaBus. She also has an enclosed composter in her apartment, which she shares with a roommate. She bought the composter for $25 from a nonprofit group called City Farmer.

“It really doesn’t smell,” Jubenvill said, noting that it’s necessary to take precautions to prevent an outbreak of fruit flies. “A little bit of apple cider in a dish is more than enough to deal with them.”

Jubenvill is also the community-gardens coordinator for the Vancouver Public Space Network, which helps citizens overcome hurdles encountered while creating areas in neighbourhoods to grow food. She added that she eats as much local food as possible—a less-than-100-mile diet in the summer, because she grows so much of her own food.

Cohen told the Straight last month that he created the contest because he wanted to turn environmentally responsible citizens such as Jubenvill into role models and international celebrities. “It’s actually working,” Cohen said. “I’m actually personally overwhelmed with the media attention and the general overall interest the competition has created around the world.”

> Charlie Smith

Cynthia Low helps poor women discover art
Cynthia Low
Volunteer and former executive director of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre

At the Roundhouse Community Centre on September 10, the evening air bumped and pounded to the beat of 15 taiko drums. Cynthia Low stood in front of her group—largely women living in the Downtown Eastside—and cajoled them to bang harder, shout louder. With a genuine, broad smile, she got what she asked for.

The rare performance was part of the drop-in arts program called WEAVE, Women Engaged in the Arts Vision and Empowerment ( Two mornings a week, plus Low’s taiko Friday nights, women can drop in to the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEWC) and let it out through painting, collage, and other media.

“Art is an important part of living a beautiful life,” Low, who volunteers her leadership, told the Straight after the event. “A lot of agencies provide the basics: food, water, washrooms, emergency-shelter stuff. But that’s not enough to inspire people to make changes in their lives or nurture their spirit.”

Though WEAVE is a 2006 addition to the program lineup, Low has been a 20-year presence at the DEWC. As a university student, she was drawn to the centre as a volunteer, searching for a more meaningful life for herself. She found what she was looking for there. At about the same time, she discovered taiko.

“I was just blown away,” she said. “As an Asian woman [of Chinese descent] who had a lot of socialization around being a woman—and a lot of the performers I saw were Asian women—it ignited an energy in me.”¦In our culture, Canadian culture, the idea of yelling or rudeness has negative connotations. Especially for poor or marginalized women, or big women who are asked to take up less space. But in taiko, it’s about taking up more space, not holding it all in.”

The culmination of that energy, she explained, is the kiai, a common yell in martial arts. For the group, it has special meaning. “It’s an explosion of power,” Low explained. “It’s about gathering that energy within you when you’re tired, so you energize yourself and others.”

WEAVE’s Canada Council and B.C. Arts Council funding runs out at the end of September, Low noted, so they’re looking for further grants.

> Pieta Woolley

Alex Sangha promotes Punjabi gay rights
Alex Sangha
Founder, Sher Vancouver

Coming out of the closet isn’t an easy thing for some young gays and lesbians. Social worker Alex Sangha will tell you that it’s especially challenging if you’re raised in a conservative culture.

Sangha, the son of Punjabi Sikh immigrants, told the Georgia Straight in a recent interview that he secretly visited a psychiatrist in Grade 8 because he wanted to change his sexual orientation. He praised the doctor for providing support—and never saying he was right or wrong—at a time when he had no one to turn to in his community.

“It was very tough,” Sangha said. “I was very suicidal and very sad.”

Sangha had several accomplishments growing up in Surrey and North Delta. He was on the student council; he played competitive basketball; he was selected to go on a United Nations–sponsored tour of Africa to learn about international development and environmental issues. But he couldn’t escape the taunts of some fellow students.

“I was closeted, and sometimes people thought I was gay,” he said. “They would make jokes and write fag on my locker.”

When he was 20, his mother asked if he was gay. Sangha said that he lied and said he was bisexual, thinking this would be a better response. But he said that once his mother discovered the truth, she was very accepting and nonjudgmental. He added that his father is coming around to the idea but one of his grandfathers thinks he has an illness that shouldn’t be discussed.

This past April, Sangha, now 36, decided to do what he could to make things easier for other gay and lesbian people of Punjabi descent. He helped found a LGBT support group called Sher Vancouver, which has grown to 61 members.

The group was created to prevent more tragedies along the lines of what happened to a 15-year-old California boy named Lawrence King last February. King asked another boy to be his Valentine, and the boy shot him dead.

“It is my goal that a tragedy of this sort never happens in the South Asian community,” Sangha emphasized. “We want to reduce homophobia and heterosexism and increase acceptance and tolerance.”

Punjab was divided after the partition of India in 1947, but Sher Vancouver welcomes people from both the Pakistani and Indian sides of the border. Sangha said his group includes Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and Hindus. He also volunteers with a two-spirited aboriginal group.

Sangha’s community involvement isn’t restricted to issues relating to sexual orientation. He has also lobbied Surrey and Delta councils to create wards, which he believes would lead to more accountable civic government.

> Charlie Smith

Bruce Sanguin pushes Christians to go green
Bruce Sanguin
Author, environmentalist, United Church minister

Like Ed Norton’s priest character in the film Keeping the Faith (2000), Rev. Bruce Sanguin is selling something people want. So his pews—unlike so many around the Lower Mainland—are full. His message: ecologically, the planet is in trouble, so we’ve got to pull together across religious, political, and social boundaries and find a new way of living it.

Sanguin has faith that we—people—can actually do this. And it involves, well, faith.

“We have to move through the grief of realizing how we’ve been living on the earth for the past 300 years, and how disconnected we’ve become,” he told the Georgia Straight in an interview at his office at the Canadian Memorial Centre for Peace. “If we can’t shift our consciousness, we’re sunk. But if we can meet these challenges, and I think we can, we can enter into a new mode of living on the earth.”

Sanguin blogs, practises Bikram, and bikes. He has all the trappings of hipness, except for one big red flag. He is a capital-C Christian. Sanguin admits that being churchy marks him and the faith-based ecological movement as repellent to many nonbelievers. But to Sanguin, reforming the church’s bad rep and solving the ecological crisis go hand in hand.

“This isn’t about getting bums in the pew. It’s about a new paradigm,” he said, “which is about tapping into our deep spiritual well, whatever spirit means to folk, so people are engaged in ecological sustainability and social justice from a place of spirit.”

Sanguin doesn’t just preach it from the pulpit. He’s written a 2007 Canadian bestseller, Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos: An Ecological Christianity (Woodlake Books, $27.95), and just written a controversial new book, a modern equivalent of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, called Emerging Church: A Model for Change and a Map for Renewal (Woodlake Books, $24.95). He also helps run Be the Change, a community-engagement movement on climate change. And he makes his Vancouver International Film Festival debut on October 2 in Gerard Ungerman and Audrey Brohy’s film Belonging, which asks scientists and faith leaders how to solve the climate mess.

> Pieta Woolley

Cameron Ward resists brutality
Cameron Ward
Civil-rights lawyer

Cameron Ward took up law because he wanted to fight injustice.

“I remember the late ’60s, early ’70s, the time of the civil-rights movement in the United States, and like many others, I was motivated to go to law school by a sense of idealism that perhaps I could do something to remedy injustices that I saw around me,” Ward recalled on a recent Saturday.

Looking relaxed in a striped blue sport shirt, the 50-year-old civil-rights lawyer had just come from a round of golf, one of his passions.

The day before, when the Georgia Straight reached him by phone to set up the interview, Ward had just finished representing before a coroner’s inquest the family of Kyle Tait, a 16-year-old Native youth shot dead in 2005 by a New Westminster police officer. The jury classified Tait’s death as a homicide. For the past decade or so, the Montreal-born lawyer has been retained and consulted by people who feel aggrieved by the police.

Ward traced his involvement in such matters to the infamous police incident at UBC in 1997, when students were pepper-sprayed and arrested by the RCMP while protesting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit held in Vancouver. He appeared before an RCMP public-complaints commission that concluded that the police conduct was inappropriate and, in some instances, inconsistent with freedoms guaranteed by the Charter of Rights.

A few years before the high-profile UBC case, Ward took up the cudgel for environmental activists who were opposed to the clear-cut logging of the rain forest of Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island.

“That became kind of a subset in my work,” Ward said. “I feel I’ve achieved some victories in that area by bringing more awareness to what I think is the improper role of the injunction and contempt power of the courts to quell peaceful protests.”

Years before Polish immigrant Robert Dzie-kanski died after he was tasered by RCMP at the Vancouver International Airport, Ward raised serious questions about the safety of these stun guns. According to his Web site, there have been 60 Taser-related deaths across North America since Dziekanski died on October 14, 2007.

At last year’s start of the public inquiry into the case of Frank Paul, an aboriginal man who was found dead in the alley where he was left by a Vancouver police officer, Ward delivered a blistering opening statement about why a number of people don’t have a lot of faith in getting justice when police are involved in alleged wrongdoing.

“In British Columbia, we still allow the police to investigate themselves when someone dies at their hands,” Ward said at the inquiry. “They work hand in hand with Crown counsel and the Coroners Service on these cases. It’s no wonder that the decisions taken by these agencies appear to many to be flawed. To aboriginal people in B.C., the police have always seemed to be above the law, untouchable.”

It’s not only the police and certain agencies of the justice system that Ward is willing to tangle with so the underdog can have a fighting chance. He is the lawyer of Carel Moiseiwitsch, an artist and one of the defendants in the suit filed by CanWest Global Communications in connection with a parody of the Vancouver Sun that satirized the media giant’s pro-Israel editorial position.

“It just occurred to me that when you talk about big media and corporate media, that’s an example of corporate media being a bit of a bully, I think,” he said.

> Carlito Pablo