Sitting on the Gallery Café patio in his formfitting cadet-blue shirt, cargo shorts, sunglasses, and perfectly parted hair, Hector Bremner looked more like a GQ model than an insurgent ready to take over the government.
But once he started speaking, as he overlooked Robson Square, it was clear that this first-term city councillor has grand ambitions to transform Vancouver.
He took this opportunity to reveal to the Georgia Straight that he’s running for mayor with a new party, Yes Vancouver, which aims to increase the supply of housing and shake up city hall.
Later this month, the party will choose its slate of six or seven council candidates, as well as park- and school-board hopefuls.
Bremner opened the conversation by recalling his role as a B.C. Liberal government political aide in the consultations leading up to an official apology to Chinese Canadians. During this period, he visited eight cities and heard innumerable tales from those whose families experienced horrific discrimination in the past.
At times, he was the only white guy in the room.
“You sit through that and you come out of it a changed person,” Bremner said.
He added that this experience convinced him that it’s everyone’s job to call out racism when they see it. It has led him to challenge those who are scapegoating immigrants, particularly those from China, for high housing prices in Vancouver. And he wonders why there isn’t nearly as much attention on bureaucratic obstacles to increasing the supply of housing.
“If it’s taking you five to seven years to get a multiresidential building through application to complete it, why don’t we start with that?” he asked. “You know, if it takes you half to three-quarters of a decade to build something because of red tape—and silliness and back-and-forth about a spindle on the balcony—good Lord, we just need to get our priorities straight.”
Yes Vancouver plans to do a core review
Elected for the first time as an NPA politician in a by-election last October, Bremner was blocked from seeking that party’s mayoral nomination earlier this year.
As the mayoral candidate with Yes Vancouver, Bremner has promised that one of his first moves will be to conduct a “core review”. It will be overseen by an as-yet-unnamed former provincial deputy minister.
“It’s long overdue and I want to be clear: core reviews are not about cutting,” Bremner insisted.
Rather, he declared that it’s about taking stock of an organization.
For instance, he openly wondered if there is any need for an urban-design panel, telling a tale about a globally recognized architect who was offended by the feedback that he received.
“I think our job is to make sure we’re curating the neighbourhood effectively,” Bremner said. “But when we start to tinker with the design of an artist’s work, I think we’ve crossed a line.”
In another example, he cited the city’s oversight of its social-housing assets. He said that shortly after he was elected, he asked for a briefing from staff. As soon as he saw the horizontal organizational chart, he concluded that no one was really in charge.
“I literally had tears in my eyes,” Bremner recalled. “It really touched me emotionally.”
Bremner faced hard times in teenage years
Housing is an issue that hits close to home for Bremner because he knows what it’s like to be homeless.
Born in Edmonton, he initially grew up in comfortable circumstances in Saskatoon, where his father had a company that installed satellite dishes. In the 1980s, this involved putting a five-metre metal disc on top of a cement pole, which was drilled into the ground. In many cases, Bremner accompanied his father as they placed these dishes on First Nations reserves across the Prairies.
“It was a tremendous experience because it taught me a lot about the inequity between what we could call mainstream Canadian society and our Indigenous people,” Bremner said.
But when interest rates soared in the early 1990s and his parents separated, the 12- and 13-year-old Bremner found himself couch-surfing with either his mom or his dad as they would stay with friends or move to different cities in search of opportunities.
It led Bremner to live in Calgary, Kelowna, and finally Vancouver, where his father was living in a motel above a strip bar.
“There was a series of things that occurred where we essentially went from having a beautiful home in the suburbs, satellite dish, two cars, vacations…to being homeless,” he said.
Bremner told these stories with a remarkable degree of openness, noting that his family’s homelessness was not due to drugs, alcohol, laziness, or any other stereotypes associated with poverty. Rather, he attributed it to a “series of circumstances”.
He believes there needs to be more housing permitted in the 76 percent of the city that is zoned for single-family dwellings. He also supports the creation of “workforce housing” on False Creek Flats.
“There is a lot of people that own and rent in the city of Vancouver that are actually in a really vulnerable position,” he said. “It’s a crisis that I don’t think is appreciated enough.”
And he chafes when he hears comments about new housing being built for people who feel “entitled” to live in Vancouver.
“It’s not a sense of entitlement,” Bremner said. “There are people who’ve lived their entire lives in the city of Vancouver that are riding this razor’s edge.”
Going back to his own life, he said that as the 1990s progressed, fortunes gradually improved for his parents. His dad moved into a bedroom in a home and then rented an apartment.
Bremner said he tried to help out as best he could, working in retail during the days and at restaurants at night. He became a manager at Aldo, helping turn around distressed stores.
“I never went in there and just fired everybody and was draconian about it,” he said. “I learned very early on that you have to invite people ‘on the bus’ to a better way. And when you invite them to be part of it, sometimes those really unhappy employees—those negative employees, those negative actors—they actually become your most positive employees, your most positive actors.”
He said this is especially so “if you give them a forum in which they can succeed and they feel the respect and recognition and compensation for their behaviour and their action”.
Candidate has some things in common with Gordon Campbell
Bremner launched a marketing company in 2007, ran for the B.C. Liberals in New Westminster in 2013, then spent a year and eight months working as an executive assistant to cabinet ministers Teresa Wat and Rich Coleman. He joined the Pace Group as its vice president of public affairs in 2015.
He and his wife, Virginia, have two sons.
Bremner has some things in common with Gordon Campbell, who became mayor of Vancouver at the age of 38 after just two years on city council. Like Bremner, Campbell had previously been a political aide. And both were raised in comfortable circumstances until a sudden change of fortunes left their families facing hard times.
According to Bremner, Yes Vancouver includes people with previous ties to the federal Conservatives, federal Liberals, and federal New Democrats. Campbell, too, used to like to talk about his municipal party having a left-wing component.
Bremner even sounded like a young Campbell as he talked about not playing politics, taking good ideas, bringing people together, and getting the job done. But Bremner is also more charismatic, which could make him a potent mayoral candidate.
Where they differ is in Bremner’s ease in talking about himself and his spiritual values. He said that a Catholic priest in East Vancouver, Father Martin Lotho, taught him an important lesson: that passion is something directed inward, whereas compassion evokes the same kind of energy directed outward.
“I gave a speech not long ago where I said we don’t talk about love in politics,” Bremner said. “We need to truly love our city. Not just say ‘I love Vancouver.’ No. Demonstrate that you love the city. Put your needs second.”
To him, this entails thinking about how neighbourhoods are changing and having “love for those that are going to come after you, and what you are leaving for them”.
“It’s a total perspective change for us, even for me, and I work very hard at it every day,” he said. “At our [Yes Vancouver] meetings, 70 percent of what we talk about is character and why we’re doing what we’re doing. We work very hard on each other to remember that we have to have compassion for our city, love for our city.”
He stated that homeowners need to love tenants, and vice versa, and the rich must love the poor, and vice versa.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Bremner acknowledged. “And it takes us a moment to say ‘I’ve got to park my pride; I’ve got to park my position on this issue and I’ve got to rise above and remember that we are in this together.’ There is no you and me. It’s just us. And that’s what Yes is.”
He added that it’s easy to say “no” and often much harder to say “yes”. But according to him, “yes” can yield enormous rewards, whether you’re agreeing to marry, choosing a career, or doing voluntary activities.
“We need to say ‘yes’ to the good ideas,” he stated. “We can argue about the how, but when we start with ‘no’ and then argue about getting to ‘maybe’, that’s a negative thing. That’s where we’ve been.
“What we need to do is really lean into one another, really show some love for our city and really say ‘yes’ to one another—and have compassion.”
It’s not a conventional campaign, and Bremner is not a conventional politician.
In his view, the city is “broken” and there’s no longer a sense that things are getting better in Vancouver. And Yes Vancouver has a marketing message that it’s going to “fix” problems around housing, transportation, and other issues.
“We’re not doing this just to win,” Bremner said. “There is a mission.”More