Long read: How Jean Swanson, Derrick O'Keefe, and Anne Roberts plan to upend Vancouver's political status quo

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      If a recent Research Co. poll holds true, there's a very good chance that the Coalition of Progressive Electors will have a presence on the next Vancouver city council.

      It would mark the first time that COPE has been represented in the chamber since Ellen Woodsworth left office in 2011.

      That's because the poll showed that 20 percent of the 402 respondents said they will "definitely consider" voting for COPE. Another 14 percent said they would "probably consider" voting for the left-wing party.

      Only 15 percent said they would definitely consider the NPA, with another 20 percent saying they would "probably consider" it. 

      The Greens were the only party in front of COPE in the "definitely consider" category, with 25 percent offering that response. Another 26 percent said they'll "probably consider" the Greens.

      In light of this, I decided to have coffee with COPE council candidates on Saturday (October 13) morning on Commercial Drive to learn more about where they stand on the issues and how they might approach their roles as city councillors.

      I started by asking the best-known COPE candidate, Jean Swanson, what she would move on first if she is elected.

      "We are really big on using the council to help build movements," she replied. "So the first thing would have to be working for is a rent freeze—working with the tenants union and the tenants in the various buildings that are being renovicted and trying to get a rent freeze. Or at least vacancy controls."

      Swanson pointed out that tenants account for more than half the population in Vancouver. She promised that COPE councillors would try to use the city's powers under the Vancouver Charter to help them if the province won't do anything.

      She added that another high priority will be getting homeless people off the street and into modular housing.

      Swanson emphasized that this can be done quickly, noting that this type of accommodation was built near the Olympic Village Canada Line station in nine weeks.

      "We've got to try and get that ability to tax progressively and really work with housing-justice folks to try to push that," she said.

      The third point she raised was the overdose crisis.

      "I mean, maybe there are some things we could do with Insite to get them clean and safe drugs that they could give out—something like that," Swanson opined. 

      She also suggested that COPE councillors could work with groups like Black Lives Matter Vancouver, the Pivot Legal Society, the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre, and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users to address police targeting and criminalizing of homeless people and drug users.

      Finally, she mentioned the recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, noting that this issue is "huge".

      Swanson conceded that she hasn't talked about this document in any detail with her COPE colleagues. She thinks there needs to be a climate audit conducted in Vancouver to see what more the city can do.

      "Anything we can do to reduce—to get rid of—capitalism would help a lot," she acknowledged. "And we're trying to build movements to work in that direction."

      At that point, COPE council candidate Derrick O'Keefe jumped into the conversation. He noted that the city has fallen far short of achieving Vision Vancouver promise of planting 150,000 trees by 2020.

      According to the 2017–18 update of the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, only 102,000 trees have actually gone into the ground since 2010.

      O'Keefe credited city staff for doing positive things, but accused Vision Vancouver politicians of making no effort to mobilize people living in different neighbourhoods to implement the greenest-city agenda from the bottom up.

      He made the case that schoolchildren and other residents could get far more involved if politicians and the city were more aggressive in seeking their help.

      Moreover, O'Keefe claimed that under Vision Vancouver's rule, the Greenest City Action Plan sometimes came across more like a marketing campaign, which he said engenders cynicism.

      "I think that's part of the reason people fixate on bike lanes and other things because they've seen the city get expensive and they see a council that hasn't been working in their interest," the COPE candidate stated. "I think there's a lot we can do."

      Kshama Sawant campaigned for Jean Swanson last year outside the Carnegie Centre in the Downtown Eastside.
      Jean Swanson

      Conversation then switches to India

      At this point, COPE council candidate Anne Roberts, two party workers, and Kshama Sawant, a fiery Socialist Alternative city councillor in Seattle, joined us at the table.

      Sawant moved from Mumbai to the United States in her early 20s, and was scheduled to speak at a party fundraising event that evening.

      In the past, she led the charge for Seattle to introduce a $15 per hour minimum wage and to dump the "Columbus Day" name in favour of Indigenous People's Day in her city. She's also advanced measures to help the homeless.

      Sawant was raised in the Indian state of Maharashtra, which is a centre of labour-union mobilization in India. It's also where heroes of the independence movement, such as Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar, spent part of their lives.

      The state has a militant Hindu nationalist movement and a xenophobic, anti-Muslim, far-right regional party called the Shiv Sena.

      So I asked Sawant what impact her Maharashtra upbringing had on her political views.

      Sawant replied that her family was neither rich nor poor in the Mumbai suburb of Goregaon on the northern side of the city. The family is well-educated and includes doctors and engineers.

      "But certainly, what I saw around me had a phenomenal impact—to such a degree that I can hardly remember being obsessed with any other thoughts from a very young age but just seeing the compete ocean of poverty and misery in the mix of sexual violence [and] caste violence," the Seattle councillor revealed.

      "But it wasn't just that," she added. "The question that plagued me was how was it that that's possible when it was clear that there's technological advances and there's extremely wealthy people."

      Over time, and after seeing huge gaps between rich and poor after moving to the United States, her thinking evolved and crystallized.

      She concluded that technology enables sufficient production of food, health care, education, safe neighbourhoods, childcare and opportunities for creativity and leisure for all of humanity. But capitalism prevents everyone from having access to these things.

      "I'm not saying that I formulated all of this on Day 1," Sawant emphasized. "It was the progression of thoughts."

      One of her great influences has been Ambedkar, an Indian economist and jurist who drafted the Indian constitution. He also led the fight against the caste system.

      Like Sawant, Ambedkar grew up in Mumbai and moved to the United States at the age of 22, enrolling at Columbia University.

      "I kept wondering why he never drew Marxist conclusions," Sawant noted. "And I'm reading more about it now to understand a big part of the problem was the Marxist movement in India itself at the time was deeply flawed."

      Sawant reads Marxist writers, and she also praised author and essayist Arundhati Roy as a "very impressive thinker".

      In an interview with the Straight in 2014, Roy explained why she felt corporations that were running India wanted to install right-wing Hindu extremist Narendra Modi as prime minister.

      Sawant described Socialist Alternative as a democratic organization and insisted that she's "just an activist" rather than a politician like so many others who run for public office.

      And she considers that mobilizing the public, including by organizing rallies, as a key part of her job as a councillor.

      In this respect, she's following an example set by the leading anticolonialist of the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi, who mobilized the masses.

      "He was genuine," Sawant said. "And he genuinely wanted to overthrow the empire, but didn't understand at any point that also meant you had to challenge the class structure...of global capitalism."

      In her view, Gandhi's mistake was thinking that after the British left, he and others could approach these Indian capitalists as equals and make deals with them.

      As a city councillor in Seattle, Sawant has very different methodology, publicly challenging the agenda of billionaires such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

      COPE candidate Anne Roberts is attempting a political comeback 13 years after leaving city council.

      Roberts discusses COPE'S agenda for women

      When COPE candidate Anne Roberts was on council from 2002 to 2005, she worked closely with another COPE councillor, Ellen Woodsworth. They encourage city staff to examine policies through a gender lens.

      This led me to ask Roberts what she'll do in this area of she's elected on October 20.

      The retired Langara College instructor responded that women make less money, on average, than men, and they often bear most of the child-rearing responsibilities. And many are tenants.

      "The rent freeze is absolutely primary for women," Roberts said. "So too is the mansion tax—building public housing, reasonable housing, affordable housing, and guaranteeing that."

      She applauded the city's women's-equity strategy, which applies an intersectional lens. But she thinks more can be done to encourage management at city hall to move forward, possibly by withholding bonuses or advancement if they don't implement the policy.

      Roberts would also like the city to become a pilot project for $10 per day childcare.

      "The province is moving ever so slowly," she stated. "We could embrace it, fund it from our end. We have all the facilities that we could use."

      She added that this could show British Columbians and residents of other provinces how this could work.

      Roberts also emphasized that access to transit is a women's issue because they make the most varied use of it throughout the day.

      "Women are going shopping, women are picking up the kids, and doing all the things people do on buses," she said. "So we need a much better network for that."

      She's proposed a "U-Pass for the working class", in which subsidized monthly transit passes of $41 would be available for those below a certain family income threshold.

      "It's not putting all your money into one line that goes one place," Roberts said. "You put that out so networks of people can actually get to where they want to go."

      The NPA's housing policy consists, in large part, of sharply increasing the number of basement suites across Vancouver.

      These units can be more vulnerable to break-ins than purpose-built, managed rental housing.

      So I asked Roberts if she thinks this policy of the NPA is, ultimately, sexist, because it could put more women at risk.

      She replied that she felt that a party housing policy rooted in adding basement suites is actually "contemptuous".

      "A big thing we're saying—and Jean has been so articulate about—is we're going to build public housing that is of a quality that people deserve: a nice place to live, a big place, and room for a family."

      COPE employs plenty of theatrics at its rallies in favour of tenants' rights.

      How have socialists succeeded in Seattle?

      One of the key differences between COPE and other progressive parties in Vancouver relate to tactics.

      COPE has clearly been influenced by Socialist Alternative in Seattle, which adopts a militant line against the wealthy. So I asked Sawant how she gets things done in her city.

      Does she trick others into supporting her agenda?

      "We don't trick them," Sawant answered with a smile. "But that's an important question you're asking. And it's an important question at this juncture with Derrick, Anne, and Jean in the last leg of the campaign."

      She said that it's "paramount" that candidates for the working class ramp up the empowering of ordinary people and build movements whenever they take office.

      "Many times, we are told in the context of ruling-class politics that we should stop agitating," Sawant stated. "Then it's time to start getting along with other councillors, no matter what their politics are. No matter that they've had a long track record of being anti-worker, anti-union, anti-homeless, anti-women, anti-LGBTQ."

      Sawant vehemently disagrees with this conciliatory approach, saying all it will yield are a few crumbs and nothing substantial. Then in order to be reelected, these progressive politicians must make compromises by watering down their program.

      "What Socialist Alternative has proven is one, you cannot do that if you're actually fighting for change. It doesn't matter what's in your heart. Working-class people need quality housing at an affordable rate. They need childcare. They need health care.

      "It doesn't matter what's in your heart as an elected official," Sawant repeated. "What matters is how you're going to fight for them and actually get results. And the only way you can get results is the way we've shown, which is using your elected office as an open and unambiguous fighter for working-class people.

      "Hence, that means that you cannot depend on making changes by talking to other council members and hoping they'll see the light of day. But realizing that they are actually your adversaries—and that you have to fight with working people and empower them and bring that voice into city hall."

      In closing, Sawant said that it's not "tricking corporate politicians".

      "It is forcing concessions from them," Sawant stated emphatically.

      This was how Socialist Alternative helped bring in "move-in legislation".

      This extended the period that tenants were permitted to take to pay for damage deposits and other up-front fees imposed when they rent a suite.

      According to Sawant, this was "viciously opposed" by landlords and big business, which launched an unsuccessful legal action to overturn the law. 

      "People are living paycheque to paycheque," she said. "So what we did through that legislation is we gave tenants a six-month payment plan."

      Derrick O'Keefe and his partner Andrea know what it's like to try to find housing in a rental market plagued by an extremely low vacancy rate.
      Sid Chow Tan

      O'Keefe says COPE motions require a seconder

      At this point, O'Keefe mentioned how there's been talk of connecting Vancouver with Seattle with a bullet train, which would complete the trip within an hour.

      He pointed out that it can take a bus passenger a full hour to travel from Champlain Heights on the southeast side of Vancouver to the downtown core.

      "The point is: transit should be about who's getting around. We always have these technical or these budgetary arguments," he said. "Working-class people can't get around or it's literally too expensive for them to get their monthly pass. That's why at COPE we want to prioritize transit to all areas of the city, all different kinds, and that includes bikes and pedestrian infrastructure as well."

      But he said that this is more likely to occur if there are members of COPE on council who can second motions that might be brought forward by Swanson if she's elected. If motions aren't seconded, they are not debated by council.

      "That's why Anne and I really need to be there," O'Keefe said.

      He added that all the COPE candidates are "nice people". And he promised that he will be nice to the NPA's Melissa De Genova inside the council chamber if they're both elected. 

      "I know that [billionaire lululemon founder] Chip Wilson is standing behind her," O'Keefe added. "We're never going to be nice with the power that is behind these councillors, right?"

      He elaborated on this by making a case that COPE's advocacy for a rent freeze last year during a council by-election campaign influenced other civic politicians. According to him, they were more critical this year of a rent-hike limit announced by the provincial government.

      "[Independent mayoral candidate] Shauna Sylvester actually gave a shout-out to COPE and said she had been wrong about the rent-control debate and we had been right to advocate for rent reductions," O'Keefe said.

      Roberts then brought up the city's property-endowment fund. She doesn't believe those who suggest that the fund's mandate to make as much money as possible couldn't be adjusted.

      Swanson then interjected: "We may need to change the mandate so it's not just [about] making money, but it's serving a public purpose."

      Roberts suggested that perhaps it's simply a case of finding the right lawyer to give council the advice it needs to deploy the property-endowment fund in ways that help address the housing crisis.

      COPE communications adviser Tristan Markle has leaned on the lessons offered up by Seattle Socialist Alternative councillor Kshama Sawant.
      Charlie Smith

      Communications can set socialists apart from others

      Sawant is a passionate speaker who can rouse the left but who also infuriates Seattle's business class.

      I asked her about the importance of oratory in getting marginalized people more engaged in the political process.

      "Having an inspiring tone—not just as an elected representative but as somebody who is helping to lead social movements—is important because we want people to feel empowered to feel that they have a latent ability to influence social outcomes, not individually but to be part of a collective, organized movement," she replied. "So I have no doubt in my mind that how you speak as one of the leaders of a movement does matter."

      At the same time, she said that representatives should not do this "in order to display your oratory".

      "I don't do it so people will praise me," she declared. "I do it because I am genuinely wanting to draw people out of their shell and believing that they can actually be part of something that can win. It empowers an audience."

      She pointed out that oratory should not be the end, but rather the means to achieve a higher purpose.

      "Obama is a great orator, but...what he actually did and what his party stands for, it is quite antagonistic to the interests of working-class people," she said. "He's called the deporter-in-chief because the number of deportations of ordinary people who are immigrants shot up to record rates under him."

      Similarly, she added that Bill Clinton is a great orator but his administration gutted welfare.

      O'Keefe chimed in that when he or COPE communications adviser Tristan Markle prepared speeches for Swanson in last year's by-election, they were careful to write her words.

      "All the communications of the campaign came from Jean's values and listening to the things she actually said," O'Keefe stated.

      He contrasted that with "corporate politicians", whose words reflect what's been fed to them by polling firms, communications advisers, and corporate strategists.

      "That is a corporate marketing campaign," O'Keefe said. "That is not a human being. So when we speak, whether we're eloquent or less eloquent, I feel that people feel that COPE politicians are actually people. They're normal people talking about the things they actually believe."

      Sawant added that O'Keefe was making an "important point". The key isn't oratory so much as authenticity, which is apparent when Swanson speaks.

      "The reason she has inspired so many activists for so many years is because people can tell that she genuinely stands for something and that she wants to fight for that—that she wants to empower others to fight for it," Sawant said.

      She went on to say that in Seattle, "the interests of the billionaires are fundamentally antagonistic to the interest of the working class".

      "It's that political clarity that gives you the courage to make enemies in high places," Sawant said. "That is a given. If you are not willing to rock that boat of inequality and the status quo corporate politics, you're not going to achieve anything.

      "People see that regardless of your speaking skills," she continued. "If people see that you have the courage to put yourself on the line, they will come to you—and that's important."

      For her part, Roberts feels a "male standard still applies to politicians". They're seen as the "father figure" or the "authority figure".

      "I think Jean represents a real alternative for women for how to be effective and real without adopting a male style," Roberts said. "We've got get over that—God and Jesus and all those male figures. You know, they're not our model anymore."

      When Swanson was jailed earlier this year for violating court-imposed restrictions on protests against the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, the judge referred to her as one of the "sinister seniors" in his court.

      Sawant said that the judge knew what he was talking about because Swanson is a danger to the capitalist class and the oil lobby.

      "I don't agree with him, but he's right," she said.

      Swanson then showed off a bracelet that was made for her in prison by fellow inmates. "They were really nice to us."

      Artist Dierdre Keohane has lent her talents to Jean Swanson's political campaigns.
      Charlie Smith

      Swanson's goal is more political engagement

      Swanson also talked about how a member of VANDU has been wearing a Jean Swanson button all year.

      She recently saw him in the Downtown Eastside with an "I voted" sticker. It meant that he had cast a ballot in the advance poll, which continues until October 17.

      She said that was heartwarming. According to her, the only thing that most politicians (with the noted exception of Libby Davies) have done for drug users is criminalize and stigmatize them.

      Swanson believes that because capitalist politicians have been skewing wealth and power toward the privileged, it's led some low-income people to refuse to participate in electoral politics.

      "They'll say 'I don't vote' with great pride, as though they're not contributing to a really, really fucked-up system," she said. "If we can give them some hope that there is a reason to vote and someone is going to stick up for them—that's what I want to do. And it's not just really poor people, but also renters.

      "I mean it hasn't been so long ago, as Derrick pointed out, that renters couldn't even vote," Swanson continued. "I think a lot of that feeling toward renters is still kind of embedded in the bureaucracy and the politics of the city—where renters are seen as somehow less than owners. We have to change that."

      Finally, Swanson would like to see the city return some land to Indigenous people, perhaps through a land trust for housing. In addition, she said there's a desperate need for an aboriginal healing and wellness centre in the Downtown Eastside.

      Plus, she noted, COPE school board councillor Diana Day has ideas about how to create an Indigenous high school and close the achievement gap in education for all racialized people.

      "There are lots of other stuff we need to do working with those folks," Swanson said. 

      That includes "anything we do to work with the Tsleil-Waututh [First Nation] to stop the pipeline".

      "Maybe we can do something like Portland has [done], which is to forbid any fossil-fuel infrastructure in the city," Swanson suggested.

      A good political campaign makes use of social media, which is why the COPE candidates were having their photos taken on the Drive.
      Charlie Smith

      O'Keefe wants to employ Sawant's tactics

      Late in the discussion, O'Keefe quipped that he felt that I have enough material to write three stories.

      That was my original intention: write one article about the COPE candidates' comments, with a focus on Swanson. Do a second article about what Roberts was saying about advancing women's equality. And perhaps write a third about Sawant's record as a Socialist Alternative city councillor in Seattle.

      This morning, however, I decided to simply write one long article on what was said over coffee.

      This was done to provide voters with greater insights about how COPE candidates might conduct themselves if elected.

      O'Keefe, in particular, wants to replicate Sawant's approach of holding a rally outside city hall before motions are brought forward in the chamber.

      Those who attend the demonstrations have an option of attending the council meeting.

      "This is what I want to see if COPE gets elected on city council," O'Keefe said. "It should be packed every time we have a motion coming forward.

      "We should do rallies beforehand not just to mobilize our issues, but for people who can't stay until 2 in the morning for the public hearing because they have kids or work, et cetera, et cetera," he continued. "These public hearings are like a war of attrition."

      At this point, Sawant brought the conversation back full circle to what's happened in the Indian state of Maharashtra.

      She pointed out that its electrical utility was publicly owned before being privatized to Enron. She described what followed as a "scandalous debacle" that denuded the state's treasury of all its taxpayer resources.

      "We may speak different languages," Sawant said. "We may be of different skin colour. But ultimately, we are all tied in this international struggle against capitalism."

      O'Keefe pointed out that the head of Kinder Morgan, Texas businessman Rich Kinder, is a former Enron executive. This, again, reinforced the links between what's going on in B.C. and what transpired in Maharashtra.

      Then O'Keefe brought up a recent interview that former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper conducted with Global News.

      Harper told the Network that it wasn't Donald Trump who frightened him. Rather, the former Canadian PM is far more fearful of left-wing politicians like U.S. senator Bernie Sanders and U.K. Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn.

      COPE has embraced the populist and democratic socialist approach of both Sanders and Corbyn.

      "We are the ones who scare the people behind Harper," O'Keefe said with a bit of pride. "We are a threat to their interest."

      Swanson added that she really liked it when BCBusiness reported that her party "can put fear into the hearts of Vancouver's most wealthy".

      And with that, the interview ended, the tape recorder was turned off, and the three COPE candidates headed out onto Commercial Drive to hold a Facebook Live event.