In September, a YouTube video entitled “How to be a Vancouverite” bounced around cyberspace. While it hinted at the city’s deepening housing crisis, pointing out an empty lot priced at $38 million, the clip ultimately settled on familiar tropes about Vancouver life. Rain is one of our primary troubles; finding a local organic grocery store is critical to us; we need to learn yoga; we are proud of both the Olympics and our multiculturalism. “And finally,” the voiceover announces triumphantly, “make sure to call this place the best f***ing place on earth!”
The video went viral, striking a chord because it reflects an aspect of life in the city while good-naturedly lampooning our enduring image. Yet between the lines of the half-sarcastic script, another Vancouver is implied: a Vancouver of the “rest of us”, the backdrop for those coming to terms with the supposed wealth of our city—the Vancouver which weighs heavily on the minds and bodies of people trying to make ends meet.
It is this side of the city which Vancouver’s Left—including COPE—has attempted to underscore and confront in its long history. COPE’s history of fighting for rent control, non-market housing, public schools, LGBTQ and women’s rights, and antiracist and labour struggles is today more relevant than ever.
If past decades have benefited from combative, and principled left-wing politics, our era must be seen as an even more fertile ground for change. Old injustices have fused with new ones in a powder-keg of social inequality and political disenfranchisement. Racism and colonialism persist in our city while inequality has only widened, marked by a stark geographic divide. Vancouver’s wealth, founded on the dispossession of indigenous people, remains out of reach to those communities.
Since its beginning, the city government has been run by an unshakable collaboration between colonial politicians and the real estate monopolists. While the Canadian Pacific Railway and Oppenheimer brothers dominated city hall from the 1880s, today’s ruling parties are financed by the big real estate companies of Wall Financial, Westbank Projects, Bosa Properties, and Concord Pacific (which recently incorporated the land holdings of CPR). Then, as now, the goal of the liberal and right-wing parties has been to protect private property rights and corporate profits above all else.
Racism and the exploitation of people of colour have been pervading features of Vancouver’s development since its inception. The city was built by labourers of indigenous, Chinese, and Japanese descent, but most were paid poorly and forced to endure terrible living conditions in camps and shanty-towns. Instead of arguing for increased wages and better working conditions for all, white settlers violently attacked workers’ camps. For the first decades of the city’s history, “Asiatic exclusion” was a staple of reform and labour policy platforms. Today, anti-immigrant politics have descended into the unpunished defacement of a memorial to the Komagata Maru. Meanwhile low wages for migrant labour—through live-in caregiver, temporary worker, and other programs—continue to fuel politics of exclusion instead of solidarity.
Permanent jobs continue to be lost while the city increasingly profits off the exploitation of cheap and precarious migrant labour. And while other cities like New Westminster have introduced municipal living wage laws, Vision Vancouver’s Geoff Meggs explicitly rejected living wage policy, further establishing the city as a haven for exploitation rather than a sanctuary city for the exploited.
Rather than learning from past injustices, our city is repeating them. As the provincial government prepares to apologize for the Chinese head tax, the City of Vancouver is brazenly moving ahead with plans to demolish the Ming Sun Benevolent Association building—an artist studio space with affordable housing for low-income Chinese seniors at 439 Powell Street in the Downtown Eastside.
Seniors, activists, architects, and community groups have rallied around the building, repeatedly calling on the city to stop the demolition. But nothing is spared in an environment where the logic of gentrification and maximum profits triumphs at all costs. For at least two years, since Vision significantly deregulated zoning restrictions in 2011, Chinatown has undergone extensive gentrification and Ming Sun is one of many buildings closing their doors on the Chinese elders who built the city and made it prosper.
Today’s Vancouver faces growing challenges. We’re dealing with declining enrolment in our schools, caused by the systematic displacement of low-income families. The school board is consequently faced with declining funding of two perccent every single year, and is left to oversee a growing divide in the quality of education and of infrastructure between West Side and East Side schools. Dropout rates continue in East Van, especially among aboriginal youth, while abandoned schools are left to the speculative real-estate industry.
Our education crisis is inextricably tied to the housing crisis, exacerbated by years of political collusion between city hall and developer interests. Over 20,000 households are now in dire housing conditions, paying over half of their income on rent and housing costs. If the city does not step in with the right policies in hand, which means heavily taxing the rich, this will only get worse as federal subsidies for social housing expire in the coming years. Over 17,000 housing units in the City of Vancouver alone will lose their federal subsidies, and an overwhelming majority of existing affordable apartments in the city will be lost. Immigrants and communities of colour are disproportionately affected by this reversible trend: half of the households at risk of homelessness have an immigrant head-of-household.
Despite our image as the greenest city, bike lanes and community gardens are simply eclipsed by the scale of the ecological and climate crises we face—and, more so, that our future generations will face. While "greenest city" tinkering can produce ripples of change, what we face is a tidal wave that will overwhelm such efforts. In a city which houses the headquarters of over 1,000 mining corporations, it is more important than ever to build a socially just economy.
Unspeakable crimes such as the systematic disappearance of indigenous women have only begun to be acknowledged by the authorities, yet the City of Vancouver and VPD still refuse to act on the full recommendations of the murdered and missing women’s inquiry. Complete lack of accountability and systemic patriarchy are the root of the crisis. Vision Vancouver, in turn, has responded to homelessness and growing urban poverty in the only way they know how: by greenlighting an escalating amount of police force, more shelter closures, and intensifying gentrification.
In the face of all this, the political parties have failed. Rather than rooting political change in the masses of people, and instead of recognizing that the masses of people most directly and immediately feel the effects of economic exploitation, the political establishment has worked “from above”. This is a lesson for COPE as much as for anyone else. A city-led challenge to the unlimited rights of private property is inherently a challenge to colonialism; but a progressive municipal government would have to go beyond mere legal and economic measures in order to make real relationships and support processes of meaningful, indigenous-led politics in the struggle for sovereignty and true reconciliation.
COPE as we know it is responsible for the status quo, as is Vision Vancouver, with electoral agreements in 2005, 2008, and 2011. COPE has recently broken from Vision and will officially be running a mayoral candidate in 2014. But there is a lot of work to do in order to transform COPE into an actual movement party. Renters, immigrant communities, indigenous, LGBTQ, labour, and antiracist movements should—but cannot yet—be able to look to COPE as the party of radical change.
In both its membership and its candidates, COPE must become more diverse and must have a stronger representation of women, people of colour, and aboriginal people. Doing so should not be a tokenistic tactic to opportunistically extract votes from communities. It should be grasped as fundamental to the kind of transformative change we envision collectively—without it, that change is impossible. In 2014, and beyond, COPE has to speak directly to the propertyless masses and propose actual, radical changes for people. COPE can’t do this without forging deep connections with grassroots movements city-wide.
We know that many of us have had enough for far too long. We’ve had enough of an economy built on inequality and oppression, and we’ve had enough of politicians who have allowed our crises to deepen. Though the difficulties are great, they only underscore the urgency of linking with movements sustained by a collective city-wide awakening. It can be done, but only by those with nothing to lose. And everything to gain.