Generational divisions underlie debate over Vancouver's housing market

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      This morning, I'm guessing that Vancouver Sun columnist Pete McMartin is receiving lots of barbs over his column declaring that racism is underlying some of the public reaction to the supercharged real-estate market.

      Anytime anyone makes a suggestion like this, there's an invariable backlash. Those who've been alarmed by the extent of foreign buying will present massive amounts of data to buttress their arguments.

      It's worth noting that McMartin is part of a declining number of Vancouver journalists who were working in the media in the late 1980s when an anti-Hong Kong backlash reached epic proportions.

      Frances Bula, Kevin Griffin, Kim Bolan, Ian Hanomansing, and John Daly are a few of the other veterans of that era still on the beat in Vancouver.

      The only remaining one from that period who's consistently raised grave concerns about multiculturalism, immigration, and diversity is the Vancouver Sun's Douglas Todd. He seems to be the outlier for reasons that I haven't quite figured out. 

      Perhaps he's been influenced by Martin Collacott, a former Canadian diplomat and long-time critic of Canadian immigration policies. In his columns, Todd has sometimes cited development economist Paul Collier, who's raised concerns about the impact of mass migration on poorer countries suffering a brain drain.

      Another person who witnessed the xenophobia of the late 1980s in Vancouver is Victor Wong. His family has deep roots in Canada, which is what led him to become an activist for redress for the Chinese head tax.

      In the early 1990s, Wong also became an advocate for a man who was wrongly beaten up by police. This was one of several troubling incidents that led the provincial government to order a public inquiry into municipal policing.

      More recently, Wong, like McMartin, has suggested that there's an anti-Chinese backlash linked to real estate. Over Twitter Wong has blamed the media for whipping up a frenzy.

      For that, Wong has been vilified over social media. Some have ripped into the very notion of Wong describing himself as a human-rights activist and questioned whether he's a troll.

      At the same time, many millennials are feeling exasperated that they can't afford to live in Vancouver, sometimes blaming foreign investors for this. Their spear carrier appears to be Sam Cooper of the Province newspaper. The Globe and Mail's Kathy Tomlinson and the South China Morning Post's Ian Young have also written a litany of articles about Chinese home buying and regulatory shortfalls in the real-estate sector. This trio wasn't working in the Vancouver media in the late 1980s at the height of the backlash.

      NDP housing critic David Eby was still in school in the late 1980s, so he too has a different perspective than some older Vancouverites. The same is true of housing researcher Andy Yan, who was also quite young in the 1980s.

      During that period, several Vancouverites stepped forward to try to calm down the worst aspects of xenophobia. They included then mayor Gordon Campbell, then councillor Carole Taylor, and UBC professor Michael Goldberg. There were many others who popped up in the media to question what was going on.

      It almost cost Campbell the 1990 municipal election.

      Nowadays, there are no federal, provincial, or municipal politicians in Vancouver ready to risk any political capital by speaking out forcefully against any anti-Chinese mood that might exist in the city. 

      It's been left to Wong, McMartin, journalist Ng Weng Hoong, and real-estate marketer Bob Rennie, who's invariably condemned for being entirely motivated by self-interest.

      I remember having a conversation with legendary broadcaster Jack Webster in the late 1980s about what was going on in Vancouver at that time.

      He told me that there was one major difference between him and another famous talk-show host of that era, Pat Burns. According to Webster, Burns relished bring up racial issues on his show. But Webster said that he avoided doing this because he knew that talking about race had the potential to cause explosive reactions from his listeners.

      Webster didn't want to stir up the pot.

      That was also an era in which a columnist with the North Shore News, Doug Collins, regularly created controversy. Collins took delight in slamming the Victor Wong of his day, a man named Aziz Khaki, founder of the Committee for Racial Justice. Collins also wrote some appalling columns about lawyer Mobina Jaffer, who later became a Canadian senator.

      Many in the media at that time were disgusted by Collins's columns and Burns's radio commentaries. This shaped how journalists of that era reported on issues going forward. Griffin even wrote a book about the benefits of diversity.

      For those working in the Vancouver media in the late 1980s, what's happening now sometimes seems like a rerun of a very unpleasant movie. McMartin articulated that sentiment today.

      But for those who weren't working in the local media or living in Vancouver at that time, it's an entirely different situation rooted in what's happening in contemporary China.

      The reality is that there is a monumental crackdown on corruption taking place in China right now, which is markedly different from the situation in the late 1980s. People want to move money out of China to avoid the wrath of hardline president Xi Jinping. And China's economy is the second largest in the world, unlike in the 1980s.

      Young people in Canada have been shafted economically, too, by older politicians' lack of concern for rampant income inequality. The cost of schooling, housing, and even talking on the telephone is far higher today than it was in the late 1980s in comparison to average incomes. The middle class has been squeezed as the rich have gotten wealthier.

      But it's also worth remembering Webster's perspective on the potential consequences when people in the media get too fixated on race. Mainland Chinese immigrants rarely show up in the English-language media, which makes it easier for some Lower Mainland residents to think of them as some sort of monolithic entity. In fact, China is incredibly diverse.

      There also hasn't been nearly as much focus on dirty money coming into Vancouver's real estate market from Iran, South America or even from our local criminal syndicates. Some people's eyes glaze over if there's a suggestion that the Bank of Canada's monetary policy might be the key factor driving up prices. And if Rennie talks about the massive wealth accumulated by baby boomers being passed along to the next generation, it's dismissed by those who believe he's looking for cover to keep collecting commissions. It's worth noting that Rennie is of McMartin's generation, which means he also witnessed what happened in Vancouver in the late 1980s.

      To sum up, it's a very complicated situation compounded by generational misunderstandings. And sometimes, it doesn't help matters when some people project the worst motives on those with whom they might disagree, whether that person is Pete McMartin, Victor Wong, or David Eby.