As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford during the 1960s, Wilson Parasiuk studied the rise of totalitarian governments across the world.
It’s partly because of his academic background that the former Manitoba NDP MLA and cabinet minister feels so outraged at how elections are being conducted for the board of directors of the $14.5-billion Vancouver City Savings Credit Union.
For the now long-time Vancouver resident, who also headed a B.C. Crown corporation under an NDP government during the 1990s, the Vancity board is acting undemocratically. He’s appalled by its practice of coming up with a list of recommended candidates for the 417,211 member-owners of the credit union to vote for.
“That’s a rigged election as far as I can tell,” Parasiuk told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “When I was at university in England, I studied how the communists, when they took over countries like Czechoslovakia and Hungary after the war, how they moved from being young democracies into totalitarian regimes. And they established lists like this. They didn’t abolish elections. They just rigged them.”
Vancity members are voting until April 27 for candidates who will fill three seats on the nine-member board.
It’s the second year that the board, through a nominations and election committee, has identified candidates it favours.
Vancity board chair Virginia Weiler explained that a survey showed members support this recommendation system, which replaced the previous setup of having slates competing in elections.
“Seventy-six percent were satisfied with the changes,” Weiler told the Straight in a phone interview. “It was an overwhelming response. It was the highest response to a member survey that we had in 10 years. And in fact, we had an 18-percent increase in the number of ballots cast last year after we made the changes.”
While Parasiuk is not saying the Vancity board members are communists, he’s “really disturbed when people start tampering with democratic elections within a credit union”.
“Imagine if Stephen Harper came along,” Parasiuk went on, “and said, ‘You know what, in the next election, we’re not going to have parties. We’re just going to have a slate of names and the names that I like will be at the top of the list.’ Well, imagine people here on this board would be going berserk, saying this is undemocratic. Well I’m saying that the way this is happening, this is very undemocratic. This is a slippery slope. It’s very dangerous.”
With guidelines set by the board, Vancity’s nominations and elections committee, headed by newspaper columnist Allen Garr, recommended five candidates for the three director positions.
The list does not include two incumbent directors seeking new terms: Wendy Holm and Lisa Barrett.
But the list has incumbent director and board vice-chair Jan O’Brien. To many, O’Brien is known as the provincial secretary of the B.C. NDP and the wife of Vision Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs.
Garr’s committee includes Vancity director Patrice Pratt, a former president of the B.C. NDP, and four non–board members.
O’Brien, Garr, Pratt, and Weiler used to belong to the Action Team slate that ran in previous Vancity elections.
Although Holm and Barrett aren’t happy, they separately told the Straight by phone that they can’t talk much about their nonrecommendations because they could be disqualified.
Holm, who is in her fourth term on the board, is a UBC agrologist. Barrett is a second-termer, and a former mayor of Bowen Island. They have always run as independent candidates.
Parasiuk has known Holm since the 1990s, when he was serving as the founding president of Vancity Enterprises, a real-estate-development subsidiary of the credit union.
Aside from O’Brien, the board is recommending Teresa Conway, Michael DuBelko, Greg McDade, and James Wright.
Wright, the general director of the Vancouver Opera, told the Straight by phone that he appreciates the endorsement by the Garr committee.
Garr didn’t return the Straight’s call before deadline.
Weiler explained how the candidates were evaluated. “We looked at values, alignment, their attributes, their skills, and the experience and the leadership track record,” she said. “And we asked the nominations and election committee to interview and assess all of the candidates that put their names forward.”
Ultimately, according to Weiler, it’s up to the members to make their choices.