Editors’ note: On Saturday, Nov. 15, municipal elections will be held across British Columbia. In Vancouver, the Coalition of Progressive Electors is running a mayoral candidate for the first time in a dozen years, challenging incumbent Gregor Robertson of Vision Vancouver. In this exclusive op-ed, COPE mayoral candidate Meena Wong and council candidate Audrey Siegl explain their vision for reconciliation and genuine change in Vancouver politics.
During CBC’s Vancouver mayoral debate this week, the Coalition of Progressive Electors was asked by Debra Sparrow about the politics of reconciliation and the diverse issues facing Indigenous communities in Vancouver today. We want to say thank you to Debra for asking this question and for centring this issue. It is an essential question as we continue to stand, live and work on the unceded Coast Salish territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.
As activists in our communities, and as women of Musqueam and Chinese descent, reconciliation is a question close to our hearts. This year we are running for City Hall with COPE. What our communities share is a history of exclusion and racism in Vancouver, including decades of exclusion from the democratic system itself.
Not long ago in British Columbia, we were not allowed to vote. The only reason we are able to run for office today is because of the decades of struggles of our people for justice. We are thankful and empowered by these struggles, and we want to continue the fight for justice and reconciliation initiated by our ancestors.
What makes COPE a strong social justice movement is that it recognizes that British Columbia was created through organized dispossession and colonial violence. As with all levels of government, the municipal government has played a central role in perpetuating settler colonialism and the oppression of Indigenous people — a process that continues to this day.
Vancouver was incorporated as a colonial centre over 120 years ago, yet since its inception as a city, Indigenous people have been marginalized, erased and tokenized. Today the legal, political and cultural structures created by that history persist, shaping our institutions as much as our neighborhoods.
Earlier this year Vancouver’s local government, under Vision Vancouver, formally acknowledged that the city is located on unceded Coast Salish territories. Yet at the same time, Vision councillor Andrea Reimer said that the formal acknowledgement will not change business as usual in the city.
But business as usual in Vancouver has to change.
In the City of Vancouver over 30 per cent of the homeless population is Indigenous, despite only making up only four per cent of the population. The high school graduation rate of Indigenous students is significantly lower than for other youth. Indigenous children continue to be apprehended by the government and put into state care. Indigenous people continue to be overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Indigenous women continue to be murdered and go missing, with the police and other social institutions exonerated from all responsibility.
Indigenous people continue to be displaced and dispossessed from their lands and their communities across Canada, including in the Vancouver. Pipeline expansion, environmental destruction, poverty and gentrification are the driving forces of today’s economy, disproportionately affecting and displacing Indigenous people and communities.
Despite a year of reconciliation, nothing has changed. Just last month, the City arrested three Indigenous homeless residents after a long standoff at Oppenheimer Park. Their crime was that they are homeless on their own land.
The community supported them because they were standing up to poverty and colonialism, but the City sent in the riot police. Why? What kind of reconciliation is this when we can’t even address the most basic injustices? Why has nothing been done to address the root causes of homelessness? Why have all levels of government allowed these inequalities to continue to grow?
Our experience tell us that reconciliation is empty if it means only talking about the past. Governments are ready to acknowledging the injustices of yesterday, but they defeat the spirit of reconciliation if the result is a cycle of apologies but no action. While Mayor Gregor Robertson is apologizing for past mistakes, future governments will have to apologize for the injustices of today.
This is why recognition of colonialism is absolutely crucial, but not enough on its own. Recognizing the existence of poverty and marginalization is important, but we need to move beyond lip service.
As activists in our communities, we need to go from words to actions. We need to amplify the voices of those who are healing through collective movements such as Idle No More. We need to work towards radically changing Vancouver and build a city where basic needs and humanity come before corporate profit and corporate politics.
Reconciliation will not always feel good for everyone involved. For those who have benefited from settler colonialism, it will involve ceding privilege and power. True reconciliation will be a long and difficult process of struggle, renewal, and healing.
There are no quick fix solutions to a problem that is centuries old. Change cannot come through electoral politics and government policies on their own, and even less can we expect the government to be a leader of change. We still believe, however, that municipal parties can play a role in the process of reconciliation.
On diversity and representation
First of all, it is crucial to involve Indigenous people at all levels of decision making in Vancouver. COPE has affirmative action mechanisms within the party to ensure that Indigenous candidates are represented on City Council, the School Board, and the Parks Board. We have a small but growing Indigenous caucus with a representative on the executive. Like all our candidates, the Indigenous candidates are elected and ratified by the general membership, which anyone is welcome to join.
This is not tokenism. Indigenous people are underrepresented in society not because they are in any way less capable or experienced. They are underrepresented because of systematic racism. Affirmative action is one step in addressing these structures within our organization, institutions and cities, but it is not enough on its own, nor is it the only step necessary.
We come from diverse backgrounds. Together, we would be the first Indigenous woman and first Chinese woman to take power on City Council. We are proud of our ancestry and our backgrounds, and we are proud to be the first. But this is not why you should vote for us. If you are planning to vote for us, you should do it because we are good at what we do. You should do it because because of our principles and our commitments.
As women from diverse communities, running for City Hall has been hard. At each step we have been told that we are not competent leaders. We are constantly sidelined by the media. On most days, you would think the mayoral debate was between two white men (like it almost always has been). Gregor Robertson, Kirk LaPointe, Sam Sullivan, Larry Campbell, Gordon Campbell — since the beginning of Vancouver’s colonial history, our city has been governed by white, property-owning men. We would break this history, and breaking decades of political tradition makes some people scared. But for every person who is scared by the prospect of genuine change, another person is empowered.
While diversity and inclusion are crucial, they are not the same as representation. While each of COPE’s Indigenous candidates are respected community leaders, they don’t democratically represent their communities; they are only elected representatives of the party.
This is why COPE has also pledged to establish Indigenous seats on City Council, the Parks Board and the School Board. These seats will be directly elected and accountable to Vancouver’s large and diverse Indigenous community, both on and off reserve.
To expand Indigenous representation at City Hall, making it directly accountable with real decision-making power, we will have to implement new mechanisms to carry this out — and that is exactly what changing the status quo is all about.
Real municipal change
There are a lot of others measures the City can take to improve the situation for Indigenous people in Vancouver, to address historical injustices and to tackle ongoing forms of violence, inequality and displacement. Municipal government is primarily about land use. It’s about what takes place on the land, and who has the power to control land use decisions. These kinds of questions matter on land in a city that has never been consensually ceded, exchanged or given over by Indigenous people.
To start with, we will not give building permits for ancestral burial grounds. What happened at Marpole Midden was shameful. The Province took the blame yet it was the City who gave the redevelopment permits. COPE will support land claims processes on city land and make sure Indigenous people are included in land use decisions and local area planning processes.
The most pressing question right now is housing. It is an understatement to say that Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by the larger housing crisis in Vancouver. This crisis has its roots in the dispossession and commodification of the land. Only COPE will take measures to end renovictions, to end gentrification-powered displacement, to give tenants a say in the management of their housing and to build a Vancouver housing authority and take profit out of housing.
We also need to work to expand Indigenous awareness and programming in parks, recreation and schools. This includes significantly expanding support systems for Indigenous people and youth, and raising awareness about the impacts of colonialism. This education includes the rich and diverse Indigenous history and culture of resistance.
Since the first police station opened in Gastown in 1886, Indigenous people have been criminalized, harassed and abused by the Vancouver Police Department. This is ongoing, and Indigenous people continue to be overrepresented in the city’s holding cells. Pivot Legal Society recently revealed that 95 per cent of bylaw tickets are given out within six blocks of the Downtown Eastside, despite a recommendation from the Missing and Murdered Women’s Inquiry to end this discriminatory practice, which specifically targets poor, racialized and Indigenous people. Only COPE will end the enforcement of these discriminatory by-laws and shift spending on police towards social services and support systems.
Despite an inquiry into the Murdered and Missing Women, the police have been fully exonerated from responsibility while Indigenous women continue to go missing. We will speak up against police violence and take action to hold the police responsible. Only COPE will establish a strong system of independent police oversight.
COPE recognizes Indigenous land and self-determination struggles within and beyond this city and will work to support these struggles in the best way possible. To start with, we will put an immediate end to the criminalization of dissent, poverty and homelessness in this city.
Moving beyond ‘realism’
A lot more can be said about colonialism and reconciliation, but we hope this is a starting point for a deeper conversation. We are thankful to those who have been struggling for change, for those who have never had the privilege to be idle.
With full recognition of colonialism, COPE seeks to work together with Indigenous people to end ongoing violence, dispossession and displacement in our city. But to do this we need to think beyond what is often deemed to be realistic. Because “realism” is inevitably shaped by the status quo. The colonial framework we live within is very real, but so are the movements and communities emerging to challenge it.
If realism means keeping up with the status quo, COPE is not realistic. We refuse to accept the situation as it is. We therefore ask you to vote with your consciousness and with a vision of the sort of society you want for the future.
This is not just about electoral change, which is why our engagement has never been limited to party politics. We are women, we are protectors, we are warriors. Whether or not we are elected, our fight for a different society is only beginning.