In Vancouver, green is the new left.
Canada’s third city was once a hotbed of radical working-class politics, but no longer. Saturday’s municipal vote, however, confirms it is now a stronghold for electoral environmentalism: Green City Councillor Adriane Carr topped the polls, and Greens were elected to the School Board and Parks Board.
Carr rejoiced that she now has “the largest Green caucus in Canadian history.” The Greens will sit in opposition to a mayor and ruling party, Vision Vancouver, that has put its environmental credentials front and centre. Re-elected mayor Gregor Robertson is known for pushing ahead with a relatively modest expansion of bike lanes in the face of vehement opposition, and he has been vocal in his opposition to the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline.
Environmental consciousness on the west coast is nothing new, of course. Vancouver was the birthplace of Greenpeace, and the province of B.C. has often seen mass civil disobedience like the standoff at Clayoquot Sound in the early 1990s. Another factor is the Harper government’s ham-fisted attempts to push through the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan tar sands pipelines across the province. Kinder Morgan, in particular, threatens to transform the Port of Vancouver into a tar sands export hub. This is generating visceral opposition. No Vancouver politician dared campaign openly for Kinder Morgan, and Robertson, along with Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, made the pipeline fight central to his electoral campaign.
Viewed from Toronto or Montreal, municipal politics in Vancouver looks positively sane and progressive. (The only story about politicians and drug use I can think of is the time a sitting city councillor offered me a joint at a fundraiser.)
But beneath Vancouver’s green, laidback and tolerant veneer, big money still dominates, racialized people still struggle to get elected, and the traditional political left is divided and struggling.
Vancouver hasn’t experienced amalgamation, which in Toronto has made it much harder to elect left-wing mayors. But Vancouver also doesn’t have a ward system, so candidates compete city-wide for a mere ten spots on City Council. This makes it very hard for strong left candidates to win: the wealthier neighbourhoods tend to have higher voter turnouts, and the need for more diffuse campaign advertising gives an added advantage to the two big developer-funded parties.
Vancouver has almost no regulation of election spending. It’s the Wild West out here. Developers can contribute unlimited amounts to candidates directly responsible for land-use and planning decisions. Both Vision Vancouver and the NPA took in over $2 million in 2014 alone, with more than half of that amount coming from big corporations. The city’s powerful condo developers often contribute to both contending parties, making for a “heads I win, tails you lose” situation. Just because Vancouver’s never had a Charbonneau Commission doesn’t mean our city politics isn’t wildly corrupt.
Vision Vancouver proudly boasts of keeping corporate taxes at low levels, and takes money from developers and many of the richest people in town. They promote capitalism with a green face. But at a time when awareness is spreading that the climate crisis cannot be solved without confronting the inequality machine known as capitalism, this shade of green politics is totally insufficient.
In Vancouver, visible minorities still struggle to get elected. Again, the lack of a ward system doesn’t help. But the truth is that voting patterns reveal Vancouverites are more racist than they’d like people to think. Niki Sharma, one of Vision’s most dynamic candidates for council this election, finished in the 17th spot, well out of contention. No South Asian has won a seat on council in decades. This election the Coalition of Progressive Electors ran three Indigenous women with strong records of grassroots activism, but none so much as got an endorsement from the city’s alternative and arts weekly paper, the Georgia Straight. (Despite this, Diana Day was COPE’s top performer for School Board, with over 40,000 votes.)
Vancouver’s left has suffered balkanization over the past decade. From the height of a COPE sweep in 2002, fractures and splits have proliferated, beginning with the departure of Mayor Larry Campbell (now a Liberal senator), which led to the formation of Vision Vancouver. Evolving over the past decade, Vision has been called “a civic version of the federal Liberal party,” but it’s also a civic version of an NDP–Liberal coalition, with staffers and organizers from both parties figuring prominently. In recent years, more people have departed COPE, which now represents a narrower but more clearly left alternative. One group that left COPE formed One City Vancouver, which ran a single candidate for council, RJ Aquino. Both COPE and One City performed respectably, earning media coverage for issues that would otherwise have been ignored, but they were shut out of office.
Throughout the 20th century, Wobblies, communists and various shades of socialists played leading roles in the city’s politics. Vancouver’s oldest left electoral alliance, COPE, began as a project of the Communist Party and an activist Labour Council. The long-standing right-wing party, the Non-Partisan Association, was formed way back in 1937 as a coalition of liberals and conservatives to block the democratic socialists of the old Co-operative Commonwealth Federation.
Today, after decades of deindustrialization, atomization and gentrification, the centrality of proletarian politics has given way to green politics and plenty of green posturing.
As for the left, there’s a lot of rebuilding to be done.