Divisions Complicate Vancouver Council and Trustee Byelection

PV Vancouver Bureau

An October 14 civic byelection in Vancouver offers voters an opportunity to express their views on municipal policies, and about the future of public education. But the competition among left-oriented forces may give an advantage to the city’s dominant centrist and right-wing parties.

The byelection was the outcome of a chain of events, beginning with last year’s arbitrary firing of the Vancouver School Board by then-Premier Christy Clark. The removal of nine democratically-elected school trustees was widely seen as part of a vendetta waged by Clark against the BC Teachers Federation and public education in general, going back to her days as Education minister under Liberal premier Gordon Campbell.

After the Liberals fell short of a majority in the May 2017 provincial election, the new NDP government moved quickly to increase education funding, and to respond to demands to either reinstate the fired trustees or call a byelection. When Vancouver city councillor Geoff Meggs resigned to take a top staff position in NDP Premier John Horgan’s office, the premier ordered a vote for a new VSB to coincide with the council seat byelection.

The jostling for the vacant council seat began immediately, particularly among forces which have been strongly critical of the governing Vision Vancouver party for its pro-developer policies.

The left-wing One City party announced plans to nominate the city’s former housing advocate, Judy Graves. But before One City scheduled its nomination meeting, a grassroots campaign was launched to run radical anti-poverty organizer Jean Swanson as an independent. The debate over which candidate to back – or how to create a united left campaign – was sharp and divisive.

Supporters of Graves argue that she has wider appeal across the city, and that her inside knowledge of Vancouver’s housing crisis is crucial to help force a policy shift at City Hall. Swanson backers reply that their candidate has far longer experience in civic politics, a stronger set of platform policies, and a proven track record as a fighter for progressive change. They were also first out of the blocks, with a motivated campaign team based largely in the low-income Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. The Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) is no longer a potent electoral force, but its subsequent endorsement of Swanson will bring her some votes.

By the close of nominations, several other candidates were on the ballot. Faced with growing public anger over their links with big developers, Vision has nominated Diego Cardona, a 21-year-old youth and migrant organizer from the Latin American community. The Greens, who already hold one council seat, have put forward well-known neighborhood activist Pete Fry. Independent candidate Mary Jean Dunsdon (“Watermelon” of Wreck Beach fame and now the owner of a Commercial Drive candy shop) is a strong voice for small businesses which face huge problems in the over-heated Vancouver economy.

This crowded field of centrist and left candidates could be tailor-made for another candidate to win with as little as thirty percent of the vote.

The right-wing NPA’s wealthier base is known for a high turnout on election day, but Pete Fry of the Greens is riding a wave of support, since his party is perceived by many voters as a viable alternative to the corporate-backed NPA and Vision. Among socialist-minded voters, there is considerable frustration that Graves and Swanson could get a combined vote total higher than any centre or right-wing candidate, only to lose through vote-splitting.

The Communist Party’s BC Provincial Executive has endorsed Swanson, noting that her record has earned her the support of the left. But the party’s statement on the byelection also warns that divisions among progressive forces make it more likely that one of the parties currently on council will win, and that unity must be a stronger consideration in Vancouver politics heading towards the 2018 civic election.

The nine school trustees will be elected on a city-wide basis, since Vancouver does not have a ward system. For decades, NPA trustees have resisted calls by teachers, other school staff, students, and parents to act as strong advocates for improved public education. The NPA’s candidates for the Oct. 14 vote are no different, and with the support of private school advocates and the corporate media, they could win a majority. A number of NPA candidates have “anglo-saxon” surnames, always an electoral advantage in a city where many quietly racist residents still “vote white.”

There is some potential to minimize vote-splitting in the VSB race, since progressive forces have only eight candidates to back. One City has nominated two particularly strong candidates: high-profile public education activists Carrie Bercic and Erica Jaaf. COPE is running Diana Day, a well-known second-time trustee candidate with deep roots in the indigenous community. Vision has nominated three of its fired trustees – Mike Lombardi, Joy Alexander, and Allan Wong – who won wide respect for their courageous battles against Christy Clark’s efforts to create a de facto two-tier school system in British Columbia. Vision has also nominated former trustee Ken Clement, and Theodora Lamb.

Complicating this picture, the Greens have nominated three candidates, including fired trustee Janet Fraser. They will benefit from the party’s popularity spike, but despite the Greens’ “progressive” image, Fraser never took a consistent position against the Liberal anti-public education policies, and the Greens have often been critical of the BC Teachers Federation.

Former trustee Jane Bouey, an outspoken opponent of the Liberal agenda during her two terms on the Board, is not running this time. Bouey is urging voters to cast a ballot for the eight One City, Vision and COPE candidates, as the best way to elect a new progressive majority on the VSB.

There will be more byelection coverage in the next issue of People’s Voice.


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