"Utopia on the Pacific"? Coping with the Crisis in Vancouver

By Cariou, Kimball | Canadian Dimension, September-October 2004 | Go to article overview

"Utopia on the Pacific"? Coping with the Crisis in Vancouver


Cariou, Kimball, Canadian Dimension


November, 2002: Jammed into the downtown library, 2,000 activists roared as the results of Vancouver's civic election were announced. For the first time since its formation in 1968, the labour/Left-backed Coalition of Progressive Electors swept the race, electing the mayor (Larry Campbell), eight of ten city councillors, seven of nine school trustees, and five of seven Parks Board commissioners. Visions of "Utopia on the Pacific" danced in the minds of campaign workers.

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The next morning, even while the new mayor led almost 15,000 people on an anti-war protest across the Burrard Bridge, reality began to sink in. Most real power remained in the hands of developers, landlords, finance capital and right-wing provincial and federal governments. Running the city while remaining true to COPE's historic, working-class roots would be a huge challenge.

Almost two years later, important changes have been gained, but this city is still marked by wild extremes of wealth and poverty. The level of citizen participation in local decision-making has improved remarkably, but the rich and powerful still act as though they own Vancouver--and they do.

Some had hoped that the pace of change might be quicker. Mayor Campbell, a former RCMP officer who became Vancouver's chief coroner and supported a safe-injection site for drug users, was a political unknown who pledged to back COPE policies. But the rest of COPE's 21 councillors, trustees and commissioners were mostly seasoned community activists, many with Marxist or left social-democratic outlooks. Contrary to media reports, which speak of the "NDP-affiliated COPE," the membership is based among Greens, Communists, non-affiliated leftists and decidedly left-oriented New Democrats.

On some important issues, the COPE majority has been successful. The first year in office saw major progress made to address the city's housing crisis, with more new low-income and social housing moving forward than during previous entire three-year terms.

An Adequate Response to Addiction

While the official "Four Pillars" strategy (harm reduction, prevention, treatment, enforcement) on the city's addiction crisis remains controversial, the opening of North America's first legal safe-injection site has already averted many overdose deaths, and may help slow the spread of HIV-AIDS, hepatitis and other diseases.

On some issues related to the far-right provincial Liberal government, COPE has proven an important ally for working people, speaking out against brutal welfare cuts and other attacks on social programs.

For example, City Council, the Parks Board and the School Board have worked together to protect child-care services. As provincial downloading reduces the number of licensed childcare spaces in Vancouver, the three bodies are finding ways to make better use of facilities and create efficiencies to save money and reduce the negative impact.

"Cool Vancouver": Responding Locally to Global Issues

One of the critical issues for COPE has been the city's role in responding to climate change and global warming caused by rising greenhouse-gas emissions. The "Cool Vancouver" strategy implemented by COPE has focused on solutions starting at the local level--a wide range of practical measures to conserve energy, move to cleaner fuels and absorb carbon dioxide.

The new City Council rejected the old Vancouver Civic Non-Partisan Association (NPA) argument that municipal leaders have no business discussing international issues. Vancouver was the first major Canadian city to take a stand against the build-up to war against Iraq. The city is among over 150 official members of the StopWar.ca peace coalition, and Vancouver will be the site of a world peace forum in 2006.

Responding to the "race to the bottom" agenda of capitalist globalization, Council will implement an "ethical purchasing policy" for the city by the end of 2004. …

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