In these disruptive times, the idea that a good political leader is one who champions and promises the return of “normalcy” is preposterous. That's why Lisa Helps has been a great mayor for Victoria.
SO EASY TO FANTASIZE Victoria’s beginnings as an oil painting: the European discoverer’s noble stance on the rocky shore, powerful and hostile nature poised to retreat, toss in a cleric and some noble savages. Historical facts, though, seem to favour the image of Victoria as a filthy port, an entrepot from which miners outfitted themselves with supplies shipped here from England before crossing to their mainland treasure-metal claims near the Fraser River.
History: cherished as romantic origin story and source of local custom, hated as constraint or prohibition in times of change.
When I came here in 1970, the place was begging for release from Olde England, desperate for a new story and fresh mission. “A little bit of Olde England” had run out of juice (and legitimacy) and, as a story of this place, even in Oak Bay, had retreated to the defensive and protective pettiness of land use regulations.
So what has happened in a half-century? What has this place become?
I answer subjectively: in my five decades and some here, I have tried to make Victoria a perfect human place. I’ll explain below, but if such a line seems rich in hints of exit, no, this is not my last column and I’m not dying.
I state, without a lick of self-applause, that I’ve been the city’s unelected mayor over those 50 years. In five decades I’ve created Open Space Arts/Cultural Centre; Monday Magazine and its affiliated media siblings; The First Urban Conference; The Gaining Ground Urban Sustainability Conferences; the Harris Green Charrette; have written endless monthly columns for FOCUS Magazine; produced ASH (Affordable Sustainable Homes), inspired by the very successful multi-suite conversion of large Rockland, Fairfield, Fernwood and other area homes into houseplexes; and have for years, with my wife, daily cleaned Beacon Hill Park of litter. Calling myself unelected mayor is not self-congratulation any more than calling an elephant “large” or a snake “sinuous” praises those creatures.
I have worked to give expression to and, overall, to quicken the opportunity, the potential, that sits at the heart of this singular, urbane and cultured—that is, profoundly privileged—place endowed, as it is, with the capacity to undertake—not as task or burden, but as joyous human project—an important social mission: specifically, to be the best human community in the world, and a laboratory from which social successes might be exported.
For what other purpose do you imagine communities, cities, clusters of people like this one (there aren’t many) are handed such gifts of natural and constructed beauty, location, setting, climate, cultural and economic advantage, gifts of rationality, social equilibrium and a rich, remembered past, if not to demonstrate to the rest of the desperate world that things are improvable? What other purpose did you believe such largesse serves?
The way I see it, privilege just increases obligation expressed as citizenship: that is, full identification and engagement with one’s immediate social setting. Citizenship, not community. Giving, not getting. A touch of mission and self-sacrifice. Citizenship’s the investment; community’s the payoff.
The urgencies associated with social mission seem to me to be even riper now, more looming, more clearly defined, locally and everywhere. Honestly, I worry that civilization has already passed the “undo” step on the way to its next blowup, not yet at World War III nuclear fisticuffs (though heading there), but a stage in which complexity and the reflex for conflict block any form of resolution beside catastrophe; while head-spinning cultural novelty and unimpeded technological change leave everyone feeling like they’re dancing on marbles and just visiting, responsible for nothing more than their own well-being.
Notes the New York Times’ Charles Blow in a recent column about President Biden and current geopolitics: “Biden often drifts back into idealism, seemingly longing for and lost in a long-gone politics in which bipartisanship was more common and an antidemocratic opposition unfathomable. But then reality reminds him that he is in a war, not just a disagreement. He is reminded—and must remind the country—that these are dire times.”
And dire times now include a novel feature: vast environmental damage and the risk of ecological collapse, all of which delivers enormous functional, psychological and health stress and harm to society.
In Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, historian-author Niall Ferguson writes, “Richard Evans’ meticulously detailed study of the Hamburg cholera epidemic of 1892 introduced me to the idea that the mortality caused by a deadly pathogen is partly a reflection of the social and political order it attacks.”
However well disguised, this column’s intended destination from the outset has been outgoing Victoria mayor Lisa Helps. My cards: I believe Helps is the best mayor the city has had in this half-century.
Best? Best at what? Best in what way?
I’ll answer immediately: best at designing and leading civic adventure; best at dragging the future’s looming truths into the present; best at removing the grounds for complacency; best at getting in the ring with uncertainty; best at steering with a moral compass; best at engineering wide-scale change; best at turning civic maundering into an action blueprint; best at reflexively rewarding any and everyone’s engagement in city ideas, issues and process.
As you may imagine, Helps has lots of detractors, and had she chosen to run for a third term, might have proved un-re-electable. If so, the voting public could not pay her a greater compliment, or itself a greater insult.
Look, social winds don’t bypass Victoria. Nobody bussed our homeless in from Vancouver or Chicago. Welcome to our One World: social problems don’t respect borders.
Here’s my tally of global disruptions: that sociopath Trump’s transformation of US political reality and the world-changing threat he poses to working democracy, as right-wing values and policies surge, next door and globally. The inching advances of global warming, these days looking more like feet than inches. The revolutionary impact of online commerce on conventional retail (storefront) consumerism and service delivery (you can now receive psychotherapy online: “betterhelp.com—Talk to a therapist from the comfort of your own home”). The unknowable risk of ever-more-autonomous (and, loomingly, self-aware) AI. The imminent collapse of working class jobs as such work is captured by software and skilled machines. The increase of homelessness and the terrifying third world-ification of our downtowns. A growing realization that the entire liberal premise as the terms of social conduct may have run its course…These have not bypassed Victoria. We’re in the world.
In such times, the idea that a good political leader is one who champions and promises the return of “normalcy” is preposterous. Apart from feeding delusion or momentarily reducing anxiety, there is no use or benefit in pretending that a roller coaster is an elevator. Under such circumstances, doesn’t it (grimly) comfort you to have had a mayor who gets all of this, who gets the world? Of course, none of this has impeded those luddites, the Trumpy Taxpayers of Greater Victoria, terrified by ambiguity and eager to leverage their terror as passage back to a lost world.
My only disappointments associated with the Helps era?
First, that she was obliged by city council political math to abandon the so-called “missing middle” land use initiative (better described as “distributed density”). Its passage would have triggered a necessary social revolution and, in my view, would have been her greatest and most significant political accomplishment. I wish she had found a way to ram it through. (I gather there was significant public support for the initiative, but the City sowed doubt by doing a crappy job of explaining and selling this innovative urban development programme.)
Second, that concerning all of the new downtown-area residential highrises, she seemed to have had a tin ear for architectural and public realm design. In my view, she let developers get away with murder, and I regret she didn’t, at the start of her first mayoral term, stand up at an Urban Development Industry luncheon and say to the crowd: “Okay, boys and girls, you want to do twenty, twenty-five, thirty storeys around downtown? Then you give the city beautiful, warm, welcoming buildings, architectural masterpieces, not soulless, standard-issue shit-boxes; and show up with detailed plans for heart-stopping beautification of the public realm outside your buildings. Have we got a deal?”
Putting these two matters aside, Helps, I argue, has shown the political intelligence and fluidity, the values. the courage, and an appetite for the future that present conditions require. Now, it’s civic election time and the calendar pages are shrieking “Next!”
Who’s next? What’s next? We’ll see. We’ll see.
Beside the biographical notes in his column above, Gene is currently writing Futurecide˛ a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological, presenting and editing the website Shit Sandwich: the Best of the Bad News, and initiating the Centre for the Design of the Future, a Victoria-based host for new answers to old questions.