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  • All Together now?


    Ross Crockford

    The April 4 by-election puts the City of Victoria’s youthful electoral organization to the test.

     

    LIKE MOST VICTORIANS, the residents of Avebury Avenue have issues. Bike lanes, poor transit service, affordability, property taxes, homelessness — I heard earfuls about all of them one recent Saturday afternoon, tagging along with Together Victoria candidate Stefanie Hardman as she knocked on doors in the Oaklands neighbourhood.

    A middle-aged guy in wool-felt slippers told Hardman he had to put a down payment on the house he’s in because he was exhausted by the instability of renting in Victoria. “There’s a lot of wealth around here, and I’d like to see it squeezed to provide more services,” he said.

    “Yes, yes!” Hardman replied. A cat stretched in the window, and the guy noted that many Victoria landlords prohibit pets, an exclusion that’s illegal in Ontario. Hardman gave him a brochure listing her campaign promises, including “End discrimination against renters with animals.” (A vote-getter, considering that six in 10 Canadians have pets, but a matter of provincial jurisdiction.)

    The guy liked what he heard. A Together canvasser asked for his email address and phone number, and marked him down as a “2” out of five — a likely supporter, certain to receive follow-up inquiries making sure he casts a ballot for Hardman in the City of Victoria’s April 4 by-election.

     

    261240486_By-electioncandidates.thumb.jpg.ad59449b55bb9988db0b25d9c6dc4ca5.jpg

    Candidates in Victoria's April 4 by-election (as of the time Focus went to press): Stephen Andrew, Jeremy Caradonna, Stephanie Hardman, Rachel Montgomery

     

    It’s likely “the most interesting by-election we’ll see this year,” said CBC Vancouver’s municipal affairs newsletter Metro Matters recently. For one thing, the winner could hold the balance of power on Victoria’s council. During 2019, Together’s three first-time councillors Laurel Collins, Sharmarke Dubow and Sarah Potts sided with incumbents Ben Isitt and Jeremy Loveday to pass several controversial measures — voting 5-3 in February to limit increases to the police budget, for example, and 5-4 in June to require big condo developments to include 20 percent affordable rentals, despite warnings that the requirement would “kill” those projects. Now with Collins serving as Victoria’s MP and her council seat up for grabs, the “Together+2” majority is in question.

    Councillors in that majority have also famously annoyed the Province’s NDP government. As the CBC noted, Ben Isitt’s calls for free transit and regional police amalgamation, plus his public support for the February 11 anti-pipeline blockade of the legislature — which Stefanie Hardman endorsed online — have brought sharp rebukes from Premier John Horgan, indicating “an unease some on the centre-left have with the current incarnation of council.”

    “Given all the controversy over the past year,” the CBC concluded, “if Hardman ends up facing no serious competition it’s a clear sign that Victoria voters are reasonably happy with a council that has a more expansive notion of its jurisdiction than local government normally does.”

     

    IN PERSON, Hardman doesn’t seem like a threat to municipal-provincial relations: she’s clear-eyed and boundlessly cheerful. Raised in Toronto, where she studied urban planning, since 2014 she’s worked for various Victoria agencies as a community-based researcher, interviewing people affected by specific issues, and turning their concerns into reports designed to influence government.

    “So I have that background in community engagement, and then listening with an ear to shaping those experiences into policy, things that could happen at the municipality to improve people’s lives,” she says. Asked for an example of changes her research brought about, she cites one job as a “school travel planner,” working with Victoria schools, City departments and parents to improve transportation options for kids, which resulted in a new signalled crosswalk, and a “walking school bus” of kids strolling together to classes.

    The big issue for Hardman (and Together) is housing, which aligns with one of her recent jobs, preparing a report for the Community Social Planning Council on housing instability. Hardman says we need to dramatically increase the supply of low-income housing, and need to consider the elimination of residential, single-family zoning that may be coming in the City’s “missing middle” housing policy. “I can appreciate that these types of changes can be challenging, but I do think there are ways to engage with neighbourhoods, and come together to talk about how we can create the future of the city that we want to live in.”

    A renter herself, like 61 percent of the City’s residents, Hardman also wants the City to increasingly apply its new legal powers, granted by the Province in 2018, to prezone properties and areas exclusively for rentals. “That could help us to increase the supply of affordable rental housing, and rein in rents. I’d like to see that used.” (The City is already phasing this in, starting with the oldest rental buildings most at risk of being torn down and replaced with condos.)

    “I would like to look to strengthening the [City’s] tenant-assistance policy, and reducing renovictions and displacement,” she says. “I’d like to see stronger rent control, exploring the idea of rent control tied to the unit, rather than to tenancy agreements,” she continues — but admits that will require lobbying the Province to change the Residential Tenancy Act.

    That might not be easy, given Victoria’s tendency to irritate the premier. But cities are seeing the worst effects of the housing crisis, she says, and they have to speak up. “I do think it is the responsibility of municipal government to let other levels of government know what those experiences are, what we’re feeling here in our city, and what we think could help.”

    Together Victoria began to form after the 2014 municipal election, in which moderates Margaret Lucas and Chris Coleman won the last two Council positions, narrowly beating out NDP stalwarts Erik Kaye and John Luton, who ran independent campaigns. Various progressives in town figured that if they pooled their resources and volunteers and ran a limited slate of candidates, they would stand a better chance of tipping the Council in their favour. Then they held a series of open houses to crowdsource their platform of an “affordable, inclusive and thriving city,” to identify supporters, and to raise their profile. It worked spectacularly well: seemingly from nowhere, Together got all three of its candidates elected in 2018.

    Now it stands as the dominant electoral organization in the City of Victoria. During Together’s recent nomination process, which Hardman won in January, its membership swelled from 200 to more than 800. (To witness its developments, I joined too.) And they’re young, compared to the members of most political parties: mainly in their 20s and 30s, they raise funds and network at coffeeshop trivia-contest nights, not $500-a-plate dinners.

    Together has had challenges achieving the inclusivity it seeks, though. Its executive is almost entirely comprised of employees of the University of Victoria or various provincial ministries. Its membership doesn’t include many businesspeople, or seniors. And it’s only somewhat nonpartisan: former provincial Green candidate Kalen Harris is active in Together, for example, but the organization seems dominated by the youth wing of the BC NDP. One director has chaired the Victoria NDP’s federal riding association, others have worked for NDP members of parliament, and to arrange an interview with Hardman, I had to go through one of Laurel Collins’ constituency assistants. (Thanks to Together’s transparent financing, it’s already possible to report that Collins donated $1,199 to Hardman’s election campaign.)

    Together’s recently enlarged membership is also fracturing. During the run-up to Together’s nomination meeting, a group of frustrated renters signed up new members in the hope of electing a champion for the types of rights that tenants have recently won elsewhere in BC. (In Burnaby and New Westminster, for example, renovicted tenants have the right to return to a renovated building at the same rent they paid before.) But after Hardman won, Darren Alexander, one of the renter activists, blasted her and several Together principals in a 10,000-word online diatribe as the courtly members of a “professional managerial class,” more concerned about maintaining their contacts and connections in nonprofit housing networks than in organizing renters to demand change. (Instead, Alexander says, members of those circles mobilized renters in 2018 mainly to get Together candidates elected — a story recently covered by the online news site The Capital.)

    Karmen McNamara, a triathlete who ran unsuccessfully for the Together nomination, also says she’s “lost confidence” in the organization. “What we need at City Council right now is action and problem-solving, not more talking,” she tells me. McNamara says she signed up 219 new members for Together, but she doesn’t know who they’re voting for now. “Everybody needs to make their own decision.”

     

    IN McNAMARA’S CASE, she’s now campaigning for Rachael Montgomery, a Registered Nurse, mom, and environmental activist with the Surfrider Foundation who says she’ll bring more collaboration to City Hall.

    “When a patient comes in,” Montgomery says, “I don’t ask them what political leanings they have, I ask, ‘What do you need right now?’ And I work with a team of experts to solve that problem.”

    Montgomery worked in the Royal Jubilee Hospital’s oncology ward, and eventually assumed management of the eighth floor of the hospital, supervising some 200 staff. Currently she’s on leave from the corporate department of Island Health for her election campaign — and applying her medical evaluation skills to the City’s issues.

    To deal with the acute problem of housing, for example, she prescribes simplifying the process for homeowners to add suites or units to their properties, “so neighbourhoods can gently densify the way they want, rather than how they’re being told to.” She admits that won’t be enough to cure the problem, so she’s been meeting with developers, and withholds judgement on the council’s requirement to include 20 percent affordable rentals in big condo projects: “I want to make sure we’re actually seeing those outcomes,” she says.

    During her campaign, Montgomery has also gone on a ridealong with VicPD, and spent time with Victoria’s Assertive Community Treatment teams, which are comprised of health-care workers and police officers to address mental-health emergencies. “If I come with any bias, it’s as a frontline worker,” says Montgomery, who is dismayed that some Victoria councillors hold an “ideological” opposition to the police. So would she simply give the police the budget increases they demand? “Of course not. I’m a manager, I know how to manage a budget.”

    Montgomery started campaigning in December, and since then she’s spoken to hundreds of residents on the doorstep. No single issue dominates those conversations, she says. “What people want is some good, commonsense, practical decision-making that they feel a part of.”

    Jeremy Caradonna, another independent candidate, has been at it even longer, campaigning since November. He’s had over 1,000 conversations with residents, and says many are telling him that local politics has become “too divisive” and that they’re opposed to municipal parties. “They see it as a slippery slope, into the hyperpartisan politics we see in Vancouver.”

    Caradonna is an experienced communicator: he holds a PhD in history from Johns Hopkins, wrote Sustainability: A History (Oxford University Press, 2014), and quit a tenured professorship at the University of Alberta to get his hands dirty running Share Organics, a Victoria business with 12 employees. (“I know how to calculate operational costs, unlike many of the current councillors,” he says.) He currently works as a policy analyst in the Province’s Climate Action Secretariat, but still teaches a course at UVic on the local organics industry, and grows vegetables that he sells from a farm stand in front of his house in Fernwood.

    Like other candidates, Caradonna says affordable housing is one of the big issues he will tackle on council. “We lack supply. Here we didn’t build housing for 30 years, and now that our population is growing, the problem is coming home to roost. So it’s about making it easier for people to have secondary suites, it’s about building the ‘missing middle’ — those three- to five-storey buildings close to urban villages. The overwhelming majority of Victorians don’t want skyscrapers, they want densification in scale with neighbourhoods.”

    Caradonna, a father of two school-age girls, says his other main issue is climate action. He fully supports the construction of bike lanes, but says the City needs to thoroughly improve its bus service, and get on board with rail transit. Half of our greenhouse gases come from aging buildings, so he wants a City program helping residents switch from oil tanks and natural gas to heat pumps, cutting our emissions dramatically. “My vision for Victoria is that this is the leading progressive jurisdiction in the country, and that we push the envelope.”

    Policy-wise, there might appear to be little daylight between him and Together — in fact, Caradonna says many people on his campaign team are also Together members, but they’re backing him instead. “I think it’s going to be a close race, and it all depends on who gets out their electorate.”

     

    JUST BEFORE FOCUS WENT TO PRESS, a few more candidates announced themselves, including UVic lab instructor Alexander Schmid, building contractor Peter Forbes, and former broadcaster Stephen Andrew. “I’ll bring a balance, a certain level of professionalism that I don’t think exists in some members at the council table,” Andrew says. “We’ve been the laughing stock not just of the region, but the whole country. That’s simply unacceptable to me. We’re a compassionate city. We have tremendous opportunities. And that’s what we should be talking about.”

    In the 2018 civic election, Andrew finished in ninth place, just shy of a Council seat, as part of the NewCouncil slate fronted by Stephen Hammond, who led the “Mad as Hell” opposition to Downtown’s 2016 tent city. Almost immediately after announcing his run this time, Andrew faced online attacks that he “hates” the homeless, a claim that saddens him.

    “I’ve been homeless twice in my life. I’ve lived that experience. Anybody who criticizes me should walk a mile in my shoes before they do that.” As he points out, he’s won awards from Our Place and the BC Public Health Association for his reporting on homelessness. “My concern is that we build housing but do not staff it sufficiently, because many of these people need support.”

    Andrew believes several current councillors “have no clue” about many issues they comment upon, whether that’s the difficulties of parking Downtown, the economics of condominium development, or the pressures faced by VicPD. “You have [councillors] who are standing in the middle of these protests, who are the same people saying we have to reduce the police budget,” Andrew says. “I’m not saying don’t protest, but they have no idea how much it costs.”

    Andrew admits he’s starting later than others in the race, but promises he will run a significant campaign online — and he already enjoys greater name recognition than most of the other candidates. Victoria’s by-election will likely prove even more interesting than originally predicted.

    Ross Crockford tips his hat to anyone who takes on the complex, difficult job of a municipal councillor.

    Edited by Ross Crockford



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