For this reporter, three key moments defined Mayor Lisa Helps’ controversial first term.
BACK IN OUR January 2014 edition, in a story titled “Tough questions for Lisa Helps,” freelance journalist Stephen Andrew played cat-and-mouse with then City of Victoria Councillor Lisa Helps over whether she was running for mayor. We had asked Andrew to interview Helps because we’d heard she was ready to declare. Andrew couldn’t get Helps to admit the obvious—and he gave no hint whatsoever that he was considering running too.
Helps told Andrew that, as mayor, she would never go to China (on a trade mission). In the next four years she went twice. She told Andrew “things are very positive” that the new Johnson Street Bridge would “come in on time and on budget.” The bridge, then scheduled to be open to traffic in the fall of 2015, is still unfinished, its final price still unknown but likely to be over $115 million (voters approved a $77-million project). Helps told Andrew that Victoria couldn’t afford a new Crystal Pool; now she favours building a pool at a cost that’s pushing $80 million. In the election later that year, Helps did run for mayor. So did Stephen Andrew. Helps defeated incumbent Mayor Dean Fortin by 89 votes, earning her the moniker “Landslide Lisa.” Andrew came in fourth, trailing Ida Chong. (Andrew has announced he’s seeking a seat on council in the upcoming election.)
Helps seems to have a clearer path to victory this time around. None of her announced competitors have the kind of name recognition she does, and that may be all it takes for her to hold on to her $104,000-per-year job for another four years.
Below, I will take you through three issues Mayor Helps faced in her first term. The mayor agreed to answer questions submitted to her by email (A link to our questions and the mayor's full responses can be found at the end of this article.).
Then-councillor Lisa Helps in 2014, before Sir John A. Macdonald's statue was an issue for her. (Photo by Tony Bounsall)
LET'S START WITH THE HURRIED REMOVAL of the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from the grounds of City Hall in August 2018.
Helps’ public description of how this came about links the action back to the City’s commitment in 2015 to undertake the Calls to Action identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that were within municipal government authority. Yet, following Victoria’s removal of the statue, former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Murray Sinclair told The Canadian Press, “The problem I have with the overall approach to tearing down statues and buildings is that it is counterproductive to…reconciliation because it almost smacks of revenge or smacks of acts of anger, but in reality, what we are trying to do, is we are trying to create more balance in the relationship.”
Revenge? Anger? How did Victoria suddenly become Canada’s poster child for how not to conduct reconciliation with First Nations?
First, let’s place the issue in its proper context. The stated goals of the TRC were to “raise awareness of the history and impacts of the residential school system,” and to “enable a process of healing and reconciliation between those affected and non-Aboriginal governments, communities and individuals.”
In 2012, as many as 3,000 people attended a TRC event in Victoria, many of them non-Aboriginal. The TRC set a high standard for openness and inclusion in order to create what Sinclair describes as “more balance in the relationship.” Sadly, the process that led to the removal of the Macdonald statue appears to have involved just three members of the non-Aboriginal community and had zero transparency.
Mayor Helps played the lead role in the process that led to this “counterproductive” action. The extraordinary committee behind the removal of the statue was established at an in camera meeting of City council in June 2017. Creation of that committee was based on a seven-page recommendation authored by Helps and Councillor Marianne Alto. Part of their recommendation was that the activities of the committee, which they called “the City Family,” would only be reported to the public “at the discretion” of Helps.
The document is striking for its lack of clearly defined objectives. None of the five recommendations of the TRC that were specific to governments were addressed. Instead, Helps and Alto requested a looser arrangement in which the Family would “take responsibility for doing that work with integrity, an open heart, and a willingness to work in diverse ways and take the time needed.” They declared: “Reconciliation is the way forward; it is the process, not the outcome. Reconciliation is how, not what.”
Indeed, the only concrete action Helps and Alto foresaw, aside from paying First Nations members of the City Family for their participation, was their idea to “document the program on film, as a record of the work and for observation and use by other municipalities and/or organizations interested in a Reconciliation program.”
Notably absent from the document was the signature of City Manager Jason Johnson, who, along with Helps and Alto, had met with local First Nations leaders as the process was developed. (Johnson was fired by City council soon afterwards. No explanation for his termination has ever been provided.)
I asked Mayor Helps which of the five TRC “Calls to Action for Government” justified, in her view, removal of the Macdonald statue.
“Not every act of reconciliation is specifically dictated by a single TRC Action,” Helps responded. “The entirety of the TRC Report suggests the complexities that will challenge government at every level as they strive to take actions that are meaningful and make a real difference in relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.”
Helps also quoted some of the opening lines of the TRC Report, which linked Macdonald to Canada’s residential school system for Aboriginal children. She also listed three of the principles of reconciliation developed by the TRC, but made no attempt to show how those principles were interpreted by the City Family to support removal of the statue—a conclusion Sinclair does not support.
There is no record of the monthly City Family meetings, held in the mayor’s office, that’s available to the public, so we are unable to examine its decision-making process using the methods by which the actions of municipal governments are normally monitored. But one would think that if the City Family was intent on building on the foundation created by the TRC, there would be a record of the City moving to implement the specific recommendations of the TRC—the ones that don’t need any interpretation. The most specific of these was this: “We call upon federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to provide education to public servants on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations.”
I asked Helps if the City of Victoria had acted on that specific call to action. “Staff are considering how best to provide this education in a formal programmatic way,” Helps said.
So, three years after the City committed to adopt the TRC recommendations, it has done little more than “consider” the most specific of the TRC’s recommendations to government.
In the City’s defence, Helps pointed to two events it held related to reconciliation: “Five employees from the Mayor/City Manager’s office attended a seven-hour learning event ‘Reconciliation—Journey of our Generation’ in April 2018 presented by Dialogue and Resolution Services. Many staff also attended a City Hall Lunch Time Lecture Series on December 4, 2017: Speaking our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation with Monique Gray Smith.”
Helps also listed a number events involving local First Nations and the City of Victoria, but it’s clear from what’s missing in her response that the City has made little effort to create even the educational program for City employees called for by the TRC. Why, then, was a largely unaccountable committee that included three City councillors allowed to free-range around First Nations’ issues?
As I mentioned above, Helps and Alto recommended to City council that any public reporting of the City Family process should be at Helps’ discretion. Had the mayor ever released any information about what the Family was considering? The only evidence Helps offered was an op-ed penned by her in the Times Colonist in September 2017. While her op-ed mentioned a debate on social media about Macdonald, Helps implied there would be no removal of the statue without first engaging with the larger community. Her op-ed noted: “It’s in this deeper context that we’ll be able to have a conversation about Macdonald’s future at the doors of city hall.” That conversation, of course, never happened.
Helps’ Times Colonist op-ed raises questions about her own understanding of the role municipal governments have in First Nations issues. In it she conflated “reconciliation” with non-Aboriginal support for First Nations’ land claims. Helps wrote, “As part of the [reconciliation] process, we need to understand as a council and as a community what role city hall and local settlers played in removing the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations from their lands upon which the city was built… Once we understand the role of the city and local settlers in dispossession and decolonization [sic], we can acknowledge our wrongdoing, provide appropriate restitution and make an apology.”
Helps no doubt meant “colonization,” not “decolonization.” But her stated intention of extending “reconciliation” to include consideration by Victoria City council of First Nations’ traditional territories and “restitution” is striking.
Helps seems to be venturing well outside her area of responsibility as mayor of Victoria and intruding into the legal domain of the provincial and federal governments, which are responsible for making final treaties with First Nations.
Ironically, after committing to the TRC’s principles of reconciliation in 2015, the first gesture the City made to the Esquimalt and Songhees people was the removal of the derelict Checkers Pavillion on top of Beacon Hill. That place has historic, cultural and sacred significance to First Nations. Chief Andy Thomas of Esquimalt Nation had openly requested that the City give back the small area occupied by the pavillion so the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations could build a longhouse on the site. The City agreed to the longhouse; however, it did not agree to transfer title of any land. The process of deciding to remove the pavillion was conducted in full public view as municipal governments are required to do. There was no uproar.
When Helps was running for mayor in 2014, she told Focus one of the three main planks in her platform was greater public engagement. “I think there’s a real disconnection to City Hall right now because of the lack of meaningful public participation on a whole raft of issues, big and small,” she said then.
The exclusion of the public from her consideration of the statue’s fate—which turned out to be a really “big” issue—brings into question the sincerity of Helps’ commitment to public engagement. What has the experience taught her?
“I understand that this process didn’t feel good to the public and I wish we had known or thought to keep the public and council more in the loop about the work of the City Family, in a way that also feels true to the Family’s process,” she said. “That is the big lesson learned from this—the hunger the community has to participate in reconciliation and the feeling that this process somehow took that away from them.”
But Helps’ “I wish we had known...” is at odds with a statement made to local media by Janice Simcoe, one of the First Nations members of the City Family. Simcoe told the Times Colonist: “We expected there would be opposition, uproar…I think it was the only process that could have taken place without all this coming to a screeching halt…I don’t have any regrets.”
So Helps must have known, too, that she was short-circuiting public process. Yet that didn’t keep her from acting.
The mayor’s timing on the removal—a little more than two months before the October 20 civic election—and her inability to explain how the City Family was building on the TRC’s recommendations warrant some skepticism about her leadership and motives. It’s noteworthy that Helps’ re-election campaign played up the predictable backlash on social media and sought donations for her campaign to fight against the “hatred” that was directed at her. According to an email circulated by Helps’ campaign, that backlash helped raise “thousands of dollars.”
Let’s move on to another difficult moment in Helps’ first term.
Then-Victoria Police Chief Frank Elsner in 2015
ON DECEMBER 4, 2015, Mayor Helps was asked by a Global TV journalist whether Victoria Police Chief Frank Elsner was being investigated. Helps responded: “No. The [Police] Board has full confidence in our chief. He’s the best thing that’s happened to this town and Esquimalt in a long time.”
But news reports over the following days quickly proved Helps (and Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins) had misled journalists. An investigation of Elsner had been conducted under their disciplinary authority as co-chairs of the Victoria Police Board.
Two weeks later, Police Complaint Commissioner Stan Lowe released a report on the mayors’ investigation of Elsner’s conduct. Lowe’s report confirmed that Elsner had been accused of exchanging “inappropriate” tweets with the wife of another member of the Victoria Police Department (that person is referred to below as “the Member”). But the real substance of his report was its examination of the conduct of Helps and Desjardins.
Lowe’s report provided a step-by-step account of how an internal investigation into Elsner’s conduct was initiated, the ways in which the investigation was flawed, his rationale for stripping Helps and Desjardins of their authority to discipline Elsner, and an order for an external, public-trust investigation of Elsner’s conduct.
Below, I’m going to focus on just one aspect of Lowe’s report, which was Helps’ and Desjardins’ failure to abide by two important preconditions that Lowe had stipulated before allowing them to do an internal investigation. An internal investigation meant Helps and Desjardins would make the determination as to whether or not Elsner would be disciplined. In order not to completely overtax the reader’s patience, I’ll consider the mayors’ failure to abide by just one of Lowe’s preconditions. Lowe had stipulated: “There had to be disclosure of the allegations to the Member serving under the command of Chief Constable Elsner, and the Co-Chairs should obtain the Member’s informed views as to whether he wished to initiate a complaint or request a public-trust investigation under the Police Act.”
By that Lowe meant that the mayors had to accurately explain to the Member exactly what Elsner had done. Once they were sure he understood what had transpired, he was to be asked whether he wanted the mayors to proceed with an internal process or if he wanted the process turned over to Lowe’s office as a public-trust investigation.
Lowe’s report states that Helps and Desjardins agreed to his preconditions in late August 2015.
Lowe’s report picked up the story a few weeks later: “…our office was advised by counsel for the Co-Chairs… that the affected Member did not wish an investigation. On the understanding that my two conditions had been satisfied, I supported the decision to proceed with this matter as an internal discipline matter. It was my expectation that if the investigation revealed evidence of conduct that could constitute a disciplinary breach of public trust, the Co-Chairs would raise the matter with our office.”
Lowe’s oversight of the Elsner investigation might have ended at that point had it not been for the aforementioned media reporting in early December 2015 in which Desjardins and Helps claimed there had been no investigation of Elsner.
Prompted by Helps’ and Desjardins’ false claims, Lowe requested the records of the mayors’ investigation. In his report, Lowe made many highly critical observations. Here we will consider just one.
About the mayors’ report, Lowe stated: “[T]he Member is described as advising the Co-Chairs of his meeting with Chief Constable Elsner and the information the Chief provided to the Member. It appears that the Co-Chairs did nothing to correct the Member’s misguided appreciation of the circumstances, despite the Co-Chairs knowing the information provided to the Member was false and misleading. In advising our office that the informational pre-condition had been met, no mention had been made that the Member had received false and misleading information from Chief Constable Elsner. Given the circumstances as contained in the report, it is clear that the Member’s decision was influenced by misleading information; therefore, the pre-condition had not been fulfilled.”
Note in particular Lowe’s statement “…despite the Co-Chairs knowing the information provided to the Member was false and misleading…” Lowe is saying, in effect, Helps and Desjardins consciously omitted telling the Member the truth. That is, they lied.
I asked Helps for her version of what took place. “We were instructed by our lawyer that the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner [OPCC] required us to do four things: meet with the Member whose wife was involved in the matter and advise him generally of the investigation, meet with the Chief and advise him that there was going to be an investigation, advise the Board of the matter and hire an independent investigator. Although we were most uncomfortable meeting with the Member who was impacted, we reluctantly agreed to meet with him after the OPCC insisted that we do so. After we had done each of the four things we were directed to do, the investigation proceeded without our interference.”
Helps agreed that Elsner had added to his problems by not being forthright with the Member: “It has now been determined by another discipline authority in an external discipline process that former Chief Elsner provided false information to the Member whose wife was involved in the matter. That is very serious misconduct and worthy of significant discipline. The apparent providing of false information to the Member by former Chief Elsner was something completely beyond our control,” Helps asserted. “Further, it was not part of what the OPCC had authorized Mayor Desjardins and I to pursue through the internal discipline process. Our mandate, as authorized by the OPCC, was very limited. We were authorized to deal only with the issues of whether Elsner had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with the wife of a VicPD member and whether Elsner had improperly used police social media accounts.”
Helps’ version of events differs with Lowe’s in one significant way. Lowe concluded that Helps and Desjardins knew Elsner had provided the Member with false and misleading information and they did nothing about it.
Who is a voter to believe?
Let me return to where we started, on December 4, 2015, when Helps was asked by a journalist whether an investigation had taken place. Even though one had, Helps said: “No. The [Police] Board has full confidence in our chief. He’s the best thing that’s happened to this town and Esquimalt in a long time.”
In trying to decide whether to believe Lowe or to believe Helps, it’s hard to get past the fact that the mayor lied in public to a journalist about the Elsner situation.
It’s evident that Helps’ and Desjardins’ intention was to protect Elsner. If we believe Lowe, then they protected Elsner even though they knew he had provided false and misleading information to the Member. Helps now describes that as “very serious misconduct and worthy of significant discipline.” She was in a position to make that judgment back in 2015. Yet she participated in a cover-up of Elsner’s misconduct anyway (other allegations about Elsner surfaced latter). Helps allowed her enthusiasm for Elsner’s fresh approach to community policing to overwhelm her responsibility as an elected official to side with the truth.
The OPCC’s public-trust investigation was completed in 2017. Legal maneuvers by Elsner (at City taxpayers’ expense) have prevented release of the report, but in April 2018 the BC Court of Appeal ruled that Lowe’s action to remove the mayors as the disciplinary authority and conduct a public-trust investigation had been a reasonable interpretation of the Police Act. Now it’s time for voters to make their ruling on the mayors’ conduct.
(UPDATE, September 26, 2018: After this story went to print, Commissioner Lowe released a summary informational report: Review of the Investigations and Disciplinary Process Concerning Frank Elsner". Lowe's report recommended changes to the BC Police Act that would permanently remove mayors as the disciplinary authority for matters involving a police chief or a deputy police chief. Lowe's report is a stunning indictment of the judgment and actions of Mayor Helps and Mayor Desjardins. See story here.)
One of two surprising repairs needed on the new $115M Johnson Street Bridge before it even opened.
LASTLY, LET’S REVISIT HELPS’ RECORD on what the City has called “the largest infrastructure project in Victoria’s history.” You knew I would get there, didn’t you?
In January I wrote about the surprising appearance of two six-foot by six-foot steel plates that had appeared on the steel work of the new bridge. There was one plate bolted onto the underside of each of the bridge’s signature rings, and they amounted to a physical defacement of what had been promised to be an architecturally significant structure. They seemed to me—and many others—to be an obvious insult to the design integrity of the bridge that the City promised would be “world class” and “iconic.”
Naturally, I had questions that only the City could answer. The City’s official spokesperson, on everything, is the mayor. That policy is contained in the City’s written guidelines on how employees, including the mayor, should respond to media.
So I emailed Mayor Helps a few questions—the first questions I had posed to her in the first three years of her term. Was she aware of the plates? When did she find out? Was the City given any options to consider?
These were not difficult questions to answer, but the mayor didn’t respond to five emails.
After my story was published, Helps issued a statement through her Facebook page. In that statement she claimed the article contained “a number of serious factual errors and inaccuracies,” but didn’t specify what those were.
I sent the mayor more questions, including a request to make public what those “serious factual errors and inaccuracies were.” Normally, a public official that makes such a claim would have proactively provided that information without being asked. That’s the process: If we make a mistake, the subject tells us about the mistake we made, and if they are correct, we acknowledge our error and publish the correct information. So I requested that the mayor make those mistakes clear.
Then something peculiar happened. Mayor Helps’ inadvertently copied me on a “proposed response” to my questions that she had meant to send only to acting City Manager Jocelyn Jenkins and private engineering consultant Jonathan Huggett. “Do you see any downfalls in this approach?” the mayor asked Huggett and Jenkins. Later, realizing what she had done, Helps emailed me: “David there you have my response. Sent before my morning meditation and copied to you inadvertently. But truth may walk through the world unarmed. So please feel free to use what I have said.”
She had written: “I trust all of the reporters at the Times Colonist. I trust all of the reporters at Vic News. I trust all of the reporters at CBC and CFAX. I trust all of the reporters at CTV, CHEK, and GLOBAL. This trust has come through hard conversations, good reporting and relationship building. I do not trust you. As such I feel that however I answer your questions you will use the answers to suit your own needs, not to serve the public good.” Mayor Helps made no attempt to identify any errors or inaccuracies in my story.
In almost 30 years of community reporting, I had never experienced such an evasive response from an elected official. It was very Trumpian: First, accuse the messenger of spreading fake news. Then lock him up in solitary confinement.
Mayor Helps has still not provided those alleged “factual errors and inaccuracies.” And no wonder. Six months after I wrote about the plates, the City, in response to an FOI, handed over to Focus the communications between the various engineers involved in adding those steel slabs to the new bridge. The communications showed they had been judged necessary to beef up a structural weakness that had been built into the bridge. The engineers had decided the juxtaposition of four “weld-access holes” in each of the rings could lead to fatigue cracks forming in the fracture-critical steel of the rings. The shape and nature of the holes should have been controlled during fabrication by properly executed fabrication drawings, but detailing in the drawings was inadequate. Ensuring that those details were adequate was ultimately the responsibility of the Engineer of Record on the project.
The problematic holes had been created over a year before any effort was made by the project engineers to find a solution to the potential fatigue problem. The records obtained by Focus showed engineers had misled the City about when the problem was discovered, who was involved in considering options, and who was ultimately responsible for creating the problem in the first place. The engineers’ explanation that “schedule” had figured into their decision to add the plates neglected to include the fact that they had done nothing about the problem for over a year, and during that year, additional work on the rings had made it more difficult and costly to properly address the problem.
Those communications also answered all the questions I posed to Helps. Nobody at City Hall had been informed. Helps first learned about the plates when I sent her my first set of questions. Moreover, the records obtained from the City showed Helps had been misled by the very engineers who had told her our story was inaccurate.
For this article, the one you are reading now, I pointed out to Helps that the engineers she had trusted had actually misled her on important facts about the story. Would the City lodge a complaint with the engineers’ professional association? Her response was confusing. She misremembered how one of the engineers had come to be employed by the City and concluded that the only thing that mattered was that the Engineer of Record had signed off on the project. The Engineer of Record was one of the engineers that had misled the City.
What does this story say about Mayor Helps’ record? It shows that she learns from experience. When confronted by a journalist about whether or not Elsner’s conduct was the subject of an investigation, Helps chose to lie in order to protect Elsner, whom she clearly admired for his enlightened approach to community policing.
But when Helps was presented with my questions about the bridge, there was no denying the existence of those six-foot by six-foot, 1500-pound plates. She wisely clammed up and let someone else do the lying for her. And her trusted engineers—whom she no doubt admired for their project management expertise and powers of persuasion— obliged. By publicly accepting their misrepresentations, she protected them, too.
We might also conclude from her record on the bridge, on Elsner, and on the Macdonald statue that Mayor Helps doesn’t trust ordinary people in the community, and what they have to say about these issues, unless they share her own point of view or those of her advisers. Genuine dialogue might have brought movement in the direction she wanted to go—in each case—to a screeching halt.
THIS IS FAR FROM A COMPREHENSIVE examination of Mayor Helps’ first-term record. She played a prominent role in many other issues for both the City of Victoria and the CRD. But as thin a slice as this is, what should be evident to readers is the immense complexity and pressures facing any would-be mayor of Victoria these days.
Helps has taken on that complexity with enthusiasm and energy, and the three examples above barely capture the extent to which she has had to spread her efforts. Had she tried to do less, it’s possible she wouldn’t have made the misjudgements I’ve outlined here. But her enthusiasm for participating in government, and her definite position on contentious issues, has driven her to be fully engaged. That has had both costs and benefits for the City.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.
Questions Focus asked and Mayor Helps' full responses: