What will close the divisions laid bare by Victoria’s election?
THE LINE OF VOTERS at Margaret Jenkins Elementary ran along the wall of an entire hallway, and then back on the other side. Upon seeing it, one guy groaned aloud: “How long do we have to wait to get Lisa Helps out of office?”
The queue for the single vote-reading machine in the gymnasium took over an hour, and during the wait I heard more grousing. “She probably planned this, to keep us from voting,” muttered one woman. When asked why she distrusted the mayor, the woman replied, “She won’t clean the streets!”
I’ve lived in the City of Victoria for 21 years now, and I can’t recall a civic election as vocally acrimonious as the one held on October 20. In the past, City politics often seemed like professional water polo — an obscure sport, passionately followed by a few. No longer. Voter turnout was 43.5 percent, the highest in decades, and the stakes seemed bigger too. In various ways, the campaign touched upon reconciliation with First Nations (the Sir John A. statue), economic inequality (luxury condos vs. affordable housing), homelessness (tent cities), sexual harassment (the Elsner affair), and climate change (automobile parking vs. bike lanes)—issues far more exciting than the rezonings and bylaw rewordings that occupy most municipal councils.
Victoria is the only municipality in the capital region that tends to vote “ideologically,” Royal Roads communications prof David Black told CHEK on election night, “where ideology or political identity is a strong feature of how people make their choices. In other municipalities, it’s often about policy points, council governance, whose version of pragmatism you prefer. But in Victoria people vote in a way guided by political philosophy, and how what happens locally attaches to the political spectrum and to the world.” True enough, but what Black missed is that it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, amplified by Mayor Helps herself — and alienating many residents who simply want the City to issue permits, fix pipes, and protect them from fire and crime.
Certainly, “social media” played a part in sowing discord among Victoria’s voters. Virulent anti-Helps sites appeared and vanished from Facebook, and BC Proud blowhard Aaron Gunn cranked out videos calling the mayor a “disaster” — one released five days before the election racked up 18,000 views — which ended up rallying her supporters. (The online enmity didn’t come only from one side. When the City posted the election results on its Facebook page and commenting seniors bemoaned the outcome, younger posters mocked them: “We’re just waiting for you to pack up, leave, and make it all better by not being here.”)
What was new was that the vitriol spilled over into personal conversations. Just before the election, I went door-knocking with Mayor Helps, and then with newcouncil.ca candidate Stephen Hammond, in areas of Fernwood just a few blocks apart. The neighbourhood became a kind of Rorschach inkblot — it looked different, depending on who answered the questions.
Helps encountered only kind words at the doorstep. “I like what you’ve been doing,” one woman said. A single father in social housing was grateful that he could cycle Downtown with his daughter on Pandora’s protected bike lane. “I’m looking forward to this,” said another woman, bracing for a hard-fought contest.
Hammond asked Fernwoodians, “Are you looking for a change of mayor and council?” and got completely different responses. “I’m so done with her,” said one gardener, wearing a nurses’ union t-shirt. “We’ve talked and talked and she won’t f***ing listen.” Another was frustrated with the mess regularly left by campers around the Sobering Centre nearby: “We’ve lived here for 14 years, and we’d like to see some solutions.” The potential loss of trees and park space for a new Crystal Pool, the huge 207-unit development going up on the 1000-block of Pandora — the residents had no shortage of complaints. “The stuff I’m hearing is amazing,” Hammond said.
But what is to be done with it? The voting is over, and somehow, the city has to mend its divisions. Helps seemed to acknowledge this on election night: “When you’re on the campaign trail, you’re the candidate, but after the election, you’re the mayor,” she told reporters. “That means I’m the mayor for everybody, even those who didn’t vote for me, and I will work really hard on their behalf as well.” Hammond came over to congratulate her on her victory, and they discussed creating “a committee for the reparation of the social fabric,” she told CHEK. “Everyone has the best intentions of the community in mind.”
Stephen Hammond and Lisa Helps discuss a “committee for the reparation of the social fabric” on election night
However, the following Monday, she published an open letter to supporters, portraying her opponents quite differently. “We did it! Love, connection and a shared vision for our future triumphed over fear and anger,” she wrote, claiming a “strongly renewed mandate” — as if the 57 percent of electors who didn’t vote for her weren’t just wrong, but dangerously irrational. “As I move forward with my new council and as we take bold action for the future, we’re going to continue to need your support,” she encouraged the troops, "so when we take bold action, please stand up and support us: in letters to the editor, on social media, and most importantly, in good old-fashioned, face-to-face conversations — this is how we truly build understanding.”
Or tune out dissenting voices, perhaps. Since the mayor has already said she’s not running for re-election in 2022, and has an apparent council majority on her side, one wonders if she will govern with imperial certainty — and whether the “reparation committee” is just honey-scented wind, like the “wider community conversation” promised about relocating the Sir John A. statue. (Prediction: the statue will remain in storage until the Council, unable to agree to any public site for it, sells it to a private buyer who installs it inside a pub.)
Newcouncil.ca says it will hold meetings in the coming weeks to discuss whether the organization will continue, and how. (“Given the fact that 8 of 9 votes on council are left of center I think there will be a significant desire for a vocal opposition once the council starts making decisions based on ideology,” one insider told me.) I asked Hammond if he’d remain involved, and if he’d join the mayor’s “social fabric” committee. “Will see,” he texted in reply.
WHETHER THE DIVISIONS IN VICTORIA can be healed depends not just on the mayor, of course, but on the council too — and whether it is able to properly oversee the management of the City and provide sensible directions to its staff.
The most remarkable accomplishment of this year’s election was the success of the three council candidates fielded by Together Victoria — Laurel Collins, Sharmarke Dubow, and Sarah Potts — all in their 30s, with backgrounds in community organizing. Allied with returning councillors Ben Isitt and Jeremy Loveday, who kept their campaigns separate from Together’s until just before the election, they’ll form a five-vote majority, either approving the mayor’s agenda, or able to set their own.
With three new councillors from Together Victoria, our municipal government will be led by a new generation [credit: Jason Guille]
As journalist Sid Tafler recently reported in his online Victoria Record, one reason for Together’s success was it spent the summer meeting with community groups across the city to find out what voters wanted, and accordingly develop their platform. Free transit for everyone under the age of 18, for example, more covered bicycle parking, more child care, more food gardens, more participatory budgeting and consultation on developments, and a new arts hub in the former Maritime Museum — all positive, appealing ideas, if light on details about how they’ll be paid for. The main issue for Together, though, is dealing with the crisis of affordable housing, which undoubtedly won them votes from Victoria’s many renters, hit by renovictions and huge rent increases over the past decade. Together says it will ensure that 50 percent of all new housing built in the city is affordable (i.e., costing less than 30 percent of average household income), and demand greater amenity contributions from developers. Soon, as projects already in the pipeline come before council, we will see if Together sticks to these requirements, or developers pack up and decide to build elsewhere.
Victoria's new council will also have to deal quickly with a mess of detailed, practical issues, which the Together platform didn’t fully anticipate, and for which ideology will provide few solutions. In December, City staff will present possible alternative locations for a new Crystal Pool and their associated costs, with the aim of applying for federal-provincial grants by the January 23 deadline; the grant guidelines also suggest that any one project is unlikely to get more than $13.5 million, meaning the City will likely need to find another $39M early next year to meet the pool’s $69.4M budget. Millions more will likely need to be found to pay for fendering on the Johnson Street Bridge, and to settle a lawsuit filed against the City by its contractors. VicPD hasn’t increased the size of its force in a decade, and is sure to demand funds for more officers in next spring’s budget. The neighbourhood plan for Gonzales was deferred until after the election, and James Bay’s comes up next year, guaranteed to spark fights over the dense “urban villages” the City envisions there. And on it goes.
If mayor Helps and our very new council successfully juggle all these issues, and oversee a well-run, financially stable civic government, they truly will bring Victorians together. But they’ll also need to acknowledge that they don’t know everything, and that they can’t make huge decisions without listening to the public. Making the city work is up to them, but it’s also up to us to keep talking about how best to do it.
Ross Crockford congratulates Victoria’s recently elected officials, and wishes them the best. Really, he does.
Edited by Ross Crockford