Federal Election: Vancouver Versus Everybody

How we lost our voice in Ottawa and why it’s so difficult—but vital—to get it back in this federal election.

September 18, 2015

By Frances Bula

The air in the converted store space on East Hastings is moist, tropical. It’s another hot summer day in Vancouver and about 200 people have jammed in to listen to—or, more accurately, to experience and capture on their phones—Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, buoyant and off-puttingly good-looking, as he pumps them up. They are the people who understand what politics should be, he declares. It should be about drawing people in, about equality. Not “focused on its own benefits but the benefits of all Canadians.”

Marlene Yemchuk, a retired civil servant, can’t wait. She’s fed up with the Conservatives. She thinks their policies on drugs are wrong. She favours marijuana legalization. She wants to see her federal government do more for the environment. “And I want fairness for the middle class.” She’ll be voting Liberal in her new riding, Vancouver Granville.

What she means, of course, is that she wants something different for city-dwellers like her. Yemchuk is one of the many people in urban Vancouver who feel as though they are being ruled by aliens—people from another planet who are indifferent to what city people care about. Not gun registries, or terrorism, or income splitting, or tax credits for soccer equipment.

On their agenda? The surreal price of housing, the increasing congestion with no transit solutions in sight, and the crushing load of child-care costs. And, among Vancouver city-dwellers in particular, Yemchuk and her ilk by and large support way-out-in-front drug policies, and they care a lot about climate change.

In the past couple of elections, Conservatives have appeared to be mostly indifferent to those city slickers and what they might care about. They’ve put little effort into being seriously competitive in the ridings in central Canadian cities and particularly in the central-city ridings in our West Coast outlier. Deploying their resources strategically, Conservatives have concentrated their efforts on their traditional rural vote and the increasingly vital and attainable suburban vote. Cities from Vancouver to Toronto to Halifax end up without a place at the table.

In between elections, Conservatives have rewarded the minority who voted for them with new policies aligned with their values and a disproportionate share of the money for bridges, roads, museums, arts centres, and transit. It’s accepted in the Lower Mainland as an odd given—not even worth getting outraged about—that reliably Conservative Surrey will likely get federal money for its light-rail project from the Conservatives long before NDP- and Liberal-dominated Vancouver (whose ruling city government is a mix of the two) will ever see a dime for a Broadway subway. That’s even though the subway would carry 250,000 people the day it opens, possibly at a profit, while Surrey’s light rail likely will need to build ridership for a decade before it can break even on operating costs. Recent analyses of federal infrastructure grants showed that Tory ridings got far more than their fair share of the lolly. That was, in part, because the Tories have distributed more money from the small-communities program than from the programs targeted for large cities. But then again, that’s the point. The money went out to the little places first. The cities can wait to see what they’ll get after the election.

Donald Savoie, a Université de Moncton professor whose upcoming book, What Is Government Good At?, looks at the dynamics of this lopsided approach, says the skewed distribution of government money has always been a fact of politics. But it’s become even more noticeable, because MPs see it as one of their core functions. “It’s because infrastructure is something that MPs understand and they see their role as being able to bring home the bacon to their riding. Programs that are visible are very vulnerable to partisan politics.” All governments do it, although Savoie says “the Harper government may be more sensitive to its core” and therefore more inclined to weight the rewards unevenly.

Vancouver city councillor Raymond Louie, who is also president of the national Federation of Canadian Municipalities, says one of the key requests the federation is making in the election is that whatever party is elected use a system for distributing money that is less of a lottery: “We’ve long recognized at the FCM that the superior model is allocation—it gives the surety to do proper planning.” As long as rural communities aren’t cut out of the deal, Louie wants money distributed on the basis of population, not according to a process where one federal department or another decides which rail line or bridge or highway has more “merit.” So far there are no promises from the Conservatives to do anything of the sort in future.

But still, there is a whisper that the political strategy might shift in this election—that everyone, including Conservatives, might be paying more attention to cities, bastions of unreconstructed liberalism though they are.

“I think all the parties will have to pay attention to the urban ridings this election,” says David Coletto, the CEO of Abacus Data, an Ontario-based polling firm that tracks urban attitudes and voting preferences.

There are 30 new ridings in this election. Almost all of them are in urban areas where population is intensifying. Beyond that, neighbourhoods that used to be called suburban are starting to look and sound more urban with every passing year, complete with the kinds of concerns that used to be just the territory of inner cities: transit, immigration, poverty, crime, high housing costs, and drug addiction.Those once-homogeneous dormitory satellites to the city are also seeing changes that are the result of federal policies and changing settlement patterns. Immigrants and refugees are now as likely to settle in suburbs as cities. Single people, once rare in the suburbs, are also part of the new mix. So are the homeless and the poor.

“Increasingly, the problems of Vaughan are the problems of Toronto,” says York University political scientist Dennis Pilon, who knows B.C. well from years of teaching at the University of Victoria. And the problems of Surrey are not as dramatically different as they used to be from East Van. “Politically, there is going to be more pressure on the Conservatives from exurbs and suburbs for the same kinds of support that central cities have had. I would expect them to pick a few marquee areas at the urban level and put some money in. Pouring money into transit—it crosses class boundaries.”

And so, everyone in this election is playing more noticeably to urban voters. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has promised cities another penny from the federal gas tax—something that could add new millions to cities’ transit and infrastructure budgets. The NDP has also promised a new minister for urban affairs, and $2 billion for co-op housing, a program beloved of cities in the 1970s and ’80s. Justin Trudeau is promising closer co-operation with cities, and he’s riding on the Liberal Party’s reputation as the party that poured money into city projects in the 1960s and ’70s, as post-war Canada was shifting from a rural nation to an urban one. (Of course, in the 1990s, then-Liberal finance minister Paul Martin killed the federal government’s housing program, a move widely seen as having contributed to the rise in homelessness and housing affordability problems in cities ever since.)

Even Stephen Harper’s Conservative government took to making money announcements in the weeks before the election campaign started that were geared to cities. In June, a promise of $2.6 billion for the SmartTrack transit line in Toronto. In July, a promise of $1 billion for Ottawa transit. And then $1.53 billion for Calgary’s light-rail expansion.

All this money is only due to arrive long after the election, so not even cash in hand like the child-care benefit cheques. And, just the day before Harper asked for Parliament to be dissolved so campaigning could start, his people even dropped some funding into Vancouver—half a million each for upgrading the central library and the seawall.

The new focus on urban is playing out at the local level, too. In the new riding of Vancouver Granville—a strip of a riding that goes from the very dense quasi-downtown neighbourhood of Fairview in the north through posh Shaughnessy and suburban-feeling Oakridge to working-class Marpole in the south—the candidates are hearing, and reflecting back, the big-city concerns that are preoccupying residents here.

Both Liberal candidate Jody Wilson-Raybould (nominated and door-knocking since July 2014) and NDP candidate Mira Oreck (acclaimed for the nomination at a celebratory meeting at VanDusen Garden this past July) say they hear about one issue more than anything else: the cost of housing and the lack of political action at the federal level to do anything about it. In separate interviews, they echo oddly similar phrases about what people are telling them. “Eighty to 85 per cent that we speak to want a change,” says Wilson-Raybould. “Their voices are not being heard.” Oreck, who worked on campaigns in the past for Mayor Gregor Robertson, Vision Vancouver, and the B.C. NDP, says, “You see a lack of voice on urban issues across the country. So much of what was built up in our city was done with the federal government—co-op housing, infrastructure, transit, the Coast Guard.” Now people feel like they’ve been cut adrift, to make their way as best they can. (In a telling sign of how anxious each party is to speak to city voters and capture this riding, the NDP and Liberal candidates each set up interviews promptly for this article. A representative for Erinn Broshko, the riding’s Conservative candidate, promised to do the same, but never did call back.)

But Vancouverites shouldn’t get their hopes up too much about a tilting balance toward urban concerns. Political watchers say there are some peculiarities about Vancouver that the Conservatives have no interest in catering to, no matter how much they want urban votes. And even a Liberal or NDP government would need to tread cautiously. Vancouver’s out-of-whack housing market, its citizens’ high interest in environmental issues, its liberal attitudes to drug policy—those are issues that are either so unique to this city, so distant from Ottawa, or just so antithetical to Conservative values that there will be no ground-shifting. “Vancouver has an added problem,” warns Savoie. “It’s thousands of miles away. It’s far from the minds of senior policy staff.” So Vancouver’s unique housing problems just aren’t pressing enough for people back east.

The housing policy that Conservative voters like is low interest rates and other government breaks that help with buying. So Harper’s promises, once he started campaigning openly in August, were suburban-geared: more tax credits for home renovations and the ability to take out even more RRSP money for down payments; the latter is something financial experts say only helps push up demand and, therefore, prices in hot markets like Vancouver. (He did throw Vancouverites one bone, though, saying his new government would start collecting data on foreign ownership.) As for the environment? “That’s an issue most voters don’t make a priority. It’s far more prominent in B.C.,” he says. So that box won’t get ticked.

And liberalized drug policy—the thing that Marlene Yemchuk cares about most? Forget it. “The Tories are never going to go near drugs,” says David Coletto. Not supervised injection sites. Not legalized marijuana. None of it. Another long-time federal Liberal campaigner in Vancouver said before the campaign started that the Conservatives might even highlight their opposition to Vancouver’s drug policies in the election, because it can function as a morality play where they have the starring role for the many people elsewhere who are not as free-thinking as Vancouverites. And behold, within two weeks of the campaign start, Harper was promising more money for crackdowns on drug labs and support for a hotline parents could call about youth drug use. He also made a point of reaffirming his opposition to supervised-injection sites when he travelled to (suburban) Richmond.

Even if the Liberals or NDP win Vancouver Granville, even if Liberal or NDP candidates win all of the new 30 ridings, that isn’t necessarily going to translate to one of those more urban-centric parties forming government. Because there are still all the suburban ridings that are going to be the real battleground, the place where the federal election is decided. Whether Marlene Yemchuk and the voters of Vancouver Granville get what they want depends far less on what happens with Vancouver Granville than what happens in the ridings of many of the candidates that Trudeau had on stage with him on that steamy Thursday afternoon in July: people from Surrey and Delta and North Vancouver.

It’s the suburban Liberal, NDP, and even Conservative candidates—more conscious than ever of urban problems—who are Vancouver’s best hope for a new voice for cities.

urbanfix-granville

Key Battleground 1: VANCOUVER GRANVILLE
A new riding with Conservatives in the wealthy middle, while Liberals and NDP share the ends. In 2011, it would have gone Conservative, but the Liberal (Jody Wilson-Raybould) and NDP (Mira Oreck) candidates are strong

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