The Coleman Projects

May 1, 2009

Rich Coleman moves down the sidewalk like a freighter scattering seagulls. Three decades out of the force, the onetime RCMP officer, now the province’s minister of housing, still conveys the air of someone who could bust you any minute for an illegal left or a pants-pocket joint. In this block of East Hastings, ragged men and women are hawking everything from electrical parts to Dumpster-loved clothing to fresh strawberries in clamshell containers. But Coleman, an imposing six-three, doesn’t give so much as an eye flicker that he notices the carnivalesque scene, and the locals, who usually like to tag along if they think something important is happening, simply part around him as he strides by.

And then, as though he were still back in the Valley—up the Abbotsford hillside where he lives among the tidy lawns, stacked stone walls, and curved roadways of his Old Clayburn Road subdivision—he runs into a guy he knows. It’s Bert Mazerall from his old neighbourhood, a truck driver who delivers magazines for the Pattison empire to the few stores around here that still stock them. A great guy, I’m told. Langley citizen of the year. For a moment, as the two exchange details of their vacations in Palm Springs, this stretch of Hastings metamorphoses into Fraser Highway.

But, as close as Coleman’s two worlds appear at the moment, this patch of the Downtown Eastside is far from the seat of the MLA from Fort Langley-Aldergrove. Sixty-five kilometres by odometer, but galaxies away on every other scale. What is Coleman doing spending so much time in deepest, darkest Main and Hastings? Technically, he’s down here today to preside over yet another opening of yet another hotel that the province has bought for social housing. Along the way, he’ll survey the expanding empire of hotels the province owns or is building along the strip. But Jenny Kwan, the NDP MLA who represents this stretch of pavement, has her own theory about why he’s patrolling her territory so intensively.

“Coleman has seized this as an opportunity to rebrand himself, from a hard-core right-wing fundamentalist to someone who appears to have a heart,” she says. “Other ministers couldn’t care less. They barely showed up for announcements. But Coleman doesn’t pass any opportunity up to come to Vancouver.”Why? Kwan suggests someone who wants to be the premier someday would need to show he’s more than just another conservative from the Valley. And Coleman is frequently mentioned as a possible successor to Gordon Campbell. Sure, he can come across as a bombastic, Socred-style antisocialist, prone to Nixonian levels of diaphoresis. But those who watch him closely know that he’s one of the B.C. Liberal party’s strongest fundraisers—someone who doesn’t just raise money for his own campaigns but helps bankroll the party overall and individual newcomer candidates—and a voice that carries weight in cabinet. Not that you’ll hear him say so himself. In a breakfast interview at the Wall Centre (his Vancouver home when he needs to stay overnight for government business) Coleman deflects questions about his future, repeatedly saying that the leader is the leader and he doesn’t think beyond that.

COLEMAN has worked unusually hard to turn a difficult portfolio into something resembling a silk purse. Housing isn’t the place where ministers typically get to shine. In fact, that ministry, along with Children and Families, is often viewed as a career-limiting, can’t-win slot, even though it controls a half-billion dollars’ worth of property in the province, houses or gives rent subsidies to 85,000 households, and has in the last few years been on the front line of tackling what many see as the province’s most shameful problem: homelessness.

By pushing on all frontiers of that port­folio, Coleman is remaking the city in ways Vancouver’s social-planning department—hell, even the city’s mayor—could only dream of. Since Coleman, with the support of Gordon Campbell and the Liberal cabinet, started on his blitzkrieg to tackle homelessness in late 2006, the provincial government has bought 24 downtown hotels for $91 million, with the aim of dedicating them to housing the mentally ill and addicted. It has also committed to building 1,400 units of social housing on 14 sites in Vancouver. And Coleman has led the charge to redevelop the city’s oldest social-housing site, a prime piece of property at the edge of Queen Elizabeth Park, the first of the real-estate plays he hopes to make to maximize the value of the many chunks of land the province’s social housing sits on. That’s not even counting the other hotels, motels, and apartment buildings his ministry has bought around the Lower Mainland. As his friend John van Dongen, the solicitor general and the MLA for Abbotsford-Clayburn, joked at Coleman’s megafundraiser in Langley last November, “Rich Coleman owns more hotels than Donald Trump.”That is going to have an impact on this city, because Coleman has a particular idea about how to build social housing. The philosophy for decades was that the poorest of the poor should be integrated into mixed projects with people who were only a little poor and others who were actually working professionals (maybe at the low end of the scale) paying near market rents. Instead, Coleman’s creating a wave of social housing the city hasn’t seen for half a century: big, hundred-unit projects where every apartment is occupied by those who not only are the very poorest, but also have the most serious difficulties.

“I admire the guy. He’s been the most productive housing minister that we’ve ever had,” says Alice Sundberg, a former director of the province’s nonprofit-housing association who has lived through almost a dozen housing ministers in her 30 years in the field. “But he’s got his vision. And I think in the long run we’re not going to be happy with that.”

Coleman dismisses that kind of criti­cism, saying old-style mixed housing was a waste of taxpayer money. Tens of millions got spent and only a fraction of the units went to the neediest, and those people didn’t get any kind of support—job training or psychiatric care or health counselling—to keep them stable. “We were so focused on the business of housing,” he says. “That shift needed to be done. Let’s concentrate where we need to concentrate.” Now, he says, the market can take care of people who are poor but okay aside from that, maybe with help from his rent-supplement program. Those who really need help will get a response that’s more targeted to them.

Coleman doesn’t have time for anyone who criticizes what he does, whether it’s housing or his tendency to get involved in local politics or, well, pretty much anything. Listen to him in the legislature and he’s like an avalanche, burying his critics in sarcasm (“So you’d throw 7,000 families and 15,000 seniors’ families out on the streets”), ridicule (“I heard the member from Burnaby yapping at me just a second ago”), and sheer word volume. But even in his less public moments, those who don’t see things his way make him bristle like an irate grizzly.

That’s in part because he’s so excited about coming up with solutions—“I like doing stuff. And I always have a way to skin the cat,” he says with pride—that he can’t believe anyone would have the nerve to carp. He also loves working the levers of bureaucracy and politics. Days before the province announced it would provide yet another million dollars to run the new shelters initiated by Mayor Gregor Robertson, Coleman gleefully explained how he got the money. He knew there was a pocket of unused cash hidden in the ministry budget, so he talked to staff and liberated it. He’s equally pleased with his ability to get money from his political colleagues. He’s been able to get massive amounts for housing from the province because, he says, he makes a good case. And, he adds, “I don’t usually have trouble getting what I think I need.”

That impresses those on the receiving end. Bob Rennie, allegedly a condo marketer but really someone who plays a much larger role in the city as convenor and maven in a surprising number of projects, admires Coleman because he gets things done. When Rennie needed someone to rescue the SFU component of the Woodward’s project after the university failed to raise the money required for the School for the Contemporary Arts, Rennie got on the phone and Coleman found the $38 million needed in days.

But Coleman’s enthusiasm for just doing things sometimes gets him in trouble. He has a tendency to blurt out plans before they’re finalized—or before the premier announces them. And if you’re in the category of old friend, he’ll go to bat for you no matter what. That’s earned him criticism from those who thought it inappropriate of him to organize a meeting between the premier and John Hof (someone Coleman knows from Penticton but who’s known to the public for his anti-abortion stands) or to endorse candidates for school board or city council.

In spite of the fact Coleman seems like the ultimate political animal, there wasn’t anything in his early life that suggested he’d end up at the heart of the B.C. Liberal party. He is the third son of a career civil servant and a teacher who raised their family (five boys, one girl) in Penticton. Coleman’s father, an investigator with Revenue Canada, was so averse to any whisper of partisanship that Coleman had no idea what his family’s political leanings were until he was elected himself. His mother urged him to phone his Aunt Agnes, saying she’d be thrilled that he’d been elected as a Liberal. He had to break it to her that he wasn’t really a Liberal in the Lester Pearson sense.

Coleman’s also the only one in his family who didn’t go on to college or university. That’s in marked contrast to his oldest brother, William, a McMaster prof who is one of Canada’s most respected public-policy experts and whom Rich describes as “so far left of me that it’s amazing.” His other siblings became a forester, an engineer, a high-school principal, and a special-education expert. But while William, who graduated from Penticton High School in 1968, seems to have followed the classic trajectory of a child of the ’60s (became enamoured of Trudeau, got a PhD in Chicago, writes about “globalization and the human condition”), Rich, who graduated only three years later, is like someone from his parents’ generation.

He went into the RCMP straight out of high school, becoming an officer shortly after he turned 19. He got married when he was 20 to a Penticton girl, Michele Yelland—or, as he calls her, Mick. Stationed in Brooks, Alberta, for his first posting, he was asked by someone there if he wanted to join the local Kinsmen, the kind of men’s service organization that used to be the social safety net back before everyone started bowling alone, and he did. He and Michele have been pillars of the Kinsmen and Kinette organization ever since: in Alberta; in Penticton, after Coleman at 27 left the RCMP (whose policy at the time wouldn’t allow him to be posted to his home province) and moved back to B.C.; and later in Aldergrove, as the security company he’d bought into in Penticton expanded to the coast. The organization, for which he was even the B.C. Kinsmen governor in the 1980s, has played a larger part in his life than religion, he thinks. (He and Michele are both Catholic, but he says it’s Michele who’s the “very strong Catholic.”) A community hall, a library, and several housing projects around Langley stand as testament to Coleman’s ability to raise money for Kinsmen projects. Helping the organization build seniors’ housing eventually allowed him to leave his security company and move into real-estate consulting. All of this gave him the community profile to succeed Gary Farrell-Collins in 1996 as the inevitable representative for the riding, which has been solidly Socred/Conservative/B.C. Liberal since the earth began cooling. And by his side has been Michele, who plays her own strong role, at various points running the North Langley Chamber of Commerce and working with the local hospice society. The two are a community force. When someone has an illness or death in the family, Michele is the first on the scene, with a plate of squares and an offer to organize whatever needs doing. And when a Langley resident called Rich to complain about the lack of snowploughing on her street last Christmas, he threw his shovel in his truck, went over, and shovelled her walk himself.

“They have this sense of public service,” says Jordan Bateman, the 32-year-old Langley Township councillor who is Coleman’s constituency association president and a die-hard admirer. “They really live out this commitment to their friends and family.” The Colemans’ two children reflect that. Jacqueline is an elementary-school music teacher in Surrey. Adam took time away from his job as a mechanic last year to spend six months in Afghanistan with his army reserve unit. It was something Coleman didn’t talk about, but it was a hard time. “You’re nervous, there’s no question,” he says. “You hear of a death in Afghanistan and your heart skips a little bit and you wonder if you’re going to get the call.”

In his political life outside Victoria, Coleman is still like someone from 1950s Penticton. Back on his home turf, on a Friday at his constituency office in Aldergrove, he chats with a guy who comes in to talk about modular homes; he sold Coleman’s RV for him a few years back. Coleman’s assistant, Ida, has known him since 1984. Her daughter and Coleman’s current executive assistant went to school together.

The people who know him well think he’s doing a great job of trying to help the homeless out there in Vancouver. It’s not a problem they completely understand, mind you—homelessness in Aldergrove doesn’t look anything like Main and Hastings. But from where they’re standing, he’s just doing what he did as a Kinsman: helping take care of the community, only with more money. VM

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