Jim Green, long-time champion of Vancouver's downtrodden, was yakking on his cellphone last week, trying to make sense of the Nov. 16 city election that swept him, and the entire left-leaning Coalition of Progressive Electors slate, into office, when he was greeted by a panhandling constituent. "I voted for you," the guy said, his gravel-crusher voice carrying over the phone, "and I need $2 to get to the food bank." Councillor Green won't be sworn into office until Dec. 2, but already the bill was due. He fished $2 in SkyTrain fare from his pocket and carried on with his phone interview.
He was talking about the inner meaning and inordinate attention - locally, provincially, even internationally - attached to the municipal election result. It raises issues as diverse as a proposed referendum on Vancouver's bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics, a commitment to fast-track safe injection sites for heroin addicts, and the nagging sense that it's a repudiation of the neo-conservative agenda of the provincial Liberal government. It's heavy stuff in a city that doesn't usually pay attention to its own elections. So, were voters, in fact, sending an extraterritorial message to the Liberals in Victoria? Green, never at a loss for opinion, launched into a convoluted response before trailing off. "I just don't know," he admitted. "The real answer is, I just don't know."
What is certain, though, is that B.C. politics, never what you'd call dull, just got way more interesting. Last week marked the end, on a number of fronts, of Premier Gordon Campbell's semi-comfortable ride as supreme ruler of what is essentially a one-party province. It's not that the New Democrats, clinging to their two-seat opposition in a 79-seat legislature, have made a resurgence. Rather the Liberals must now wrestle with a cranky, Hydra-headed beast: an extra-legislative opposition with a free-range wish list as great as all outdoors.
The Vancouver election is but one example of a bad Liberal week. In Victoria, Prince George-area MLA Paul Nettleton was expelled from the Liberal caucus after accusing his own government of a secret agenda to privatize B.C. Hydro. In the Vancouver suburb of Delta, Val Roddick became the first target of a recall campaign, inspired by service cuts at the Delta Hospital. Campaigns to unseat sitting MLAs may legally start 18 months after an election, a milestone the Liberals celebrated, if that's the word, last week. A dozen such campaigns may spring up across B.C., with one group - Recall Them All - holding the unlikely aspiration of eradicating the entire caucus. "I don't take it personally," says Roddick, who could be out of a job if some 12,000 constituents sign a recall petition. "When it comes down to it, people don't like change, even if they voted for it."
Change is what Vancouverites asked for. Voters tossed out the long-ruling conservative Non-Partisan Association - which Gordon Campbell once led as mayor of Vancouver. They replaced it with COPE, a woolly coalition of community activists, unionists, New Democrats, and pragmatic lefties, which had spent the previous 34 years failing to win the mayor's chair. The difference this time was mayor-elect Larry Campbell - no relation to Gordon - who proved that "charisma" and "coroner" can be used in the same sentence.
The incoming mayor carried a COPE majority at city hall on the strength of his unique qualifications: ex-RCMP drug cop, ex-chief coroner of B.C., and inspiration for Dominic Da Vinci, the crusading coroner on the gritty Vancouver-based TV hit, Da Vinci's Inquest. This was Vancouver's drug election, when the city collectively decided that people dying of overdose, disease and murder in the Downtown Eastside - 1,200 in the past decade - can no longer be tolerated. "The problems of the Downtown Eastside aren't just those of a small corner of Vancouver, but were seen as a much larger problem," says Norman Ruff, a political science professor at the University of Victoria. "It's not a revival of welfare statism," he says of COPE's win, "it's kind of a sense of a larger community responsibility."
Even the ex-coroner, who traded his constituency of the dead for one of the living, admits surprise at the public determination to resolve the issue. "My feeling was the citizens wouldn't let us ignore it," Campbell told Maclean's. "We had a really good platform on all kinds of issues, but it always seemed to come back to the Downtown Eastside." For some it was concern over the resulting property crime, for others it was shame, he says. "But all of the communities were horrified by the conditions that people were living in."
Campbell is bulling ahead on a pledge to open medically supervised safe drug injection sites in the city by early January as part of a Four Pillars drug strategy of prevention, enforcement, treatment and harm reduction. The prospect of the first such site in North America prompted the New York Times to devote most of a page to the election. By remarkable coincidence, John Walters, the hard-nosed U.S. drug czar and member of George W. Bush's cabinet, also paid a post-election visit to Vancouver.
Walters was the guest at a Board of Trade luncheon, where he promised not to tell a sovereign Canada how to run its drug strategy. He then proceeded to do just that, offering dire warnings about the scourge of marijuana addiction in the U.S., and telling a cautionary tale of a well-meaning Baltimore mayor who launched a harm-reduction strategy and needle-exchange program. The result, said Walters, was "the most brutally treated city in terms of addiction of any city in American history."
It was a quintessential Vansterdam moment. Walters was heckled by a luncheon table of eight purchased by Marc Emery, marijuana seed salesman and president of the BC Marijuana Party. Seated several tables away was Larry Campbell, who while more discreet, was also unimpressed by Walters's advice. "Why should I feel pressure from the Americans, I'm a Canadian," he says. "This whole thought that a needle exchange causes addiction, it's like flies causing garbage."
For the moment, the mayor-elect feels more heat for another policy with international implications: COPE's pledge to hold a referendum on Vancouver's Olympic bid. Federal Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, the other Campbell in Victoria and much of the B.C. business community warn that a vote at this late date could spook the International Olympic Committee, which is to announce the winning 2010 host city next July.
The provincial Liberals are especially alarmed, raising the prospect of a Campbell versus Campbell feud. Gordon Campbell sees the Games as a vehicle for investment and economic renewal. Larry Campbell wants the Games only if Vancouverites agree that the unreleased details of the bid prove economically sound.
What he does not want is to be tarred as de facto opposition to the provincial government. A referendum will burn huge political capital with senior levels of government. But shelving the vote may alienate his COPE municipal base. Already he seems anxious for a compromise, saying "we're in the process of seeing what's going on, talking to groups and seeing how we can best gauge voter response to this. So, I'm just not going to talk about it."
Part of the attraction, and frustration, of Da Vinci's Inquest - a show for which the mayor-elect has served as occasional technical adviser and scriptwriter - is that there's rarely a pat ending. Plots trail away without resolution in a fog of compromise, conflict and flawed heroics. It's very Canadian - and the ideal reflection of the soap opera of B.C. politics.
Maclean's December 2, 2002