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Cancer a factor in Raymond Louie’s decision not to seek re-election

Vision councillor had ‘good chunk’ of lung removed, wife also battling cancer
Vision Vancouver Coun. Raymond Louie will not seek re-election in this fall's municipal election, partly because of his bout with cancer and his wife's continued treatment for the same disease. Photo Dan Toulgoet

For the better part of his time as a city councillor, Vision Vancouver’s Raymond Louie has been known by his colleagues as the finance guy and the party's analyst of minutiae.

He has also been the stoic one, the private one.

Rarely, has he revealed much about his private life to the public. Council watchers will know he once raced bicycles, once owned a Cal 240 skateboard and that his parents ran a bakery on Commercial Drive.

So it was a rare opening up of the 53-year-old Louie when he revealed last year in the council chamber that he had a recent battle with cancer.

He alluded to it briefly in the heat of arguing for proposed vehicle and cycling improvements on the section of 10th Avenue that includes the B.C. Cancer agency and other medical centres; he weighed in because he didn’t like that one councillor concluded all cancer patients were against the changes.

Louie didn’t elaborate on his illness.

Now he is.

In September 2016, Louie had “a good chunk” of his left lung removed to prevent cancer from spreading. He said he’s “all clear” now and feels good. But his wife, Tonya, still has a type of cancer known as gastrointestinal stromal tumor. She is stable and taking medication.

The couple, which will participate in the Ride To Conquer Cancer bicycle event in August from Vancouver to Seattle, are parents to three children: one is 23, another is 19 and the youngest will soon be 13. They live on the East Side in an old house near East First Avenue and Nanaimo Street.

So when Louie revealed this week that he wasn’t seeking re-election in the Oct. 20 municipal election, the speculation about his reasons for doing so focused on the perceived demise of the once-powerful Vision party and how all its council incumbents but Heather Deal were abandoning ship.

The likely factors for Louie’s departure seemed more linked to the disastrous fifth-place finish by Vision candidate Diego Cardona in last fall’s byelection or perhaps the recent opinion polls showing Vision trailing the rival Non-Partisan Association.

Partisan types on Twitter and Facebook chiming in that it was time for a change at city hall were comments that could not have gone unnoticed by Louie, who became a target of some personal attacks when news broke Wednesday.

Some of the criticism may be spot on, some of it's just nasty.

None knew about the cancer.

Louie will tell you it’s not the main reason for not seeking re-election. More, he said, that his 16 years as a councillor—three with COPE, the rest with Vision—and the "70-hour work weeks" have taken its toll and he needs a break.

But cancer hitting both he and his wife was a reality check.

“It’s made me realize that our lives are sometimes shorter than we realize, so it’s important for us to recognize that when we have our health, we should take advantage of that,” he said. “That’s the same for myself, as it is for my wife, who also has cancer. It’s a very challenging life dynamic right now.”

Added Louie: “I need to spend more time at home, spend more time with my wife and my youngest, especially. And I’ve got an 84-year-old mother that I should probably spend some time with, as well. It’s time to do a little bit for me versus what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years.”

The first four of those 20 years was working with COPE, which culminated in an unsuccessful run in the 1999 election. He continued to be involved with the party, studying council agenda after council agenda with the likes of Fred Bass and Tim Louis until he was elected in the 2002 landslide.

The one-time mailer at Pacific Press was on his way to a career that would see him help form Vision, get re-elected four more times and raise his profile along the way, with positions as vice-chairperson of Metro Vancouver and president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Vision's bold agenda

At city hall, he's belonged to a ruling administration that set a bold and sometimes controversial agenda. End “street homelessness” by 2015? Didn’t happen. Create affordable housing? An ambitious work in progress. Build separated bike lanes from Chinatown to Kitsilano? Continued fodder for the car lobby.

Louie and his colleagues immediately set the tone that they were going to do business differently at city hall. Immediate, as in Vision fired longtime city manager Judy Rogers the same week they were sworn in to office in December 2008.

Penny Ballem was brought in to steer Vision's agenda, which included a major "shared services" review of departments that led to streamlining and some unhappy senior managers.

For many years, Louie chaired the city's finance committee and picked apart budget after budget in the debates, some of it challenged by opposition councillors who argued against his rationale for tax hikes.

Emergency shelters opened, so did more childcare centres and Louie helped secure the funding for a new Killarney seniors centre.

New neighbourhood plans were developed (despite pushback from residents over Vision's call for more density), more supportive housing was built (thanks to the NPA government of Sam Sullivan securing city sites that were leveraged with provincial funding) and a program that provided developers with incentives to build rental housing launched (which saved developers hundreds of thousands of dollars but was unable to keep rents affordable; the first project on Granville Street estimated the rents to be at $900 per month but climbed to $1,400 for a furnished studio apartment when opened).

The present affordability crisis in the city is what critics have laid at the feet of Louie and the ruling Vision council. The insane housing prices, the high rental rates and the less-than-one per cent vacancy rate happened under Vision's watch.

Louie sees it differently, pointing out the responsibility of the provincial and federal governments to provide housing. Market forces were—and still are—hard to predict and not controlled by the city, he added, noting the city only receives eight cents of every tax dollar.

"This phenomenon of affordability is not exclusive to the city of Vancouver," he said, pointing to the region-wide and national crisis. "If those critics were honest, they would understand it's a much broader issue than one specific political party in one city."

He said he has faith in the city's new 10-year housing strategy, which calls for the construction of 72,000 homes over the next 10 years, to increase affordability in Vancouver. Statistics released from the city this week showed more than 1,700 social and supportive homes were approved in 2017, along with 822 purpose-built rental units.

Louie's faith in the strategy, which calls for a variety of types of housing and many targeted to low to moderate incomes, is buoyed by the NDP provincial government's commitment to build more housing, including 600 units of temporary modular housing for homeless people across Vancouver, and the federal Liberals' national housing strategy.

"We can see easily the change of attitude in governments," he said, noting improved relationships from the days when the B.C. Liberals and Conservatives were in power.

Louie has not shied away from controversy in his time in office and took positions on two thorny issues within the last year that upset many people in Chinatown and taxpayers across the city.

Chinatown development

Last June, Louie voted in favour of Beedie Living's proposal for a condo development at 105 Keefer St., saying he couldn't vote against social housing and the 25 units in the building designated for seniors.

Louie also pointed out Beedie's rezoning application was in line with council's plans and policies for Chinatown, including allowing a building to be built up to 120 feet tall.

He said he recognized the passion of people who spoke during the public hearing but argued their dreams for Chinatown could not be based on one building, saying "it's, perhaps, unfair to place those hopes and aspiration wholly on the shoulders of one site."

In December 2017 during council debate to finalize the budget, Louie introduced a last-minute additional .34 per cent tax hike on top of city staff's recommended 3.9 per cent tax increase for a total of 4.24 per cent.

The .34 per cent boost equalled an additional $2.4 million in city coffers, with $975,000 to be used to fund a "tactical response team" to review regulations and create new policy and zoning changes to increase housing options in low-density neighbourhoods.

Another $500,000 was to be put aside for "social grants," which are given to non-profits such as the Boys and Girls Club and others who work with vulnerable youth and adults.

A total of $300,000 was to go towards having Chinatown become a UNESCO-recognized heritage site and $250,000 for programming related to council's apology in April to the Chinese community for previous councils' legislated discrimination against Chinese people.

Louie's tax hike triggered a spirited exchange between him and NPA Coun. George Affleck during a lunch break. The Courier captured that exchange on video in which Affleck called Louie's increase "inappropriate and not fair to the taxpayers of Vancouver." He accused Louie of "running this city into the ground."

Affleck, who is also not seeking re-election, tweeted Thursday: "Shout out to @RaymondLouie. We don't see eye to eye on most things in politics, but respect to you for your years of service on Vancouver city council. Enjoy your retirement, ol' fella."

Louie told the Courier shortly after he was first elected that he didn't want to be known solely as "the Chinese guy" on council, knowing he would be a magnet for many in the community.

He managed to do that.

Historical discrimination

But one of his most recent acts as a councillor was ensuring the current council apologized to the Chinese community for the legislated discrimination enacted by previous councils against Chinese people in Vancouver.

It was an emotional day for Louie when the apology was made in April at the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Vancouver in Chinatown.  He is the son of immigrants from China and lives in a house that once had a covenant that prevented a Chinese person from owning it.

"Most important is to thank the many Chinese that came before us—the people that suffered and endured many challenges but kept the belief that this Vancouver had not only room for them...," said Louie, his voice breaking before continuing. "...but they also belonged."

Louie said he hasn't got a job lined up after he leaves city hall. But, he said, he is not done with politics and hasn't ruled out a run at another level of government, or perhaps returning to city hall.

The provincial NDP and federal Liberals have approached Louie several times during election cycles, but he has declined offers. He lives in a riding currently represented by NDP MP Jenny Kwan.

He has long been touted by some members of his party as a future mayor and acknowledged he was disappointed not to have launched a run this year to replace the retiring Mayor Gregor Robertson.

"To be honest, I have the skills and I care about my city," he said, but noted his consultations with civic politicians across Canada convinced him that taking a break to re-energize for another run is healthy. "It's a good thing to get out of the bubble."

So, Louie for mayor in 2022?

"Well, you start the campaign and see what people think," he replied.