John Coupar was supposed to be the NPA’s mayoral candidate in the Oct. 15 election.
The party’s board of directors appointed the longtime park board commissioner to the position in April, hoping he would be the man to knock off Kennedy Stewart from securing a second term at city hall.
“I think [the board] looked at me and said here’s somebody who’s been making a contribution to the party and has a good background in business and politics, and is the person to lead us forward and try and bring us together in a positive way,” Coupar told Glacier Media in April.
Then, quite surprisingly on Aug. 5, he resigned.
Coupar avoided the media and never said what led to his decision, although he posted on Twitter that he looked forward to spending more time with family and friends.
His sudden departure forced the party to scramble to find another candidate.
Fred Harding, a longtime police officer in his native England and later in West Vancouver, who is married to Chinese pop star Zhang Mi, is that candidate.
His name may be familiar to municipal politics followers.
Harding was Vancouver First’s mayoral candidate in the 2018 election, where he finished sixth out of 21 candidates, collecting 5,640 votes to Stewart’s 49,705.
That result suggests an uphill battle for Harding in the 2022 campaign, particularly when he joined the mayoral race only a few weeks ago and is taking over the leadership of a party that has been in turmoil the past few years.
'A lot of upheaval'
In 2018, the party elected five candidates to council, and now only has one in Melissa De Genova after Rebecca Bligh, Lisa Dominato, Sarah Kirby-Yung and Colleen Hardwick all fled to other parties.
Four board members resigned in July 2020 and board member Angelo Isidorou stepped down in January after a photograph surfaced of him wearing a Make America Great Again baseball cap and flashing a hand gesture associated with “white power” extremists.
More recently, park board commissioner Tricia Barker left the NPA for TEAM for a Livable Vancouver and council candidate Mauro Francis joined Progress Vancouver.
“I'm going to say that we are far from being in turmoil,” Harding said in an interview last week. “No one is going to disagree that there has been a lot of upheaval. But it’s politics and that's what happens. You'd have to ask John Coupar why he's no longer with the party. But I'm here and I feel humbled, privileged and truly honoured to be in this position.”
Added to the NPA’s controversial history are questions on how Harding can now lead a party when he’s been living most of the time since the 2018 election in Beijing, where his wife was undergoing cancer treatment and is now in good health.
Harding answered that question and others about the NPA in a wide-ranging interview from the party’s new campaign office in Kerrisdale, where he discussed a platform big on law and order.
The former police officer’s council slate includes Vancouver Police Department crime analyst Arezo Zarrabian and former Canada Border Services intelligence officer, Cinnamon Bhayani.
The NPA’s other council candidates are De Genova (who is married to a Vancouver police officer), Dunbar Theatre owner Ken Charko, non-profit CEO Elaine Allan and realtor Morning Lee.
The following is a condensed and edited version of the interview.
You now rent a place in the city after agreeing to run for the NPA, but when was the last time you lived in Vancouver?
In 2018, but I've always been a resident here. My car is still registered here. I've got all our property in storage. My taxes have always been filled out and paid in B.C. My bank accounts are still here. So everything about my life. The idea that we're going to come back [to Vancouver] was always there. The reason my wife is still in Beijing is that she's still on a program of getting treatment.
Regardless if you win or lose the election, is the eventual plan to have your wife come over here and secure permanent residency status?
The eventual plan has always been to come over here. The issue we're facing, win or lose, is what kind of treatment that she's going to be able to get.
So you’re eligible to run in Vancouver?
I’m eligible to run because I've never given up my residency. I've never paid tax in China. I wasn't allowed to work in China. Of course, I can consult but I can't work. I couldn't go out and get a job. So my residency has always been here.
You said in your first news conference a couple weeks ago that four years ago the city wasn't ready for you. What makes you think the city is ready for you now?
First of all, I'm with an entirely different party. I've got an entirely different team. And when I talk about the city wasn't ready for me, it was because I was shut out [from debates and media coverage]. I don't expect to be shut out this time. I expect to at least get my point across and get my voice heard. I'm representing the NPA which represents thousands of people. The NPA has been around for almost 100 years. It’s had 11 mayors. So it's a very different gravitas in terms of going forward for the election.
But the party’s move to convince you to run could be seen as desperate, with only a month to go before election day?
I think the man who's walking down the street in Kerrisdale is paying no attention to 90 per cent of that. I also think that 99 per cent of the people don't even know John Coupar was running for the NPA. My reputation, here in my heart, and amongst my peers and my friends, is not of somebody who would jump into something to do something because people are desperate. The reason [the party] called me is because John was no longer here and they needed another mayoral candidate, but they needed a mayoral candidate that can beat Kennedy Stewart.
A poll released Sept. 8 by Research Co. showed you trailing way behind Kennedy Stewart, Ken Sim, Colleen Hardwick and Mark Marissen in the mayoral race. How do you plan to gain some ground before Oct. 15?
Very simple. I didn't come here to lose. I have an incredible game plan that's going to be coming out. Those [poll] numbers are meaningless right now. The election is six weeks away. There's going to be a lot of things happening between now and [the election].
Where do you place yourself on the political spectrum? Left? Right? Centre?
I want to address another point first. Which is I'm here [a racialized man]. And if anybody looks at me and thinks I’m the kind of person that a far-right party would want as their leader, then I'm just going to call the strongest BS on that. The NPA is not a far-right party. Where do I put myself on the political spectrum? If I fell out of an airplane tomorrow and landed in the snow, I would land just to the right. I have zero extremist views. I'm the guy that's going to be looking for a broad tent.
Some of your opponents and critics on social media have accused you of being anti-LGBTQ for comments you made via video in the 2018 campaign regarding SOGI - the provincial government’s sexual orientation and gender identity curriculum. In that video, you said “with SOGI they got it all wrong” and that you were opposed to the “high-handed rollout” and that you would push back against it. Please explain.
There's no doubt the video was clumsy, but the video is not homophobic. We didn't have any parental involvement, nor did we have the involvement of LGBTQ youth [in the rollout]. LGBTQ issues are fundamental to not only me, but to the city. When I joined the police in West Van, I was the cop with the rainbow flag on my car that caused some people consternation because I would not take the rainbow flag off my car. My best friend is gay, who I've known since I was 15. My core group are gay. So people can say what they want about me, but I know who I am.
You’re focusing your campaign on public safety. In your first news conference, you said the city is no longer safe. What was that statement based on?
So you’ve got machete attacks. A random murder on Smithe Street. You have somebody coming out of the building next to the Roxy [nightclub on Granville Street] and attacking somebody with a machete. You have a rise in race hate crime. Ten a week. That to me is an incredible and astonishing rise since 2020. The stranger attacks have risen, too. My dry cleaner — windows broken. I walked down Smithe and saw windows gone. On Robson, same thing, windows gone. And I hear that on Davie Street, there's a business that had to close because he can't keep paying the insurance premium.
If elected, Ken Sim of ABC Vancouver has promised to hire 100 police officers and 100 mental health nurses. Does the NPA plan to do the same?
We're not going to make promises that really have no basis in reality. If you want to bring on 100 police officers and 100 mental health people, there's a cost for that. People want to see their taxes go down or stabilize. We have to find a way to stabilize. What I will say is that the police department is currently running at I believe 39 members below policing levels. So they have effectively been defunded. So we want to make sure that they've got the staffing levels that they need to run an efficient service.
Your public safety plan includes reinstating the police school liaison program, seeking federal money for specialized police teams, requesting “no-go” orders for violent offenders caught in the city, “crisis-level leadership” on public safety at city hall, enforcement of "civil behaviour" and ensuring treatment and drug prevention services are provided in addition to harm reduction. But if you were mayor today, how would you address the human tragedy along the Hastings Street corridor?
We've got a Downtown Eastside that looks like [the movie] Mad Max and has gone to hell in a handbasket. That is about a distinct lack of leadership. We have a mayor who's literally abandoned his responsibility as the chair of the Vancouver Police Board. I'm looking for a couple of buildings where I want the private sector to come in. Imagine a building like Army and Navy [on Hastings] where I can dedicate 12 by 12 squares in that space. I can put in showers. I can put in fire sprinklers. I can have security. I can have storage lockers. I can have washing machines. One of the big issues around a lot of the SROs is shared washrooms. We have to look at what we do about washrooms, too.
So another shelter model?
No, as triage. I want the tents, the encampments off the streets. It would be unconscionable to just clear the streets. People need somewhere to go. But I wouldn’t expect people to be in there for three or four months. We have to understand that people have chronic issues. That’s why I'm saying we have to find a place where we can triage them, then get them stability. I want to be able to provide long-term rehab. And I don't think we can ignore mandatory treatment, either. I don't think it's our first go-to, but I don't think we can ignore that it will play or should play or could play a role in how we help the people in the Downtown Eastside. We can't just have harm reduction and safer supply by itself. It has to be tied into a treatment program.
Where would someone access a long-term rehabilitation facility?
The Squamish Nation has an old MacMillan Bloedel site in Gibsons. But that’s going back 12 years. If that site is still available, I want something like that. I would want to work with Squamish Nation, Tsleil-Waututh Nation — any nations who have an area that could be used for long-term rehab.
Your plan also calls for examining case law in B.C. and the rest of Canada that puts the onus on senior levels of government to act on such social issues as homelessness and addiction. Not sure what you mean. Can you explain?
I was really involved in Indigenous issues when I was with the West Van police. There's two case laws. One is Regina v. Sparrow and the other is Regina v.. Guerin. Let's say two per cent of the population is Indigenous and 24 per cent of the homeless population is Indigenous. There is case law that puts the responsibility — a fiduciary duty — on the government to deal with Indigenous issues. It's an obligation. You hold government accountable. [Editor's note: The City of Vancouver's 2020 homeless count showed two per cent of Vancouver's population is Indigenous and 39 per cent identified as homeless.]
But as I recall, both cases involve the Musqueam Indian Band. Sparrow was about fishing rights and Guerin was about land title. So how does that relate to homelessness, addiction, mental illness — the social issues in this city?
Why I'm talking about this is because the cases talk about prioritizing Indigenous issues over everything else. Imagine I can use these two pieces of case law to remove and help 24 per cent of the homeless people on the Downtown Eastside. It's never been done before. Again, it’s about a fiduciary duty.
OK, but where do you start with that approach? Do you get the city’s legal team on this? Seems like it could be a costly legal exercise with no end date.
I don't want to talk about blowing a budget and having like 20 people sitting around. But I’ve got to think that there are enough lawyers with the skill set and the knowledge on Indigenous issues to dig in to the case law and come out and say, ‘We can win this.’
Business owners in Chinatown, residents and community advocates are concerned about the state of that community. They’ve complained of crime, street disorder and graffiti. What’s the NPA’s plan to address their needs?
Four years ago, I talked about revitalizing Chinatown. There are people who want to keep it like it is, and people who want to see it revitalized. It should be a big economic draw for our city. Ten years ago, the cruise ships would come in and people would go into Chinatown and go and have a meal and enjoy Chinatown. It is impossible to start loading people into Chinatown right now because it's overrun with homeless people and chronic drug addicts — people twitching on the street and people lying in excrement on the street. When I first came [to Vancouver] in 1997, I would go to Chinatown with my first wife and we would always go there. There's no way I would now take my children to Chinatown for a meal.
So how do you fix that?
At some point, the streets have to be cleared. They have to be claimed back. I'm going to be with the police when it comes to taking the streets back. It’s not just about the Downtown Eastside. It's about showing leadership on actually taking back the entire city. So lawlessness has to be controlled. It has to be put under control. Support of the police has to be seen, not just imagined.
The city has a responsibility for everybody, not just the homeless people. I want to say this — and I probably won't come across as compassionate — but I have to say it, we have a housing crisis. But it’s not just poor people who are looking for houses. Some guy who's making 85 grand a year looking for an apartment is either sharing with three or four other people, or is paying five grand a month in rent. That's not sustainable either. But if I buy a tent, I'm propelled to the front of the queue. Doesn't make sense.
What's your plan for affordable housing?
The community amenity contributions [CACs] that developers pay have to be known before a project begins. There's a company that only deals with rental units and they wanted to build a 200-unit rental building on Alberni Street. But because they were dealing with the uncertainty on the CACs, they actually ended up flipping it to a luxury property developer. Developers are now looking outside of Vancouver, they want to move to Seattle, where it's much easier, or Arizona, where it's easier. What you do is you create certainty.
Right now, what everybody's doing is negotiating, they're sitting on property and they're not building on it. We don't have enough supply. So I want to build around our transit hubs and have a lot of affordable housing. People are talking about how we have a housing crisis. This is crisis-level management, where we have to bring in supply and bring people in to build that supply.
Also, I grew up in council housing [in England], and we had the right to buy. [Former British prime minister] Margaret Thatcher brought this in. Anybody who rented had a right to buy, and I think that we need to have something like that in Vancouver, where the rent you've paid in the past will go towards what you're going to pay in the future to buy the property.
How do you prevent Kennedy Stewart from securing a second term as mayor?
You confront him with his record. I was at a debate the other night when he said the city approved 1,600 rental places. I'm sure he's bang on the money. But the number of those approvals that actually go through to being developed is a fraction of the approvals because the system that he has in place is so broken that people are walking away from developing. [In the 2018 campaign], he talked about fixing the permit process system. That's worse. I remember what he said about the Downtown Eastside and how he's going to clean it up. It’s worse. I distinctly remember being at a debate at the Floata Restaurant, and he talked about what he is going to do for Chinatown. It's worse. With four years in office, he should be unassailable.
Kennedy Stewart will tell you that he secured $1 billion in money for housing from the province and the feds. He will also tell you that he inherited a pandemic as of March 2020, which put cities around the globe in tailspins. So is it fair to make that assessment of his record, even though he had to lead the city through a pandemic?
Four years ago, I talked about the need to have a resilience czar, or commissioner at the city. This was part of the Vancouver First program to get the city through any disasters, natural or man-made. Had I been mayor four years ago, I would have created a position for somebody that makes sure the city's resilient to anything that comes its way. So it's not an excuse to say we had a pandemic. Of course, the pandemic shifted everything for everybody. But it doesn't mean that you couldn't have had a response ready.