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Election 2022: Why Kennedy Stewart wants to be mayor of Vancouver (again)

Stewart: 'I really feel like I've got a job unfinished and COVID really put a dent in it'
Kennedy Stewart has served one four-year term as mayor and wants another one but is facing 14 challengers in the Oct. 15 election.

Kennedy Stewart wants a second term as mayor of Vancouver.

He’s been talking about this for almost four years.

Like many mayors before him, Stewart’s reasoning is simple but predictable: he wants to finish what he started.

Driving his ambition is the relationships he formed with the provincial and federal governments that he says are strong and have led to him securing more than $1 billion in grants and loans for housing in Vancouver.

“If I have a whole team [with me at city hall], rather than spending hours and hours in council and sorting out points of order, I think I can cement those relationships even more and get even more investment here in the city,” he said from his office at city hall Sept. 8.

The team he is referring to is his new party, Forward Together.

Voters will recall Stewart, a longtime Burnaby NDP MP, ran as an independent in the 2018 election. This time around, he has secured six council candidates, including his wife, Jeanette Ashe, head of the political science department at Douglas College.

“If it wasn’t all politics all the time at home, then it will definitely be when she’s a councillor,” he said of Ashe, who recently ran unsuccessfully for the NDP in the Vancouver-Quilchena byelection, where she lost to BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon.

Another former NDP candidate, Tesicca Truong, who works as a dialogue associate and manager of engagement and social enterprise at the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, joined the team last week.

The party’s other council candidates are computer programmer Russil Wvong, community organizer and Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology grad Dulcy Anderson, accessibility advocate Hilary Brown and the mayor’s communications director (currently on leave from the position), Alvin Singh.

But it will be Stewart who has to defend his record alone, as he faces challengers Ken Sim of ABC Vancouver, Colleen Hardwick of TEAM for a Livable Vancouver, Mark Marissen of Progress Vancouver and Fred Harding of the NPA.

Officially, 15 people are running for mayor in the Oct. 15 election.

Over 45 minutes last week, Stewart defended some of his record, explained his relationship with the Vancouver Police Department and confirmed he will continue to push for a ward electoral system to replace the at-large system.

The interview was conducted before his party released its housing platform, which is scheduled to be unveiled Tuesday (Sept. 13) at a 114-unit rental building under construction on East Broadway.

“I’m very ambitious on housing,” he said. “I've had some awesome discussions with the federal and provincial governments. I'm very excited about what we might be able to do.”

The following is a condensed and edited version of the interview.

You’ve had a solid four years as mayor. Why not step aside and let someone else have a shot at the job?

This job is definitely challenging. It kind of took me the first year to figure things out. There's a lot to learn, even though I studied this forever. But once I secured the relationship with the federal government and then the provincial government, those bonds are so tight now. [Federal Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs] Dominic LeBlanc called me up today and said, ‘Hey, that heat pump you wanted for the library? Here you go, $2.4 million dollars — bang.’ So there's this kind of golden opportunity with the federal Liberals and NDP, especially with David Eby coming in as premier.

When I came in, I told city management that I’m going to go off to Ottawa to get money for housing, and they didn't believe me. You were probably at that press conference [in August 2019] with Jean-Yves Duclos where we came back with $184 million in grants and loans. And that just continued. Since then, when you add it all up between the feds and the province, there's been over a billion dollars in housing investment here. I’d like to keep that rolling. I really feel like I've got a job unfinished and COVID really put a dent in it.

You know how the power of incumbency works, and with all 11 members of council seeking re-election, including Coun. Colleen Hardwick taking a run at your job, you could very well end up with the same council, minus one.

We're running six people so we can have a majority on council and work with the other parties —whoever winds up there. We’ll run on a platform and deliver that platform. I’m feeling pretty good that that'll happen, but we'll just have to see on election night.

So you believe you and your Forward Together running mates will win a majority?

Yes, I do. I’m not going to talk to you about much of the platform today, but when you think of the things that we've been able to deliver, and what we could potentially do here, I think folks will be excited about it and will vote for us.

Let’s clear something up between you and ABC Vancouver mayoral candidate Ken Sim — if that's possible during a campaign — over your so-called “road tax.” For the record, do you plan to tax drivers who enter the downtown core?

Unfortunately, we're in this kind of space in the election where people will say anything to get elected, and that's where you are with Ken Sim. He knows there's no road tax. I want to be clear that I don't support a road tax. And in fact, the city can't legally do it. So if any future council wants to do a road tax, they can't do it.

OK, so let’s look back on some of the promises you made in 2018. Let’s begin with housing. You committed to build 85,000 homes over the next 10 years, with 25,000 of those being non-profit “affordable” rental homes for households making $80,000 or less. When you do the math, that means 10,000 affordable rental homes should have been built under your term. Did that happen?

In 2010, the city was doing about 4,000 units a year in approvals, and we hit 8,800 last year, and 60 per cent of that was rental or social housing. So that is right along the plan that I had. And once we add in the figures this year, we're right on track to hit that. I actually think now — looking at all the projects that have potential here in the city — we can totally exceed that. That’s if we have more cohesion on council.

But just to be clear, you didn’t meet your goal of 2,500 affordable rental units per year?

We were really on a great roll in 2019, especially with the feds and province starting to invest here. And then COVID really knocked it off. We had to recalibrate. I had to go to the Board of Trade and say, ‘Hey, the era of tearing down rental buildings and replacing them with condos is over.’ In that speech, I told [a business audience that included builders] that if you're going to displace people, we're not going to approve your stuff. So it took a little while to recalibrate, but now the industry has transformed to build rental. We're ready to rock and I know we can beat the numbers that we have here. But I'm really proud of where we got to in this term.

You promised to hire a renters’ advocate to work with council and ensure renters have access to legal advice and advocacy they need to fight unfair evictions and rent increases. I don’t believe such a person was hired.

We have a renters’ centre. This [renters’ advocate] was an election promise, but then we went into council and kicked it around and came out with a renters’ centre. It’s supposed to have a physical space downtown by the law courts. That’s in the process, but we’re waiting for a lease to expire [in the space]. The physical space is just on the verge of opening, and will be kind of a one-stop shop. It was virtual anyway in COVID, so that was fine.

You promised to negotiate a new Vancouver Agreement, which was in place more than 20 years ago, and had the province, the feds and the city working to improve conditions in the Downtown Eastside. So far, that hasn’t happened. Why?

I wouldn't say we did it all in one single document. The original Vancouver Agreement was mostly around poverty, drugs and housing. So I would say, for example, [my push for] decriminalization, where eventually the province applied and received an exemption — that was close to a Vancouver Agreement-level negotiation. And then the housing provision, which has resulted in over a billion dollars in investments from all three levels of government.

Last year, we opened 1,600 units of social housing and filled them. We bought hotels, opened more modular housing. Then we had more support from the feds, which helped us through COVID with hiring folks to work in the SROs to provide food and to get resources on the ground. That's been an ongoing operational fund. So we didn't get one document that says ‘Vancouver Agreement,’ but we have really more than that in the component parts.

You committed to secure federal, provincial and University of B.C. money to extend the SkyTrain along the Broadway corridor to the university. What’s happening with that?

So the first battle on that one was to actually get the [region’s] mayors to agree. The last transit plan had an initial study of SkyTrain to UBC. So what I had to convince the mayors’ council to do was now approve that as an official line on the map, and that happened. That wasn't easy. There was quite a lot of resistance from suburban mayors. But in the end, everybody came around and it was unanimous. What prompted a lot of that was the agreement by the city, the province, UBC, the three host nations and the feds to fund the business case.

So that is money that has been accelerated and all the partners are signed off. It’s between $40 million and $60 million and I think it puts us in shape to get the UBC extension finished by 2030 — if the senior partners in the end decide that they want to fully fund it. I think that's going to happen. I really do. And there's a bunch of other transit investments that I'll be talking about in my platform [before Oct. 15].

You promised to build 100,000 square feet of “affordable studio space” over the next decade “by integrating arts spaces into more public buildings and affordable housing developments and creating new purpose-built spaces.” I can think of one in Mount Pleasant on East Third Avenue, but I’m not familiar with any other projects.

So we have the “culture shift plan” here at the city that's officially approved and it's actually 800,000 square feet. So in my campaign platform, I dramatically underestimated what the city can actually provide. And that's in new builds and refurbishment and all that kind of stuff. So that is now officially adopted as a city program.

It’s a program, but how much studio space has been built?

Openings with COVID delayed a bunch of them, but they are built into our capital plans. This 800,000-square-foot buildout is built into our capital plan.

What happened to the lobbyist registry you promised? Your platform in 2018 said you wanted to require lobbyists to declare details of their activities in an online registry. You also wanted to levy fines for non-compliance and make the information available to the public.

When I got elected, I kind of floated this around council. It was a popular notion, so we studied it. Then city staff came back and said, ‘We can do one, which is like Surrey’s, which will be voluntary.’ But the city’s legal team had been working on something bigger, which was the integrity commissioner [Lisa Southern was hired in January]. So we opted to go that route and to really change the Code of Conduct [for council and staff] and bring in an integrity commissioner to oversee it, which I think has been a huge step forward.

We also said that we would disclose all our [meeting] calendars. We have asked the province to give us the power to do a full-on registry like at the federal and provincial level lobby registry, but we haven't had any bites on that. The other thing is we now have an auditor general, whose first report was for us to put whistle blower bylaws in. So I'd say on the full-blown lobbyist registry, I think we still really need that. But we've got a whole bunch of added protections, and the integrity commissioner has been active.

You also talked about prohibiting officials and “key staff members” from accepting government contracts or lobbying for 12 months after leaving their positions. I reported shortly after you were elected that you had met several times with former councillor Raymond Louie, which was counter to what you were promoting. So what’s happening with that promise?

Best intentions, but when we get into existing contracts that are signed, I was advised by the city’s senior management team that that would violate a bunch of those contracts. So that is something we'll have to do when we're going forward, and I think it'll have to be under another council to build this [clause] into contracts. I didn't find there was the will there to do that. All that stuff is really done in-camera, so I can't really talk about how all that went down.

Never mind contracts involving former staff, what about former councillors, or mayors — can’t you put something in place for them?

You can't really restrict them going somewhere else. But I do think that's something that should be tightened up, but we don't really have the current power. So I think I kind of overswung on that one a little bit.

A ward system. You’re in favour and you talked about the need for such a voting system in your 2018 campaign. If re-elected, are we going to see you make this happen?

If I can get my majority, yes absolutely. Councillor Jean Swanson is a huge advocate of wards. We've really worked on this together, but talking to other councillors, there wasn't the agreement to do it. We did have — during one amendment on one vote — a kind of semi-test of it, and only myself, Jean and councillor [Colleen] Hardwick voted for at least to look at a full ward system, but it didn't pass.

You need six votes for that to happen. And that is one of the things that made me seek out a team of candidates that were all willing to do this. In the Vancouver Charter, there is a provision that says you need a simple majority vote to switch to a neighborhood constituency system. Then the provincial cabinet has to approve it. That’ll definitely be in this platform again, and hopefully this time I can bring the votes with me to get it done.

How’s your relationship with the Vancouver Police Department?

I didn't really know anything about policing when I became chair of the Vancouver Police Board. I really have to thank [Police Chief] Adam Palmer because he was so generous with his time to help me understand what is a super complex service to deliver to the public. The structure is so strange because the police board is appointed by the province [save for one city appointment] and I'm the chair, but I have no vote. You’re overseeing decisions that sometimes you don't agree with and can't really do anything about. So that was a very odd position to be in. So I was learning a lot in that first year.

Then a couple of things happened that really made me understand my responsibility to the city. The first is when we had the street checks report that clearly showed that there was bias toward Indigenous and Black people, and people of colour when it came to stops. It was statistically proven. That was really when I first twigged that, ‘Oh, there's something wrong with how we're doing things here.’ But really the incident that really changed things for me was the handcuffing of the 12-year old Indigenous girl outside the BMO branch downtown. And I remember I was told that was happening and failing to speak out about it. I just said, ‘Wow, if I can’t stand up for a 12-year-old kid, then I shouldn't be in this job.’ That's what prompted me to think we need reform here.

So I called [B.C. Solicitor General] Mike Farnworth and I said, ‘Look, we need to seriously look at what's going on with policing here.’ A number of other former police and very respected members of the community confirmed what I thought that some kind of structural change was needed. So standing up and calling out systemic racism in the VPD, it's something I felt I had to do because I saw it and kind of felt ashamed of my lack of standing up. So now we've had the [provincial government] committee that has reported back and we'll have some legislative reform.

So that made things difficult because the police board at that point didn't really agree with me. But I think we've got to a better place now, and the board has now in their new strategic plan admitted systemic, institutionalized racism and are now taking big steps to address it. That was kind of a lonely, a lonely time for me, but not nearly as lonely as a 12-year-old girl on a sidewalk in handcuffs for no reason.

From the outside people might say I'm anti-police, but I'm not. We're doing the same thing within the City of Vancouver. We have a chief equity officer now. We've done a survey of all our personnel asking about their experience within the organization, and we're uncovering all kinds of stuff that we have to fix.

In a complaint to the police board last year, Sgt. Blair Canning wrote this about you: “He actively participates in eroding the public confidence and perception of the VPD by making generalized, often misinformed political statements, which contribute to an overall negative view of policing and police officers.” What do you say to that?

Everybody has to feel safe in this city, and lots of people do, but lots of people don't. And there's different kinds of not feeling safe, and racialized people have to feel safe in this city. A lot of their complaints come from interactions with police, and that was documented in our street checks report and through all kinds of organizations I talk to. So you can't turn a blind eye to that. But institutional change is hard. It's really difficult and I really feel like the police board has made some good moves there to change policy — the handcuffing policies change, for example. And I do think the province, with legislative reform, will help.

How would you rate your performance on reducing homelessness?

I won't give myself a letter grade. As you will recall, with COVID, I had to shut the city down on St. Patrick's Day. Besides the overdose work and talking to Dr. Patricia Daly [of Vancouver Coastal Health], that was my real first introduction to the public health component of being mayor. Everybody was completely terrified about what was going to happen in the Downtown Eastside. We had no vaccines or masks or anything. Social distancing restrictions came in and all of a sudden all these SRO hotels that allowed guests couldn’t allow that anymore. And overnight, we had all these folks — plus people losing jobs — showing up in parks, like families and stuff. We never really tracked how many people were without a home in COVID, but we know it expanded massively. There was a lot going on at that point.

But when things stabilized a little bit, and the feds got their programs running, then we started talking with them about investing in housing. And that's where we got to the billion-dollar number. Just last year, we open and filled 1,600 units of social housing. Yet, we still see the situation on East Hastings [with the encampment] and folks in parks shows you what happened with COVID. If we had delivered 1,600 units of housing prior to COVID, basically there would be nobody on the street, more or less.

But the demand for that kind of a low-cost housing has exploded. So I would say under those circumstances, it doesn't matter how I feel about myself. What matters is how are people doing on the street. I was on a call today with the federal ministers to get more money for the folks on East Hastings and working really closely with Murray Rankin. This is why I think I need a second term. So if I've secured a billion in my first term, maybe I can get a billion in my second term.

Everybody who has served as mayor in the past two decades promised to make things better for people in the Downtown Eastside. Here we are in 2022 and the human tragedy along the East Hastings corridor has been called an embarrassment for such a wealthy city like Vancouver. People are pointing to you to make a difference. So how do you respond to criticism that you’ve dropped the ball here?

I put my nose down and get to work. What's not going to help is cuts. In a debate last night, I challenged Ken Sim because he has said now on four occasions that I can document that he's going to cut $330 million [to help pay for 100 police, 100 mental health nurses and more firefighters]. Things are going to get way, way worse if he does that. I challenged him last night to drop it, and he wouldn't. And I'm like, ‘Dude, you call yourself a forensic auditor? Like, this is serious.’ I think it's the question of the election really. It’s the most radical proposal I've heard in terms of the budget.

So if my calculation is correct, property tax hikes totalled 29.24 per cent since the current council was elected. How do you explain that to taxpayers?

So much of what we pay for is linked to labour. What we're paying for is people doing jobs. So when contracts go up over the inflation mark, then you're going to have a cost that escalates beyond inflation, too. Police, for example, get paid quite a lot more than inflation. You're kind of locked into paying those costs to them and all your other workers because you want good relations with your civic unions. But also, it was negotiating the budgets that I think added a lot of cost to them. We knew from the first budget that all five NPAers were going to vote against every budget, which they did. And then it would be negotiations with hard bargainers like Jean Swanson and Adriane Carr with deciding votes. Basically, we had to negotiate for many, many months.

I don't want to blame it all on negotiations, because a lot of it is tied to labour costs. But if I have a majority on council, then we can have a little bit more certainty around the budget. We've still maintained our triple-A credit rating and we win all kinds of accounting awards for transparency. So I feel under the circumstances, I did about as good as I could. It's not a strong mayor system. I would have liked the [property tax] increases to be a little lower.

Why should voters give you a second term as mayor?

It's a real privilege to do this. So I've just got to hang my shingle out and try to explain my record as best I can, and then offer a way forward that meets what people need. I think my leadership through COVID — everything from declaring the first state of emergency in the history of the city to pushing back on truck convoys — showed I've got what it takes to lead. Securing money from the feds and the province, bringing decriminalization to the city to address our terrible overdose crisis, leading on reconciliation — I hope those are enough things that people say, ‘OK, you kind of passed your first test, but now what are you going to do for me?’ Over the coming weeks, we're going to announce a platform that I hope people will support.

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