Mayor Ken Sim has now been on the job for six months.
In that short time, he has steadily shown Vancouverites what he believes in, what he opposes and what a leader of a super majority at city hall can accomplish when a party doesn’t stray from its agenda or caucus.
ABC Vancouver’s playbook has been its 94-point platform, which it rolled out in its successful campaign last fall to take over city hall from an independent mayor and a council frequently described by critics as dysfunctional.
So, as Sim said from his office Monday, voters shouldn’t be surprised by his party’s moves.
Hire more cops, hire more firefighters, approve funds for mental health workers, improve conditions in Chinatown, adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism — all of it promised while knocking on doors, making phone calls and talking to media.
But a 10.7 per cent property tax hike? An unprecedented escalation in clearing the sidewalks of homeless people from East Hastings Street? Scrapping the city’s status as a living wage employer?
Not in the playbook.
Neither was opposing a separated bike lane along Broadway.
Or requesting legislative intervention from the provincial government to ensure a controversial Kitsilano housing project geared for a mix of homeless people and low-income residents gets built and doesn’t get stalled by a court fight launched by a neighbourhood coalition.
Outside the council chamber, Sim has told a Greater Vancouver Board of Trade audience that Vancouver is “open for business again” and that he sees a not-so-distant future where the city gets its “swagger” back.
In a move celebrated by community advocates in the Downtown Eastside, Sim proclaimed March 11 as “Smokey D Day,” honouring mural artist Jamie Hardy as a “bridge builder” between the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown; the mayor hosted a get-together in his office’s boardroom for Hardy, where AC/DC played on his turntable.
Sim, who prefers casual shirts, jeans and sneakers over suits and dress shoes, comes across as an easygoing politician who prefers to be called Ken instead of mayor, or his worship.
That demeanour was tested in March when answering reporters’ questions regarding a report in The Globe and Mail suggesting China had an influence in his victory in October. Sim was visibly angry, saying, “if I was a Caucasian male, we're not having this conversation.”
The story recently attracted the attention of The New York Times, with a report posted last weekend with the headline: “Did China help Vancouver’s mayor win election?”
Sim, the son of Hong Kong immigrants, answered that question — again — and more in an interview Monday from his office, which features old photographs of Chinese railway workers, passengers aboard the Komagata Maru and a Pride celebration.
“The reason why we have these pictures up here, is we don't want to forget our history,” said Sim, who has also personally paid for duplicate signs of street names where he grew up in Vancouver — Alamein, McSpadden and West 62nd Avenue, to name a few.
The biggest spot on the office walls, however, goes to a large white board near Sim’s desk, where he has outlined the work ahead. His current four priorities: speeding up the permit approval process to eliminate the housing construction backlog, revitalize Chinatown, business advocacy and mental health and safety.
“And the lens we look through is kindness and empathy, sustainability, scalability, environmental resiliency and reconciliation,” Sim said. “It has to pass that sniff test. We’re focused on the priorities, and we want to make sure we do it the right way.”
The following is a condensed and edited version of the interview.
It’s now been six months since you were sworn in as mayor. How would you assess your performance since inaugurated Nov. 7, 2022?
Well, I would assess the team's performance. I'm just one small part of the team. Overall, I think we've achieved a lot of things that we said we were going to do. We had a 94-point plan that we put out there. I don't know what the number is, but it's definitely over 20 — might be 26 or 27 things — that we've implemented so far. So from that perspective, we're doing what we said we were going to do.
On the night of your victory, you said this during your speech: "I do want to stress this journey's going to be really hard. There will be false starts. We will make mistakes.” Have you made any mistakes?
I'm sure we have. You know, mistakes are really learning opportunities.
Any come to mind?
I'd have to think about that because I want to be very thoughtful with the words that I use.
What’s been your best day on the job?
It's almost every single day.
Absolutely. What makes this job amazing is we have incredible people, not only in council and in our [ABC Vancouver] team members, but team members throughout the city and how hard they work and how much they actually care. This is our hometown, and we love it.
It's an honour to be in the position that we're in. So it feels like every single day is a great day. It starts at seven o'clock in the morning, it ends at 10 o'clock at night, it's basically seven days a week. Every weekend, we have between two and five events. And it's all optional. We show up to as many as we can. And it's great. There's not enough time in the day.
It's been more than a month since the city stepped up enforcement in the Downtown Eastside to clear the sidewalks of homeless people and tents on East Hastings Street. Tents are still up, police and city crews continue with enforcement. I've talked to people living in tents and they say they have no place to go. So when you look back on the decision April 5 to escalate, do you think it was the right move?
Yes, I completely think it was the right move at the right time. And if I were to do it over again, I would do it in a second — enthusiastically.
Why do you say that?
Except for three days, I've been down on Hastings every single day. So we've seen the progress. Sure, structures keep going up, but things have changed. People feel safer down there — and it's not just the people in the encampment. We're talking about people living in SROs, people that live in the neighbourhood. We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response from the residents.
We get comments all the time about seniors that are living in SROs who can actually go see their doctors for the first time in months and get their medications. The number of fires have gone down, the number of violent assaults have gone down. Behaviours are changing. We're not letting up. If you walked the streets, and especially the back alleys — we still have a lot of work to do — but they are a lot cleaner, and they feel a lot safer.
Yet there are people upset with the decision April 5 to escalate. In fact, it was a couple of weeks ago when I was on my way into city hall that I noticed some graffiti sprayed on the back steps. It was about East Hastings and directed at you. Are you familiar with what I’m talking about?
We get graffiti from time to time.
Right, but in all my time covering city hall, I’ve never seen very noticeable nasty graffiti targeting a mayor sprayed on the back steps of city hall.
Look, it's unfortunate. And the reality is if these decisions [regarding the encampment] were easy, they would have been done long ago. So it comes with the territory. If we could wave a perfect magic wand where everything would be taken care of and everyone was super happy, I would reach for that magic wand.
But we have to make tough decisions that are good for the most number of people possible over the long term. And that's what we're doing, and we're not losing sight of our most vulnerable population in the Downtown Eastside that needs a lot of help. We have not lost sight of that. On April 5, it was about enforcing a fire order to make the streets safer.
Your former chief of staff, Kareem Allam, told me last week that he wanted to publicly apologize for promising a group of Downtown Eastside non-profit representatives that this council would not support an escalation in decampment without a housing plan. What do you make of Kareem’s comments?
I don't control what Kareem says out in the public or to different groups. In fact, when he made those comments, I wasn’t even there. At the City of Vancouver, and as mayor of Vancouver, we’re dealing with a fluid situation. Things change all the time. Over eight months ago, there was an initiative to enforce the fire order. That started with helping people find shelter space, different housing options, and we were progressing. But it got to a point where it became abundantly clear that it was extremely dangerous, the risk to public safety was incredibly high and we had to do something differently.
Just look at what happened in front of the Imperial Theatre [on Main Street], where all those propane tanks were going up in flames. We spoke to the firefighters who had to respond to this, and it's terrifying. We were lucky there because if there was a 100-pound tank that blew up, it would have taken out that whole city block. The question I will leave with the public is, ‘Knowing what we knew at that point in time, what would you do differently?’ It's our responsibility to take care of everyone's public safety. So it would be absolutely crazy to not act [like the city-led operation did April 5]. In fact, it would be incredibly negligent.
Let's talk about OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle and Green Party councillors Adriane Carr and Pete Fry. I'm not going to get into all the policies you disagreed on, but scrapping the city's status as a living wage employer, scrapping the art grant to VANDU, opposing a separated bike lane on Broadway, come to mind. So how would you describe your relationship with the three councillors?
I really like them. They’re good people.
But do you like their politics?
Well, we will agree to disagree on some things. But I think we agree on a lot of things. I can't speak for them, I can only speak for myself. When something makes sense that's put forward by any councillor in that chamber, then I will support it. And we have a track record of doing it.
I think of Christine Boyle’s motion on housing that didn't get adopted last term. Not only did we support it, we gave her a standing ovation after. We’re about collaboration, and we're about doing what's best for the city based on data and evidence. So it doesn't matter where these ideas come from. On the flip side, if there's something that we don't agree with, we probably won't support it.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think there's been a time since you were inaugurated Nov. 7, 2022 that you or any of the seven ABC councillors disagreed on something in terms of moving a motion ahead or adopting policy. Is that correct?
I can't think of a time. But the thing is, we did a lot of work prior to the election. So we got concordance on what we wanted to achieve as an organization. So we put it out there. You have the 94-point plan. Things are pretty consistent. We want it to be very clear as to who we were, who we are and what we stood for. So there shouldn't be any surprises.
You’ve highlighted “reconciliation” on your white board under the priorities you’ve outlined. Please explain.
Everything we look at is through the lens of reconciliation. We were very clear during the election that this isn't just virtue signalling, that we’re just going to do a land acknowledgement and that's it. We have to unlearn a lot of things we’ve learned to know the true history of this place. When you look at the budget task force as an example, Wade Grant [of the Musqueam Indian Band] is purposely on there.
What would be your definition of reconciliation?
So maybe I'll talk about the actions. We have conversations with Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh and we literally ask them, ‘So does this make sense? What are you looking for? What's important to you?’ And that starts the conversation. I want to make sure all three First Nations — and I don't know if these are the right words — but has a real seat at the table when it comes to building the future of this incredible city.
Wanted to hear you again on property taxes. People are still upset with this council for approving a 10.7 per cent property tax hike — the highest in recent memory, if not ever in the city’s history. What do you tell taxpayers who stop you on the street and ask what gives?
I give the analogy of a leaky roof. When we came into office, we did our due diligence, we did our inspection, so to speak. The roof was leaking. We had a choice. Do we fix it? Or do we do what the last few administrations have done, which they sort of patch it up, hide it and they let someone else worry about it. We chose to make the hard decision to patch that roof because it was the prudent thing to do.
For the first time in 14 years, our police budget and staffing levels are to where they should be. We are replenishing the reserve fund that was depleted during the last administration. We're not throwing anyone under the bus because there are reasons for that.
A pandemic, maybe?
Yes, but we have to replenish the reserve fund, or we put the city in a very precarious situation. We have a half-billion-dollar capital deficit. The list goes on and on. The fire service — they were below benchmark [in terms of staffing], so we had to do a reset there. Optically, it looks terrible, it doesn't look great — a 10.7 per cent tax hike.
But inflation is running at seven per cent. We have to buy the same concrete — which has gone up in price — from the same suppliers as everyone else, we still have to negotiate collective wage agreements. This is the environment we're in. So in that context, 10.7 per cent works out to about 33 cents per day for the average condo owner, and 84 cents per day for the average homeowner in Vancouver.
When you look at that, and the fact that we got rid of a cup fee, which was 25 cents per cup, the average condo owner in Vancouver — if there's a family of two that goes to Starbucks every day — we actually gave them a tax break.
On top of that, we stopped the road tax, which was real. Spending $20 million on a bike lane on Broadway? There are a bunch of other things we can do to make that road better for people and restaurants and shop owners on Broadway. Never mind the fact that we have four different bike routes within a few blocks of Broadway.
These are the pragmatic decisions that we're making to help the residents and the taxpayers of Vancouver.
On the topic of tax. On Wednesday, council will receive a report from staff that recommends decreasing the previous council’s decision to increase the empty homes tax from three per cent to five per cent. Where do you stand on that?
What we promised the citizens of Vancouver — and you see it on the [office] board — we want to do everything possible to have as many homes built or accessible for residents who want to live in the City of Vancouver. Nothing has changed there. EY [accounting firm] did a lot of work on this. EY is one of the most reputable accounting firms on the planet. It's one of the big four. And they looked at this subjectively with city staff. And it's the recommendation of the experts that keeping it at three per cent is the best option.
And you agree with that?
If you can't defer to world leading experts, then who can you defer to? My position is we want to do whatever we can to provide more housing for people that want to live in the City of Vancouver, and the report is telling us the tax should be at three per cent.
You were in The New York Times over the weekend. The story you appeared in had this headline: “Did China help Vancouver’s mayor win election?” The story, as you’re well aware, was based on a previous story done by The Globe and Mail.
What was the answer to the headline? What did they come up with?
Did you read the story?
Yeah, I did.
I know you were visibly angered when the Globe story was published back in March. You will recall reporters asked you about this at an unrelated news conference at Helena Gutteridge Plaza at city hall. So now that The New York Times is writing about this, do you have anything more to say on the suggestion that China somehow influenced your victory?
I haven't seen the clip yet, but literally 15 minutes before we met someone told me Premier David Eby was asked about that. And I think his response was that he was knocking on doors on behalf of the previous mayor [Kennedy Stewart during his re-election bid] and said China wasn’t the reason why Kennedy lost the election, or I won it.
Here's the reality. We worked incredibly hard, and it wasn't even close and it just goes to the hard work of the collective. We had so many volunteers — volunteers we didn't know about across the city in pretty much every single neighbourhood. Everyone came together. So that was the big influencing factor.
Tell me about the photograph of the Chinese railway workers on the wall above your office couch.
So these are a bunch of fine young gentlemen that came over to Canada from China to build the railway. They were paid a fraction of what their local counterparts were paid. And they did arguably the most dangerous work, walking around with explosive devices to create tunnels. A lot of them died. If it wasn't for them, the railway doesn't get built in Canada. These are the unsung heroes.
Why did you put it up there?
My Asian background is part of it, but we actually have others, as well [pointing to photographs on the walls of the Komagata Maru and Pride]. I'm a proud Canadian. I was born here. I moved away a few times. I always chose to come back here. I love the city. I love our country. So that's the story we're going to celebrate every single time we have someone come into this office.
I noticed your record player. You were playing U2 when I came in. What else have you got in your collection?
I wish I kept my old collection. I had Quiet Riot, Krokus, every single Van Halen album, Duran Duran and Depeche Mode, as well. Had all the [Rolling] Stones, too. [Reaching into his record cabinet] There’s some Police, Queen, John Cougar, Tears for Fears, Public Enemy, David Bowie, Bob Marley, a lot of AC/DC, Judas Priest…
Since you’ve become mayor, I’ve received emails and read comments on social media about your reluctance to wear a suit on the job. I've seen you more in a casual shirt, jeans and runners than I have in a suit and dress shoes. Why is that?
I never really was a suit-and-tie guy. Now, I want to be very respectful of the office, and I will put on a suit and tie if we have something that's incredibly serious, or if I'm going to a funeral. But people get intimidated by the office of the mayor, they get intimidated by a person in a suit. I’m a jeans and T-shirt kind of person. My name is Ken, and I'm just a civil servant that wants to be accessible.