2002-2012: The City We Still Want

Think City Board Chair Neil Monckton presented this talk on Vancouver's democratic development as part of a plenary panel discussion at the fifth Montreal Citizens' Summit on June 7, 2009.

Neil MoncktonThink City is grateful for the chance to speak today at the fifth Montreal Citizens Summit about the democratic reform work that we have undertaken in Vancouver over most of the past decade

I will now tell you a story about our dream to create the city that we want on Canada's west coast

By way of background, let me say that Think City was originally initiated as a policy outreach project that I helped establish as part of my work as the civic party director for the left-wing Coalition of Progressive Electors or COPE in mid-2001.

In early 2004, Think City was spun off from COPE as its own organization, non-partisan and non-profit, led by a board of directors of which I am now the chair. We have a modest annual budget and most of our projects are run by volunteers with the help of short-term paid staff members.

Think City anchors the now annual Jane Jacob's memorial walks in Vancouver each May, conducts a yearly survey of the public on city budget priorities, co-organized Canada's second only exit poll for the 2008 Vancouver municipal election, publishes the online city issues bulletin the Think City Minute, and works to promote the policies we have developed in consultation with citizens. Nearly 5,000 people took part in Think City projects in 2008 and we maintain a list of nearly 20,000 supporters.

This work is done in the City of Vancouver, often referred to as Canada's third-largest city, it is in fact the country's eighth largest city of nearly 600,000 souls who live in 23 neighbourhoods. It is also a city of solitudes based on ethnicity, class and geography. And it is governed by ten councillors and one mayor who are elected at-large every three years in what has become Canada's most expensive election (on any level).

This last point needs to be underscored - the at-large electoral system.

At-large elections means councillors do not come from a specific neighbourhood instead voters must cast a ballot where they choose 27 representatives for council, school board and parks board citywide. This is a huge obstacle to not only providing accountable representation for neighbourhoods but also diminishes the ability for fostering citizenship within these neighbourhoods between elections. It has also contributed to a political mono-culture for the majority of the past 80 years.

From 1937 to 2002, the city was mostly governed by one party - the centre-right Non-Partisan Association or NPA - winning almost 75% of the seats. Since the time of Franco we would always joke, the NPA has dominated the politics and life of our city.

But that all changed in 2002, when Mayor Larry Campbell and his COPE council swept to power winning every single seat they contested and sending the NPA into the political wilderness.

The stage was set for new progressive civic policy ideas and solutions. And Think City was there to play its part in pushing for democratic change.

With this new mayor and council, we could now ask ourselves for the first time in a very long time: How can citizens have a greater say in shaping the city they want?

LadderBut first, we must consider where Vancouver was on the democratic ladder.

If we use Sherry Arnstein's "Ladder of Citizen Participation" our city was pretty much where Montreal also found itself in the earlier part of the new millennium. Smack in the middle of the ladder on the tokenistic informing/consultation/placation rungs.

For those of you who may not be familiar with this notion of the ladder, the tokenistic realm we in Vancouver found ourselves in, the next slide should reveal the feelings we as community activists had when it came being asked to participate in civic life by city hall.

This poster was produced in 1968 by a group of French students active in the politics of France of the day.

I won't attempt to destroy our other official language but the intent of the poster is pretty clear even to a unilingual Westerner like me - I participate, you participate, he participates, we participate, you all participate...they profit.

PosterAs Sherry Arnstein noted in her seminal essay in 1969, the poster was meant to signify that:

...[P]articipation without a redistribution of power is an empty and frustrating process.... It allows the powerholders to claim that all sides were considered, but makes it possible for only some of those sides to benefit.

That's where we were in Vancouver in January 2003 following COPE's momentous electoral win - so how would the new city council get us out of this mess? And what role would Think City play?

Think City chose the path of electoral reform - we had a majority on council who said they wanted to change the electoral system and the party had campaigned on introducing wards during the 2002 election. It seemed like a slam dunk.

As well, we believed that wards were absolutely necessary, if we were to re-establish the neighbourhood as the basic building block of future citizen engagement.

First, Think City and it civic-party parent COPE persuaded the council and mayor to establish the Vancouver Electoral Reform Commission.

From January to May in 2004, the commission toured the city taking submissions from the public. In the end it endorsed a 14-member wards system and produced a new electoral map for the city.

It also recommended many other significant changes to how the city conducts elections. But the commission also asked for one more thing - something that was not required by either the provincial government or the city's charter - the commission directed the city to conduct a plebiscite in a non-election year on the wards question.

Unfortunately, despite polls showing the majority of citizens supported wards, the Yes and No sides were unequally matched in the area of resources, as major developers and the corporate sector provided at least $250,000 in funding to the No side that was lead by then-city councilor Sam Sullivan (the man who would eventually be our next mayor). On the Yes side, COPE put up a modest $70,000 budget to fight the citywide plebiscite - in comparison, COPE spent $1.1 million to fight the 2002 election.

In addition to these imbalances, divisions within the progressive city council in 2004 greatly undermined the party's focus.

The plebiscite failed.

Besides the wards loss, none of the more substantial recommendations that required provincial legislation such as giving the city the ability to create a proportional representation mechanism for elections or imposing campaign spending and contribution limits on parties were enacted in the coming years.

By the end of COPE's mandate in 2005, we had not advanced the democratic debate one inch. And for those who relish city rivalries, Montreal was now, clearly the democratic leader in the country.

The COPE regime then splintered into two centre-left parties - COPE and Vision Vancouver - and the party that had a mandate to reform Vancouver's democratic system was defeated in November 2005 - relegated to third place.

The right-wing NPA were back in power.

From 2005 to 2008, community activists had little hope that a renewed NPA would seriously consider making any significant democratic changes under Mayor Sullivan, so the now non-partisan and autonomous Think City began to retool its strategy and program for citizen engagement.

With electoral reform clearly on the back burner due to the plebiscite loss, Think City turned to a new mechanism to build public support for democratic change.

In late 2006, the idea for developing a citizens' agenda was born. Simply electing a city council that was committed to reform had not proved to be enough in the past. Think City knew that we also needed to make sure we had a broader citizens' movement outside the party system to push for change no matter who was in power. And this was not going to be a one- or two-year project, but a multi-year effort involving many citizens and community organizations.

To carry this forward, Think City created the project known as Dream Vancouver to support the ongoing process that would be needed to give Vancouver's citizens the ability to influence the political parties agenda leading up to the 2008 election and therefore the city's policy direction for the next mandate.

The citizens' agenda process started with a major conference in October 2007. In the lead-up to this one-day event, 50 community group partners and 24 prominent people like former Vancouver mayor and BC premier Mike Harcourt, new urbanist planner and one of the key drivers of the "Vancouver Model" Larry Beasley and novelist and poet Joy Kagawa took part in online discussions or contributed to the development of the conference. As well, Simon Fraser University's Graduate Public Policy Program partnered with Think City to provide support and guidance in the formation of the policy options that were to emerge from the conference proceedings.

At the Dream Vancouver conference itself, 260 people from diverse backgrounds gathered to talk about their ideas for the city. In attendance were prominent representatives of all major civic political parties, along with provincial member of the legislative assembly Gregor Robertson - now Mayor Gregor Robertson.

The dreaming was facilitated by one (very skilled) person in an open spaces format, using a version of appreciative inquiry that allowed those in attendance to go through a process of identifying and prioritizing the issues that mattered most to them.

Starting with simple conversations between two participants, the day built to a crescendo of ideas that culminated in a full-room discussion in which all participants took part.

In the end, three issue themes were at the top of the gathering's list - housing and homelessness, transportation and citizen involvement.

Following the conference, from January to July 2008, Think City took the three themes and began developing five key policy options for each that reflected what citizens had said at the conference. Continuing our work with SFU, we consulted academics, community leaders, business and other experts to develop the options. We also workshopped the policies with our supporters.

For the balance of my presentation, I will focus on the democratic or citizen involvement options which brings us back full circle to the question of how can we ensure citizens have the power to create the city they want.

By the end of July 2008, we finalized the five democratic reforms we wanted to put before the broader public and the parties, as we headed towards the November civic election. Many of these options will be very familiar to you in Montreal thanks to the work of Mayor Tremblay's Task Force on Democracy chaired by Think City's good friend Dimitri Roussopoulos.

  1. The city should replace the at-large system with another electoral system (e.g., wards, proportional representation).
  2. The city should provide more funding and other resources to foster citizen-directed activities in neighbourhoods (e.g., area councils, childcare/seniors care, community gardens, etc.).
  3. The city should establish an independent office of public consultation to ensure all city consultation processes are transparent, credible and effective.
  4. The city should provide citizens with direct ways to set city council priorities between elections (e.g., ongoing democratic reform through a citizens' assembly or annual/capital budget development through participatory budgeting).
  5. The city should create a public engagement strategy for multicultural communities.

From August to November last year, we surveyed the public and the three major civic parties (NPA, COPE and Vision) on the five options. In all, 70-87% of the 2,513 citizens we surveyed agreed or strongly agreed with these policy options. Moreover, Mayor Robertson and the Vision Vancouver party said they strongly agreed with all five policy options. And on November 15, Vision was swept to power marking what many of us call the beginning of the second phase of democratic change in Vancouver in the modern and more competitive political era.

In addition to securing the support from the new Mayor and his party for our policy priorities, Vision officially adopted significant pieces of our citizens' agenda in the party's own election platform.

Specifically, the mayor's party committed to creating a citizens engagement unit for the first time that would see staff from reassigned to lead and coordinate public consultation for major public initiatives, including Listening to Vancouver, an annual series of consultations and workshops where the public can share ideas, and guide the government.

The unit would also provide recommendations to improve civic participation city-wide, including a strategy to increase the involvement of multi-cultural communities, refugees, and non-citizens in the democratic process.

In regards to the all-important question of electoral reform, the city plans to press the BC government to establish campaign finance rules, to come into effect for the 2011 municipal election. In addition, Mayor Robertson says he will have reforms to the at-large system studied by the Vision administration with specific emphasis on neighbourhood-based representation, and put this to plebiscite in the 2011 municipal election.

Finally, Mayor Robertson's lead councilor for citizen engagement in Vancouver, Councillor Andrea Reimer asked me to highlight to you assembled here today two other important citizen engagement initiatives she and her fellow councillors will be pursuing later in the mandate.

First, Councillor Reimer will be asking council to consider developing a citizens' charter for Vancouver, based on the Montreal Citizens' Charter - your city's gift to our city. Second, she will also ask council to begin the work of developing a plan to implement neighbourhood-elected councils - a change that would go well beyond even Montreal's excellent borough system.

If the city pursues the promises it has made to support Think City's citizens' agenda, along with the various Vision Vancouver policies, then we will see a dramatic shift in the democratic life of the city.

If all goes well, by 2012 we may even eclipse Montreal as the most democratic city in the country.

However, recent history has taught us in Vancouver that without popular pressure from an organized citizens' movement, change will not necessarily happen - certainly not in times when we are governed by anti-democratic politicians and not necessarily even when we are governed by a progressive mayor and council at city hall.

No government is going to surrender some of its power without a struggle.

Power to the people.