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Meena Wong offers strong alternative to Vancouver's blancmange mayoral race

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Meena Wong talks with reporters on the steps of City Hall

The Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) attempted to offer an alternative today to the blancmange buffet currently masquerading as Vancouver's muncipal election -- in which two wealthy, pro-developer, white, male candidates vie for the mayoral seat. Former federal NDP candidate Meena Wong announced her intention this morning to run for mayor in order "to create a Vancouver that everyone can afford and enjoy."

In July, the Vancouver Courier published an editorial cartoon by the talented Geoff Olson announcing a mixed martial arts match between Gregor "The Juicer" Robertson and Kirk "Ink-Stained" Lapointe. Two real estate developers look on and toast to a "win-win situation."

Vision Vancouver, heavily favoured to win in the coming November election, might like to paint itself as the progressive heroes who can rescue the city from the sinister right-wing boogeyman-in-waiting, the NPA. Their stances on composting, bike lanes and oil supertankers maintain this pose of progressive concern trolling. But the fact is that Olson's cartoon points to an uncomfortable truth: when it comes to the economic direction of the city, there is very little light between the two frontrunners. Free passes to developers and profit-driven development remain the rule as the costs in the most expensive city in North America accelerate apace.

Wong, fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese and English, frustrates this mano à mano narrative crafted by Vision and the NPA. With connections to activist, immigrant and progressive communities as well as her involvement with the federal and provincial NDP, Wong has the capacity to build a robust left-wing opposition to the false choice of this or that real estate speculator. 

"COPE has helped to shape the Vancouver that we love today," Wong said at her press conference on the steps of City Hall, flanked by about two-dozen supporters and attended by English, Mandarin and Cantonese media. "Since 1968, COPE has fought for a just city that is based on compassion, respect and duty to all."

Wong first entered politics in Toronto when she was a senior staffer for current Toronto mayoral candidate and former NDP MP Olivia Chow. She was introduced to COPE in 2005 when she worked for then-councillor Ellen Woodsworth. In 2011, she ran in the nigh-unwinnable riding of Vancouver South for the NDP, increasing the party's vote count by over 1,000 during the "Orange Crush."

With the teacher strike in British Columbia dominating headlines this month, Wong made it clear where she stands on the current conflict. "No party has taken a stand to protect public schools and public education like COPE," she said. "30 years ago the COPE school board was fired for refusing to implement the cuts [of Bill Bennett's Social Credit government in 1986]. And that's the principled spirit we need today more than ever."

Wong referenced many of the policy statements issued by COPE in recent months. "Vancouver is a city of immigrants," she said. "Everyone should have access to city services without fear of being troubled about their citizenship status. That's how we make Vancouver a Sanctuary City." 

Wong also cited COPE's history as a proponent of affordable housing. She vowed to keep rents down, end renovictions and build publicly owned social housing. Additionally, as mayor, Wong intends to examine alternatives to the expensive Broadway subway proposal, introduce a city-wide Living Wage and ensure affordable, accessible child care for residents.

Wong did not explicitly mention Gregor Robertson or Vision Vancouver in her speech, although she did reference the city's increase in homelessness since 2008 when the party took power. When I asked her how COPE's platform would differ from Vision -- who has floated ideas like a Sanctuary City and a municipal housing authority as well -- she responded that "the names can be very similar, but the substance might be very different" and invited us to examine COPE's platform "which has been out way, way ahead of every other party."

Given the fact that Wong has access to many of the networks of which Vision presumed sole possession, her candidacy can only be viewed as a major coup for COPE whose resurgence from humiliating defeat in 2011 continues to build. With their nomination conference scheduled for this Sunday, it remains to be seen who will run under the COPE banner for council, schools and parks, but with many Indigenous candidates and candidates of colour declaring their intention -- as well as long-time party stalwart and former councillor Tim Louis -- and a member-prescribed mandate to run a majority-woman-identified slate, this election is about to get a lot more interesting for voters underwhelmed by the political status quo.

Wong's rhetoric of compassion, respect and duty appears to counter the laissez-faire progressivism that has governed -- and transformed -- this city since 2008. It remains to be seen how eager Wong will be to lay the blame for this transformation at the feet of Vision, who relies on many of the same electoral allies as Wong.

"We have a duty towards each other and towards this city to right what is wrong. We have a duty to our children, who cannot afford to live in this city. We have a duty towards seniors, who cannot afford to age with dignity in this city. We have a duty towards working people who work in Vancouver but cannot afford to live in Vancouver. All of these things are political and it is up to us to change them."

"Government is like a boat and people are like water," Wong said. "Water can support a boat, but it can also sink it." 

The Vancouver municipal election is currently scheduled for November 15.


Thanks to Sarah Beuhler for spotting the Courier cartoon referenced above.

An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that Wong is fluent in Japanese instead of Shanghainese. This error has been corrected.

Photo: Michael Stewart


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