Analysis

Should historic racism against Chinese-Canadians be enough to kill new Chinatown condo?

Those who think a government apology for past wrongs is automatically good PR should have been at Vancouver City Hall on Wednesday.

Vancouver's upcoming apology for past discrimination is rallying point for those opposed to the project

Vancouver's Chinatown Memorial monument stands directly beside the parking lot where a nine-storey market condo could be built. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Those who think a government apology for past wrongs is automatically good PR should have been at Vancouver City Hall on Wednesday. 

Members of the Chinese-Canadian community came to show support for a unanimous motion that will have the city officially apologize for racist laws and policies enacted in the early 1900s.

And while some focused on the apology itself, others explicitly linked a historic apology with the nine-storey market housing condo proposed for 105 Keefer Street in the heart of Chinatown.

They say the project destroys the one place in the city where their relatives found safety and solace from racism.

Racism is at the heart of the most powerful argument those against the tower have been making, which made for an interesting juxtaposition at council.

George Ing, an 85-year-old who served in the Canadian Armed Forces for 35 years, spoke about a childhood where his parents couldn't vote and he was told regularly to "keep his head down."

Cynthia Kent said her mother was the first full-time public school teacher in Vancouver of Chinese descent but she was prohibited from taking a lifesaving course required for her job because the city's only public indoor pool banned Chinese people.

Kent said an apology would represent a stepping stone for greater reconciliation.

The development application that was submitted for 105 Keefer Street is the fifth in four years. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Marielle Wall wants more than an apology from city officials 

"An apology doesn't save Chinatown," she said. "It doesn't give me back my culture. An apology with no action is just retraumatizing the people who come to speak each time a new apology is given."

Wall was one of three consecutive speakers who spent as much time in front of council talking about how 105 Keefer  needs to be rejected than past policies towards Chinese Canadians.

"Actions need to be taken to save Chinatown, so children like me can see and love our culture — actions like rejecting 105 Keefer Street and re-buying the land to give to our current elders, who are facing similar displacement and racism."

That's the thrust of why there's been more passion around 105 Keefer than countless other towers that get approved in Metro Vancouver every month.

Judging by the non-plussed reaction by councillors to Wall's plea, it's unclear whether they accept the argument.  

More than a parking lot

From the outside, it might seem curious that so many meetings and protests have been devoted to a Vancouver parking lot being replaced by a mid-sized tower. 

But the debate over 105 Keefer isn't just another in the long line of condo controversies. Criticisms of a development approval process usually seen as symbolic of nine years of Vision Vancouver governance, become symbolic of 150 years of discrimination.

"We're talking about historical discrimination? We're talking about two days ago, where we stayed until midnight having our turn to speak [against 105 Keefer], and where there was no translation provided," said Andrea Lum.

Lum was referring to a permit board hearing on Oct. 30 that ended with no resolution to the controversy. 

Coun. Kerry Jang, whose grandfather was a pig farmer in China, said he understands why some Chinatown residents equate the proposed condo project with past wrongs, even though he doesn't personally agree with it.

"It's a change of place they associate with the Chinese community. But as I've always said the Chinese community itself has changed," Jang said.

"One of the consequences of multiculturalism of course is that the old ethnic enclaves are taking on less of a relevance in some ways." 

People against the development at 105 Keefer Street held a rally at city hall on Oct. 30, 2017, prior to the development permit board hearing. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Could head back to council 

Linking 105 Keefer to historic wrongs has placed the City of Vancouver in a bit of a bind. 

The proposal by Beedie Group doesn't exceed height limits, seems to meet all technical requirements, and it owns the land already. Ordinarily, it would pass the city's development permit board quickly and get built. 

Consider the optics though of planners, not politicians, deciding the ultimate fate of a high-profile project. And consider that the well-organized opposition to the condo isn't going to disappear anytime soon.

Which may be why at the end of their eight-and-a-half hour meeting on Monday, the permit board begged off a decision, asking staff to present information on whether cultural aspects should be considered, or if council could intervene, despite the fact the proposal doesn't require rezoning. 

"The question I'd like staff to answer is how narrow or how broad is our discretion as a board under city rules?" said chief planner Gil Kelley after the meeting.

The board will answer that on Monday and then make a decision — to approve, decline, delay, or push back to council.

In one sense, the debate over 105 Keefer could come to a conclusion Monday.

But if last week's debates proved anything, history is never that open and shut. 

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is a reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering political stories throughout British Columbia.