British Columbia

Vancouver council candidates square off in housing and homelessness forum

The byelection to replace former councillor Geoff Meggs takes place Oct. 14

Contenders for the Vancouver council seat vacated by Geoff Meggs spar 9 days before the byelection

Candidates in the 2017 Vancouver byelection for city council prepare for the beginning of a forum on housing and homelessness on Oct. 5, 2017. (CBC)

A byelection debate in Vancouver on Thursday evening ended not with sparks flying, but with cordiality.

"I think what's exciting is we've talked about innovative ideas," said NPA candidate Hector Bremner, one of five candidates on stage at St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church, as the night wrapped up. 

Bremner, Vision Vancouver candidate Diego Cardona, Green candidate Pete Fry, OneCity candidate Judy Graves and Jean Swanson — an independent endorsed by COPE — discussed housing and homelessness for two hours in front of a crowd of about 100 people.

Sensible Vancouver candidate Mary Jean "Watermelon" Dunsdon, along with independents Gary Lee, Damian Murphy and Joshua Wasilenkoff, did not attend the forum.

The byelection was prompted after former Vision councillor Geoff Meggs resigned to become Premier John Horgan's chief of staff.

Focus on Swanson's 'mansion tax'

Candidates were generally in agreement on issues of homelessness, and generally in agreement on the need for more help from provincial and federal government. 

But there were still substantive disagreements between the five, particularly on Bremner's proposal for large-scale rezoning of neighbourhoods, and on Swanson's proposals to push for a rent freeze and a surtax on properties valued over $5 million.

"It's a crisis, everyone knows it's a crisis, and we need a source of revenue to deal with it. And a mansion tax would provide that, and wouldn't hurt people very much," said Swanson, who credited her campaign with shaping discussion of the byelection. 

Fry, who has focused on a number of smaller policies and the effectiveness of a second Green Party member on Vancouver council rather than any one particular idea, was skeptical of Swanson's approach.

"My big thing is focusing on what we can actually do as a city," he said. 

"Big bold ideas that are not fulfillable really breed political cynicism. It's like an empty promise. I'm far more interested in things we can do right here, right now."

An advanced poll station located inside Vancouver City Hall. (Cliff Shim/CBC)

Vision Vancouver vs. B.C. Liberals

Another theme of the evening was the effectiveness of the ruling Vision Vancouver party in combating homelessness and affordability, with the 21-year-old Cardona in the difficult task of defending his party for years of decisions he had no involvement in.

"We need to do a better job of listening ... but it doesn't mean we have to go back to the past," he said, acknowledging that Vision hadn't met its goal of ending street homelessness," he said.

"Having those goals, having that mindset, is important. It shows how committed we are to these issues." 

Bremner, a longtime aide to former cabinet minister Rich Coleman, criticized Vision often for their relationship with the B.C. Liberals when they were in government. 

But he faced jeers from some in the crowd after he declined to answer a question on the legacy of the Liberal government, instead keeping up his attacks on Vision Vancouver. 

After the debate, he was unapologetic for his focus. 

"It's not a referendum of what happened in Victoria. It's a referendum of what's happened in Vancouver. Gregor Robertson has been the mayor for nearly a decade now. Why do we keep on having the conversation on punting the blame to someone else?"  he said.

"Everything is piecemeal, infinitesimally small incrementalism, and it's not good enough. The Liberals aren't in Victoria anymore, okay? We can move on."

Not joining in negative comments for most of the night was Graves, the longtime city advocate for the homeless.

"I'm not interested in making enemies," she said. "I've never yet met a person who cannot be part of the solution."

Election day is Oct. 14.