Leadership is a gift. And when someone gets it, they often want to cling to the gift with everything they’ve got. Sometimes they become cautious. Often they second-guess. In a majority of cases, they have too many people advising them. That causes them to make mistakes, to pander to the loudest voices, or to forget why they were put in their position in the first place and by whom. And before they know it, they stop being the leader.
This week, police and staff moved to evict the squatters, AKA Tent City dwellers, at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. All 200-plus campers are getting the boot.
The park, like so many city parks these days, was previously home to festivals, baseball games, kids playing in the playground, and people lying in the sun or sheltering from the rain. But more recently this location, in particular, has become known for its alternate role as a non-provincially approved campsite for the homeless.
But you know — creating a tent city has become routine in most cities, especially in Vancouver. Why is that?
Full disclosure: I hate camping, even in the most idyllic of natural settings of which we have many in this province of course. But the people pitching their tents here — in the most run-down and deprived postal code in Canada — have a point to make, and it is a good one. Their issue is that very often in the most unfortunate of circumstances, the only alternative to living outdoors in a rainforest is much, much worse. Shithole hotels or disgusting properties run by slumlords who don’t give a rats ass about their tenants or their lives. It is a terrible situation and there are countless reasons how we got to this point, and my few-hundred-word quota will never do it justice.
But it does all start in the same place as my story did – with leadership.
When I was on Vancouver City Council (even with Vision Vancouver in charge), we usually found a way to get these urban tent dwellers to move along. For the most vulnerable and at-risk people, staff worked extremely hard to find the best solution for them. It was complicated and took a lot of time. But the one thing we all knew from the evidence provided by people on the scene every day, was that a disturbingly large number of the Mountain Equipment-clad campers in the park were neither homeless nor vulnerable. They were protesters.
It is nearly September – which means this particular tent city is about a year old, the same age as Vancouver’s newly-elected City Council and the same length of time we’ve had a new mayor. A new leader. And yet it’s taken until now to take action to dismantle it.
Unfortunately, this new mayor – the guy who ran a campaign emphasizing his first name, not his last, to evoke and likely tap into the bygone days of US-politics that continue to be romanticized in documentaries and film – has done nothing to solve the issue. Kennedy Stewart sat on his hands, and didn’t get them dirty at all. In fact, he was so lacking in leadership that he had one of his 40-plus communications staff employed at the City of Vancouver (don’t get me started on the spin at City Hall) to write a press release saying that it was the Park Board who was behind removing the tents and not the city.
How can that be considered leadership? That’s rhetorical by the way. It’s not, obviously.
Polls show more than 80% of local residents wanted these tents removed. The guy who got 11% of the eligible vote (yet somehow won) chose to leave the tents in place. A dangerous and naïve decision that put people’s lives at risk, and has left us wondering why HE wasn’t the one making this happen?
Was he scared of pissing off his base? Is he worried people will rightly see this as a failure to address/solve/stick-pasta-and-glitter on the housing issue he put front and centre of his campaign?
If you are looking for leadership in Vancouver this fall, you might want to shift your gaze from 12th and Cambie, and set your sights on the Park Board building at Stanley Park, because despite the suits and the fancy office with a killer view, the guy wearing the “Mayor” badge at City Hall just didn’t step up and lead when he should have.
Snuggle up Vancouver; let’s just hope we don’t need a real leader anytime in the next three years.
George Affleck is a retired Vancouver city councillor, co-host of the podcast UnSpun with Jody Vance and George Affleck, and founder of Vancouver marketing firm Curve Communications. You can connect with him on Twitter at @george_affleck.