A highly emotional public meeting on Thursday ended with Vancouver City Council rejecting the recommendations made by City of Vancouver staff on removing free veterans parking.
City council unanimously approved a strike-and-replace motion moved forward by Green Party commissioner Pete Fry, with Green Party councillor Michael Wiebe declaring a conflict of interest and Mayor Kennedy Stewart absent for the vote.
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The new replacement motion directs city staff to prepare bylaw amendments by November 3 of this year to grant vehicles with BC veterans license plates with free parking within the city. This will be a one-year pilot project to examine the uptake and consult with veterans organizations.
City council also instructed city staff to ask the Vancouver Park Board and Easy Park Board to consider similar policies for parking facilities under their jurisdiction.
Additionally, the mayor will write to TransLink to suggest the public transit authority develop a policy for subsidized transit options for veterans.
All of this began in November 2019 when city council unanimously approved a motion by NPA councillor Melissa De Genova that directed city staff to explore options to expand the free parking privileges to veterans year-round. However, last week, city staff returned with a policy report that urged city council to do exactly the opposite by not only rejecting free year-round parking but also rescinding the existing free parking privileges for those with veterans license plates over the weeklong period before Remembrance Day each year.
City staff’s position was on the basis that this policy of encouraging any vehicle use would counter the city’s climate change action goals, did not fit into their “equity” lens because “veterans are not, in general, a low-income or disadvantaged group,” and could result in up to a $2 million annual reduction in parking revenue for the municipal government.
This cost figure was based on the approximate $100 million in total parking revenue collected by the city annually, with the assumption that the region’s 48,000 veterans (including the 12,000 veterans within the city) — accounting for 2% of the regional population — would use the benefit in Vancouver. Their belief in a large uptake also called for up to two additional full-time city employees to manage the program.
City staff also suggested more veterans would apply for the special BC license plate for veterans to access the City of Vancouver’s free parking, and their family members could use their vehicles to access the special parking privileges.
“Military veterans have served this country voluntarily, and all they ask is a little recognition, there’s nothing monetary about it,” said Lt.-Col. Archie M. Steacy, president of the BC Veterans Commemorative Association (BCVCA), during the meeting. The BCVCA is the volunteer-driven organization that handles veterans license plate applications on behalf of the provincial government.
“There is no way that hundreds of veterans that I know of and their families, a son or daughter, would ever take the car to get free parking. That is the most rudest and disgusting thing I’ve ever heard… We veterans are extremely proud to be honoured this way, and we appreciate it,” added Steacy, who was one of over a dozen public speakers. Most speakers were veterans, who described their own sacrifices and ailments, as well as those of current and previous generations.
It was also noted by Steacy that not everyone qualifies for the plates, as there is a mutual understanding and deep respect between veterans that these plates are only for those who have served in actual wars.
The vast majority of the veterans with the license plates are elderly, and they require a personal vehicle to get around due to their declining health.
Although it was not stated in the report, additional ICBC data in city staff’s presentation during the meeting that was not included in the report noted there are currently 14,000 veterans license plates in BC, with 4,900 across the Lower Mainland and just 350 within the boundaries of Vancouver.
With these new figures in hand, and the context provided by BCVCA and other veterans, city council concluded city staff had erred to a great degree by grossly overestimating the financial impact to the municipal government of providing free parking to veterans license plates year-round.
“This has been a challenging process, and I want to personally express my regret for any hurt or disrespect this has caused to our veterans community. I think we can’t describe veterans as any group, we have to be careful and thoughtful… they’re not just any group,” said NPA councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung.
“They are people who were willing to put themselves at harms way and pay the ultimate sacrifice, and if they were lucky they came back. But they didn’t necessarily come back the same, some suffered from physical afflictions and mental issues like PTSD. Some were able to integrate into society, but it doesn’t matter. Regardless of that, it’s not about the cost of parking, it’s the fact that their service was priceless and from my perspective if we stop remembering and honouring them, we lose part of ourselves and our humanity there… A lot of our veterans who were in significant wars are getting older, and we’re losing them. We can’t lose the memory of what they actually stood for… I’m disappointed we had to have this conversation and spend so much time on it.”
De Genova also recalled several of her previous interactions with veterans, and from them she gathered that “it wasn’t about city staff’s recommendations on taking a few dollars away from their pocket, it was taking away the gesture of thanks and pride they took from the appreciation.”
“That pride that I think of with the veteran who called me made a very big impact on me, when he told me he wouldn’t even use the free parking. But he didn’t want it taken away for other veterans… I want to thank each and everyone of our veterans. If it weren’t for them, we might not be here today.”
Fry shared a recent conversation he had with a veteran, who told him it would be embarrassing for a veteran to use city staff’s proposed scratch card system or to prove they are low income to access free parking. He also discussed his own family’s connection to military service, and the hardship they endured after war.
“I want to start by apologizing, and I’m sorry to have folks go through this and the anxiety this may have caused to veterans and people who care about them. But I think this was a valuable exercise. I grew up personally disconnected from military service. I wear a poppy on Remembrance Day and I honour veterans, but my grandfather who served, he died crippled when I was a young boy, so I never got a chance to know him,” said Fry.
“My wife’s grandfather took his own life from PTSD from his wartime experience. So we were denied that kind of direct connection, and so I appreciate the testimonies we heard today — it really did bring a lot of this to the forefront to those who really don’t understand… This was really good for challenging assumptions and really taking a different perspective.”
COPE councillor Jean Swanson also provided her thoughts on the controversy: “I’m 77 years old and fortunately I’m one of the lucky people in the world who have never had to experience being in front of bullets and bombs. I can’t imagine what that would be like, and I think people who put themselves in front of those things for the greater good deserve all the respect that we can give them.”
Several Metro Vancouver suburban cities also have their own free parking policies for veterans, including free parking year-round for veterans residing in Richmond, free parking year-round for all veterans in Surrey, and free parking for four hours daily in White Rock.
According to city staff, some form of free parking for veterans is also offered in Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto, and Winnipeg.
At a later date, city council will consider another motion benefiting veterans that considers municipal property tax exemptions for Royal Canadian Legion Branches. This is already offered in other municipalities such as Burnaby and Langley. Furthermore, the motion will call on the city to request the provincial government to classify legion branches as non-profit organizations.