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Lisa Barrett, Pitching Participatory Democracy

Trip to Brazil inspired former Bowen Island mayor's platform.

By Katie Hyslop 14 Nov 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop reports on election issues for The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter.

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Candidate Lisa Barrett won't 'just roll along with the program.'

Lisa Barrett doesn't like party politics. Barrett, a Coalition Of Progressive Electors city council candidate, says she's running to press for serious electoral reform in Vancouver. At an interview with The Tyee last week, the former two-term mayor of Bowen Island looked more like a capitalist than an activist in a tan trench coat, silk scarf, and red blouse. Yet she champions anarchist values like participatory democracy, solidarity with indigenous peoples, and fighting oppression of marginalized groups.

"The first past-the-post system is pretty archaic and we're one of the few countries that still adheres to that process," she said. Changing the system requires "baby step" reforms. Barrett is in favour of introducing a ward system to Vancouver, as well as restricting corporate and union donations, and caps on individual donations.

"[The system] creates these false binaries with heavily funded parties that are seemingly running against each other, but essentially you get the same thing," Barrett said. It's an idea that's been floated -- and sunk -- in B.C. before. A 2005 referendum on replacing first-past-the-post with a single transferrable vote was narrowly defeated when 57.6 per cent of voters supported the proposal, just short of the 60 per cent majority required. But in 2009 voters defeated it handily, with just 39 per cent in favour of a single transferable vote. Still Barrett, 54, not only thinks election reform will pass in Vancouver, but believes it will enfranchise voters.

The fact that five advanced polling stations are in wealthier west side neighbourhoods while three are in the east side is an example of systematic disenfranchisement, she argued.

"If you're disenfranchising great swaths of the voting population in this city," she said, "that's not only inequality, it's inequity as well."

Grandfather an environmentalist

Growing up on the north shore, Barrett's paternal grandparents, Robert and Pearl Barrett, shaped her political worldview.

Robert Barrett edited the Vancouver Sun's poetry and Outdoors pages, and was an "ardent environmentalist," who often took his granddaughters camping. Pearl Barrett was a feminist and member of the 1960s activist group Voice of Women For Peace. Both Barretts were original members of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the federal precursor to the New Democratic Party.

"[They were] socialists, essentially," Barrett said. "Before socialist became a dirty word."

Inspiration for her political style came from lessons she learned from indigenous elders at Norgate Community Elementary School. Led by Squamish Chief Dominic Charlie and Tsleil-Waututh Chief Dan George, Barrett learned about responsibilities of leadership that cross cultures.

"You don't speak until you're clear in your own heart, in your own being," she said, adding she meditated on these lessons before every Bowen Island council meeting.

"It's more important that you don't bring your own issues if you're representing [others], and representing is an honour."

After high school, Barrett studied political science and economics at Simon Fraser University before transferring to the University of British Columbia where she graduated with a bachelor of commerce.

During the summers, Barrett worked as a flight attendant with Air Canada. After university, she worked briefly as a realtor, but returned to Air Canada, where she worked for 29 years.

In her spare time she continued to pursue education, earning a diploma in international relations and economics from the London School of Economics, and a bachelor of law from the University of London.

Turns to politics

In 1994, Barrett moved to Bowen Island. She made a bid for the federal Green Party in 1997 in West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast but lost. Two years later, she was elected mayor and served until 2005. She's been juggling her own mediation practice with politics since 1998.

Barrett also operated art galleries in Vancouver and Whistler, raised two children and ran her own civil mediation business, Pacific Policies, since 2010.

Her partner lives in Vancouver, so Barrett spent the last 21 years travelling back and forth between her home on Bowen Island -- where her grown children reside -- and Vancouver.

While serving on Bowen Island Council, Barrett also worked as a board director for Metro Vancouver. There, she sat on five committees including transportation, planning, and environment, which she said is an indicator of her political chops.

"You're dealing with that much larger a budget [than Bowen Island], and the impact of the decisions are greater," she said.

Let residents plan budget

Barrett has an idea for Vancouver's budget some might call radical: Give every Vancouver neighbourhood a direct vote in the municipal budget.

Known as participatory budgeting, Barrett witnessed it first hand when she travelled to Santo Andre, Brazil, in 2004.

Every year, Santo Andre carves out a small section of its budget for neighbourhood projects. Each neighbourhood crafts a proposal for the money, before visiting other neighbourhoods to learn about their respective proposals. Finally, elected representatives attend a citywide assembly where they debate and vote on a final budget.

Because there isn't enough money for every proposal, wealthier residents, whose projects included tree trimming, must contend with issues facing favela or slum residents, where funding is needed to clean up raw sewage in the streets.

"Not only does it create better understanding between those disparate neighbourhoods where they previously didn't communicate," said Barrett, "Now they realize [their neighbours are] people just like them, they've got kids like them."

It sounds labour intensive, especially for Vancouver, where municipal voter turn out was just 34.5 per cent in 2011. But residents will champion participatory budgeting, Barrett contends, when they see that their actions make a difference. Particularly in neighbourhoods like Grandview-Woodlands where Vision Vancouver-led community planning has caused frustration and anger among residents.

If elected, Barrett says she'll work across partisan lines, but Vision councillors should know she won't "just roll along with the program."

"I would be advocating strenuously for far better policies and programs, and advocating for participatory processes," she said.  [Tyee]

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