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Game On For Coveted East Van Riding

New Democrat stronghold draws two MLAs and a communications pro.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 5 Feb 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

This coverage of Canadian national issues is made possible because of generous financial support from our Tyee Builders.

If you want to win an East Vancouver political party nomination, you'd better know all about East Van, says the outgoing member of Parliament whose seat is up for grabs.

When MP Libby Davies finishes her 18-year stint as Vancouver East's representative in Ottawa this year, the job of representing the NDP there in the upcoming federal election will be between current provincial NDP MLAs Mable Elmore and Jenny Kwan plus newcomer Scott McLean.

Home to labour activists and social progressives, the riding has only twice gone to non-New Democrats since 1960. Liberal Art Lee was MP from 1974-79 and Anna Terrana, also a Liberal, represented the riding from 1993-97.

Although there are no guarantees in politics, securing the coveted East Vancouver NDP nomination is a coup for a candidate with MP aspirations.

The riding was home to Canada's first safe drug injection site and has always had a great deal of grassroots social activism and turmoil. Ethnically diverse, it is the site of Vancouver's massive Chinese New Year celebrations, Italian Day festival and features a multitude of eateries with cuisine from around the world.

It is also home to the notorious Downtown Eastside where serial killer Robert Pickton searched the streets looking for women to take to his suburban farm to kill.

Though known primarily for the plight of those battered by life in the Downtown Eastside, the seat has everything from wealthy immigrant families to impoverished working people who have spent decades there.

Diverse riding

The city's Chinatown -- a cultural jewel -- snuggles up against the forgotten Japantown and docks. Just a kilometre away, latte guzzlers seem to be able to support themselves banging away all day on laptops at Mount Pleasant coffee shops.

"These are all very old neighbourhoods where there's a strong sense of character and community spirit and I do think that defines East Van overall," Davies explained to The Tyee. "It's kind of like a fighting spirit of people who get involved."

That spirit is visible in the form of the East Van logo, a cross framing the words "East Van," erected on a hill near Commercial Drive. The cross faces the more well-to-do areas of the city as if to say "this is East Van, don't mess with us," Davies said.

But to win the riding nomination, she said, the victor must bind the "commonalities" of the people who make up East Van.

"A lot of issues in East Vancouver you could say are local or provincial, so I think the challenge is trying to figure out the connection to Ottawa and bringing those issues to Ottawa and trying to get change," she said. "On the West Coast it's much harder to make that connection to Ottawa. It's very distant for people."

Neophyte vs. vets

Scott McLean, 34, is a political neophyte who said he's fighting an "old system" that makes it hard for young people to vote.

McLean's background working in public relations for Simon Fraser University may be his best weapon to stand out.

"I'm trying to connect with people who feel they're not engaged with the process, but do care about Canada," he said. "And care about the values I'm talking about when I go talk to the public."

The first step, McLean said, would be an electronic voting system for the nomination so younger people who have day jobs wouldn't have to take time off work to vote.

That extends to the federal election too and McLean said he hopes to spearhead an effort to encourage more voters to show up at the polls.

582px version of East Van cross
Iconic East Van Cross. Photo: Kris Krug, Flickr.

Kwan, 48, has been a political fixture in Vancouver since the '90s and even considered running for the federal seat the year Davies made her Ottawa debut. Her provincial riding is within the Vancouver East MP's seat.

Kwan said with Davies retiring she wants to ensure the riding will continue to have solid representation reflective of its complex make up and progressive ideas.

"We are an agent of change," she said of the riding. "You stand your ground, you stand firm."

Going into the race, Kwan said she is already connected to the issues in the East Van spotlight such as housing affordability, which she calls a "crisis."

"The lack of safe, secure affordable housing is a constant challenge for people in this community," she said, adding she's worried the Conservatives will make it even harder in the future to find such housing.

Expense scandal

Kwan also worked on bringing a safe injection site to the riding and was one of two scrappy MLAs who made up the entire opposition to the B.C. Liberals in 2002, resulting in a standing ovation from the Liberals when the term was up.

But last year she was caught up in a scandal when board members at the Portland Hotel Society, an NGO serving the Downtown Eastside, filed questionable expenses.

Part of the scandal involved Kwan's now ex-husband, Dan Small, a Portland Hotel Society employee who billed his employer for some family trips abroad -- including a Disneyland vacation. Combined, the trips Small billed for came to $35,000.

Kwan said she was completely unaware the trip was expensed by Small. She took out a loan to pay the money back and said she's confident voters will make their decision based on the facts of the situation.

Elmore, 45, is in her second term as MLA for Vancouver-Kensington, next to Kwan's, and said that although she "loves" being an MLA, she wants to head to Ottawa to fight the Conservative agenda.

Housing top concern

"It really got to me, I fundamentally disagree with Stephen Harper, the Conservatives and where they're taking our country," Elmore said. "They're really tearing the fabric of what I think Canada is about."

Like Kwan, Elmore said housing is a top concern for the riding but, as a child of an immigrant mother from the Philippines, she's also concerned about the abuse of temporary foreign workers in Canada.

Though Kwan has represented her provincial riding in Vancouver East for many years and is seen as the front-runner, Elmore isn't concerned.

"I don't know why I'm in this position," Elmore said laughing. "I always find myself the underdog."

Elmore has pulled off impressive upset wins in the past, such as defeating current Newton-North Delta MP Jinny Sims for a provincial seat nomination in 2009.

Elmore said her focus on grassroots voters and issues is the key to success in the nomination bid as well as bringing new voters into the party through organizing and campaigning.

She has a collection of bus drivers -- Elmore's former profession -- backing her up for the nomination. The president of her old local, however, endorsed Kwan; but Elmore said it doesn't bother her.

"That's kind of the record of my local, they really take different positions," She said. "I know that I've got a lot of drivers on the ground working hard for me."  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, BC Politics

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