“It’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time,” says Brad West, the mayor of Port Coquitlam.
By which he means that he can take care of his city’s parks and potholes while also speaking out against China’s communist government. None of Metro Vancouver’s 20 other mayors comes close to West in challenging the superpower.
West’s tweets last month ranged from congratulating the local midget baseball team to criticizing federal Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan for not considering China an adversary despite “advancing totalitarianism.”
Those unfamiliar with West might find his commitment to this cause odd.
Port Coquitlam is a city of 60,000, 2.4 per cent of Metro Vancouver’s population. It’s not centrally located or considered one of the region’s political heavyweights. Barely 10 per cent of residents identify as Chinese — tiny compared to the large Chinese communities found in Richmond or Burnaby.
So what set the son of Port Coquitlam, Brad West, on a path against Beijing?
A reception over wine and cheese.
At China’s table
West quickly made a name for himself after being elected mayor in 2018. He’s known for being a straight-talking darling of the media and a charismatic presence in regional politics.
He’s also a husband, father, communications coordinator for the United Steelworkers and lifelong resident of Port Coquitlam.
Born on May 28, 1985, at 34 West is young for a Metro Vancouver mayor. But he’s not a rookie politician.
In 2008, he was elected to city council at the age of 23, making him the youngest elected official in Port Coquitlam history. West was also working as a constituency assistant for NDP MLA Mike Farnworth, the minister of public safety and solicitor general. Farnworth, also a former Port Coquitlam councillor, has been an MLA for 28 years since being elected at 24.
West served three council terms before winning the city’s highest office last year with 86 per cent of the vote.
West said he noticed something curious about one of the receptions at the Union of BC Municipalities convention during his last year as councillor.
The reception was hosted and paid for by the Chinese consulate and had been a regular feature at the annual conventions since 2012. The consulate spent about $6,000 on it each year.
“At that point, I wrote a letter to the UBCM saying that I thought this arrangement was wrong,” said West last week during an interview in his Port Coquitlam office.
That was in 2017. Soon after, China-Canada relations dramatically soured.
In December 2018, Meng Wanzhou, CFO of Chinese telecom giant Huawei and daughter of the company’s founder, was arrested in the Vancouver airport at the request of the U.S. She was wanted to face charges of breaking American sanctions on Iran.
Later that month, Chinese authorities arrested two Canadians. Businessman Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig were accused of spying, and both are still detained in China.
West says they were “taken hostage” in retaliation for Meng’s arrest.
Then came trade bans on Canadian canola, peas, soybeans and meat.
As far back as 2010, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service warned of five countries, including China, using espionage schemes to infiltrate and influence Canadian governments. The director specifically mentioned B.C. municipal politics.
So when West saw that the Chinese consulate was wining and dining his elected peers, he was on alert.
“No foreign government should be able to buy access to elected officials whose job it is to represent their people, whether it’s China or any other government,” said West. “They’re not sponsoring the UBCM out of the goodness of their hearts. They have an agenda.”
Two mayors told Bob Mackin of theBreaker they had no problem with the Chinese-funded reception.
“There are tensions between Canada and China, and if I can do just a little fraction to assist with the communications, then I’ll do it,” said Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie. “Do you get past those challenges by boycotting a reception? I don’t think so.”
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, noting her city has a sister-city relationship with Suzhou and a good relationship with the consulate, said that the issue of human rights in China is “far beyond my pay grade.”
“[My] job is to advocate on behalf of my citizens and work for sustainable jobs and sustainable community in Victoria,” Helps told theBreaker. “I don’t think that one lowly Canadian mayor has an impact on international relations, but I do believe in goodwill and the role of cities as diplomats in the world.”
West doesn’t buy these arguments.
Away from national issues of hostages, espionage and trade, China has also been blamed for local problems.
In Metro Vancouver, a narrative has been building based on the argument that residents are being harmed by a powerful Chinese elite, while governments have been idle.
One group called Housing Action for Local Taxpayers has lobbied politicians to curb the role of foreign money in housing unaffordability, specifically pointing to China as an economic superpower whose wealthy emigrants are buying real estate in places like Vancouver and driving up prices.
West says he doesn’t mind being labelled a populist for his warnings against the economic and political power of China or the general flow of “dirty blood money” in the local housing market.
“I see this activity hurting people like my mom, hurting people who are working hard, following the rules and trying to get ahead, but are finding it increasingly difficult because of the unaffordability of our region,” he said.
West calls his mother his compass. His father died when West was 10, and his mother found a second job to support their two children.
“We had a very working-class upbringing,” he said. “My mom sacrificed. She did everything and more to make sure my sister and I had every possible opportunity.”
West said he entered politics to take care of and fight for people like his mother.
“They’re the quiet majority,” said West. “The people who get up every morning to go to work, who sacrifice for their families, and who I think have not been well represented by our politicians and our political establishment.”
“You read these stories about bags of cash and you wonder, how the hell are these people getting away with that?”
“You hear stories about the CRA [Canada Revenue Agency] going after a waitress for not properly declaring her tips or his tips,” he said. “And yet, the CRA was completely MIA on people who are engaged in the laundering of hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. To me, that’s all an example of a system that is very much rigged in favour of people who already have the most power.”
Crosswalks and communism
Political scientist Stewart Prest, who teaches at Simon Fraser University, said West appears to be modelling himself as a “truth teller.”
The political archetype is based on someone who refuses to be “bound by political niceties” and isn’t afraid to weigh in on controversies, said Prest.
“It’s a pretty common feature of politics,” he said. “But sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. So far, it seems to be working for West. He’s speaking on subjects that are top of mind or near top of mind to Metro Vancouverites. We’ll have to wait and see if there’s some kind of pushback or backlash from him being a little too cavalier.”
In contrast, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has branded himself as a careful “bridge builder” politician, in part due to the partisan mix in council.
One reason for West’s candour is that he’s from a smaller community, said Prest. If he was mayor of Vancouver, West would have to worry about losing Chinese business investments.
West says his candour is possible because he takes care of Port Coquitlam and its residents first.
What about critics who tell him things like “stay in your lane” or “shouldn’t you be focusing on getting garbage picked up?”
“My answer is: I am getting garbage picked up,” said West. “Job number one as mayor is to deliver on the most basic responsibilities that a municipality has, the things that people send their tax dollars to city hall for. That’s filling potholes, building more sidewalks, putting in more crosswalks. That’s traffic calming, enhancing parks, new playgrounds, places for families to gather.”
Last month, council approved $26 million for neighbourhood infrastructure in next year’s budget, a record investment.
“You have to get those basics right,” said West. “And I think that my community and my residents understand that I’m meeting my basic obligations and responsibilities on those core things. And because I’m doing that, they’re supportive and OK with my articulating my views on other issues that may not be the municipality’s responsibility, but nonetheless impact their lives.”
Targeting a superpower
It’s not easy for local politicians to challenge the Chinese government. Comments can be interpreted as racist — or seized upon to justify racism.
It helps that West is careful to say that he’s criticizing the Chinese government, or criminals who happen to be from China — not all people who identify as Chinese.
“These are useful distinctions to make,” said Prest. “As David Eby pointed out, the housing market has links to international activity and money laundering, so those are things that are actually happening. The question then is: How do we have a conversation in a sufficiently sensitive way, that we are not casting a broad net that lends itself to discrimination?”
Criticism of the Chinese regime and Chinese gangsters can be conflated with criticisms of immigration and Chinese residents, said Prest.
In a November interview with The Star, West said Chinese Canadians in his city have told him stories of getting phone calls and visits from Chinese state officials for actions like posting on social media or attending certain events.
“It’s so unsettling to know these people, who are our people, who live in our communities, are subject to surveillance and harassment by a foreign government on Canadian soil,” said West. “What’s equally shocking is how fearful they are. When we meet in my office, they want the blinds closed. They’re that fearful.”
This September, West was set to attend his first Union of B.C. Municipalities convention.
Advocates for democracy in Hong Kong and freedom for Uighurs in China protested outside the downtown Vancouver hotel as the Chinese consulate was about to host B.C.’s municipal leaders.
“Shame on you! Shame on you!” they chanted.
West spoke at the rally and said it was wrong that the important topics raised by the protesters wouldn’t be mentioned over the wine and cheese at the China-funded reception.
Before West left, a protester gave him two boxes of Tim Hortons doughnuts. Attached to each was a photo of the two Canadians being held in China.
The protester asked West if he would deliver the “care packages” to the Chinese consular officials to pass on to the captives “so that they know there are people in Canada who haven’t forgotten about them and who are thinking about them.”
“Of course I said yes,” said West.
So with the boxes of doughnuts in hand, West went into the hotel and entered the reception. He said he tried to approach a consulate staff member, but he took off.
“There was no one left to speak to,” he said, “so I just put the two boxes of doughnuts on the ground at the entryway.”
The controversy around the reception — and West’s criticism — led the UBCM to create an independent panel to report on how the convention is financed.
Two weeks ago, delegates voted to ban foreign countries from sponsoring events. China was the only country to have done so.
Rolling out the Red carpet
Controversies regarding China-Canada relations have been increasing.
The last month brought headlines that touched on everything from political to economic tensions.
China’s new ambassador to Canada warned that a formal backing of pro-democracy Hong Kong protesters, like the U.S. government did, would cause “very bad damage” to relations with Beijing.
Former MLA Richard Lee, who served as parliamentary secretary for the Asia-Pacific in the previous Liberal government, went public last week about his detention at a Shanghai airport in 2015. He was accused by Chinese authorities of “endangering national security” and was held for eight hours. He provided passwords to both his personal and government phones to the authorities. Lee was later ordered out of the country.
On Dec. 3, the Vancouver Island Health Authority stepped in to manage three senior care homes that were purchased by Beijing-based Anbang in 2017 in an Ottawa-approved sale. Anbang, which owns companies and properties around the world, was seized by the Chinese state in 2018 after its chairman was prosecuted for fraud and abuse of his position.
The health authority found that staffing shortages at the homes subjected residents to problems from neglect to physical abuse.
As China’s might continues to grow, will more local politicians follow Brad West’s lead?
Prest says it depends on something called the Overton window. “It’s the idea that there’s a range of opinions that is viewed more or less as common sense, and then there are things beyond the bounds of reasonable discourse,” he explained.
What’s considered common sense or unreasonable can change over time — and the public discussion along with it.
There’s no doubt about what’s in West’s window of common sense.
“The orthodoxy of China-Canada relations is that we essentially roll out the red carpet and allow them to take over large portions of our economy as long as there’s a buck to be made in some corporate boardroom,” he said.
“The path that has been set for us is that the bottom line for some CEOs and shareholders is more important than the cost to human rights, the cost to Canadian workers, the cost to Canadian society.”
It’s parliamentary talk, and some of West’s critics have said that he’s using his position as mayor to drum up popularity in preparation for a run in provincial or federal politics.
But West says he’s not interested, one reason being the partisanship. He’s got the only seat he wants.
“It’s the honour of my life to serve as Port Coquitlam’s mayor,” said West. “This is where I’ve grown up, this is where I’m raising my family, and I don’t plan on living anywhere else.”