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The COPE Agenda for Vancouver Council

Breen Ouellette hopes to join incumbent COPE Coun. Jean Swanson on council. Here’s what the party wants to accomplish.

Josh Kozelj 11 Oct 2022TheTyee.ca

Josh Kozelj is the inaugural Hummingbird Fellow with The Tyee.

[Editor’s note: The Tyee interviewed five mayoral candidates who are running in Vancouver. But power is held by council, not the mayor — so we’re also taking a look at three parties with incumbent city councillors who are running for re-election. We’ve previously profiled OneCity and the Greens. B.C. voters will cast ballots for municipal government on Oct. 15.]

For a long time, Breen Ouellette didn’t see the point in running for municipal office. As a Métis man and lawyer, Ouellette only had experience at the national level.

He worked for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. And when Ouellette tried to run federally with the NDP in 2019 and 2021 in the Vancouver Centre riding, he was defeated both times.

Last year, however, Ouellette and a former colleague from the national inquiry successfully called on Saskatoon city council to hire an independent representative for Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people.

The Saskatoon council approved the idea, and that got Ouellette excited about the potential for change through municipal politics.

Jean Swanson, a councillor with the Coalition of Progressive Electors or COPE, had been asking Ouellette to run with her for years. So when she approached him following the Saskatoon recommendation approval, Ouellette finally agreed. But he insisted they add the Indigenous representative to COPE’s platform.

“We want to bring an independent Indigenous representative for women, girls and Two-Spirit people to Vancouver,” Ouellette said in an interview with The Tyee.

COPE was formed in 1968 as a left-wing party composed of community groups and social justice activists.

But since the early 2000s, the party has fractured and launched different groups on the left of the political spectrum. By the 2005 municipal election, former Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell separated from COPE and formed the centre-left party Vision Vancouver. Vision would go on to dominate Vancouver’s political landscape through most of the next 15 years.

Meanwhile, COPE saw its power diminish. An alliance with Vision Vancouver yielded a win of two council seats in 2008 in a council made up entirely of Vision, Green and COPE candidates. But the party was shut out of council in 2011 and 2014.

In 2018, COPE made a comeback when Swanson was elected to a council seat. COPE also landed two members on the park board and one on the school board.

This year, including Swanson and Ouellette, COPE’s slate has four candidates for council and five combined for school and park board. For the second straight election, however, they aren’t running a candidate for mayor.

851px version of COPECouncilCandidates.jpg
From left to right, COPE candidates for council, school board and park board: Breen Ouellette, Christopher Livingstone, Rocco Trigueros, Nancy Trigueros, Jean Swanson, Gwen Giesbrecht, Suzie Mah, Tanya Webking and Maira Hassan.

Tristan Markle, co-chair of COPE’s executive board, said the decision to not run a mayoral candidate was due to the party’s focus on expanding their presence on Vancouver’s three civic boards.

Having run for office before, Ouellette is excited about the diversity of COPE’s candidates — three nominees are Indigenous and two thirds of the slate are women.

“There’s a lot of tokenism among all the parties running people. At COPE, they’re really putting their values where they say they are.”

Here’s where COPE stands on a few pressing issues.

Housing

Over the course of several election campaigns, Swanson has proposed a “mansion tax” that would have called on the province to change Vancouver’s charter and make homeowners pay property taxes like income taxes.

She told CTV News in April that if you tax luxury homeowners — with homes worth over $5 or $10 million — one to two per cent more, it would result in over $200 million for the city. The extra money, Swanson said, could go towards addressing homelessness and to fund modular housing for lower-income dwellers.

While the plan was struck down by council, Ouellette said implementing the mansion tax is his biggest solution for targeting the housing crisis.

“It would have generated $230 million a year,” Ouellette said. “Put that into context. In 10 years, Vancouver would spend more on affordable housing than the prime minister recently promised for the whole country.”

Rent control is another initiative that COPE is promoting to address vacancy shortages in Vancouver. The party wants to implement vacancy control to all apartments in Vancouver with three or more units.

To combat rent increases, COPE proposes to create a registry for landowners and landlords. The idea promises to monitor all rent increases and apply penalties for lots that are vacant or underutilized.

Public safety and overdose prevention

Ouellette believes that police should be regulated the same as lawyers. As a COPE candidate, he said he will advocate to reduce the police budget and build more community safety prevention measures. He would also like there to be an independent regulation body that has the power to license and delicense police officers.

“The reason lawyers are professionally regulated that way is because we command power above and beyond the average citizen,” Ouellette said. “That equally describes police.”

Regarding the rising number of overdose-related deaths, Ouellette wants to change the lens of the narrative and ask people to look at it as a “drug poisoning crisis.” He said people are buying drugs with chemicals they didn’t intend to buy, and in any other business, consumer protection would help.

COPE will push for more safe supply programs in the city and would license compassion clubs.

Working with other parties

Ouellette said Swanson’s work over the past four years — filing the most motions out of any councillor — proved that she was willing to collaborate with other parties.

As a lawyer, Ouellette added that his work in litigation and settling cases would help him on council. At the negotiating table, he’ll be looking to protect renters and figure out what is being ignored in proposals.

In the end, he’s optimistic Swanson will get re-elected but is curious how many of his colleagues will get elected. Ouellette thinks that COPE will catch people off guard this election.

“Internal polling for us shows that people are going to be a little bit surprised.”  [Tyee]

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