In 2014, billionaire Chip Wilson told reporter Frances Bula he was interested in getting more involved in Vancouver politics — not as a candidate, but behind the scenes.
Four years later, Wilson was one of several people who recruited Ken Sim to run as mayor of Vancouver with the Non-Partisan Association. Sim narrowly lost to Kennedy Stewart.
Today, Sim is mayor. His party — the newly created A Better City Vancouver, or ABC — swept council as well as Vancouver’s school and park boards on Oct. 15.
At ABC’s triumphant election night gathering at South Hall near the Fraser River, Wilson was there, clad in sandals and towering over most of the other guests.
The two businessmen — Wilson the internationally known founder of Lululemon, Sim the founder of a much smaller home-care business called Nurse Next Door and a bagel company — have been friends for years. Sim recently moved to the same wealthy Point Grey neighbourhood as Wilson, where the athleisure guru owns the most expensive house in British Columbia. Sim has described Wilson as a mentor.
Both are big fans of Landmark, a training program “designed to bring about positive, permanent shifts in the quality of your life.”
But Wilson has repeatedly made statements showing he’s politically far to the right. That raised concerns leading up to the election, and forced the ABC campaign to repeatedly disavow Wilson’s politics and preferred methods for influencing the 2022 civic election.
The party’s campaign manager, Kareem Allam, says ABC is a centrist, moderate home for people who have voted for the NDP, the federal Liberals and the Conservatives alike.
"When it comes to politics, [Wilson]’s got nothing to do with us,” Allam told The Tyee on election night. “I’ve never spoken to him in my whole life. And there isn’t a single decision on this campaign that I didn’t make myself.”
Allam has also pointed out that Wilson did not donate to the party in 2022, although four other donors with the same names as Wilson’s wife and sons made a total of eight $1,200 donations to ABC’s mayor and council candidates and to school board candidates in 2022.
But ABC’s standoffishness hasn’t seemed to deter Wilson, who reportedly sported a Ken Sim campaign sign on his lawn in the weeks leading up to election day, and donated to ABC in 2019, 2020 and 2021 — as did his wife and five sons.
Wilson’s politics have always been clear: he adores Ayn Rand. He’s mused that child labour might not be so bad, and praised the convoy protests that took over Ottawa in 2021. “Socialism will always fail,” he told artists who gathered outside his home to protest rent hikes on art spaces in buildings he owns.
On election night, he told a Tyee reporter who asked for an interview that he would never talk to “communists.”
Then there was the weird blog post that surfaced in 2019 featuring Wilson’s musings on erections and the pressure on men to become more feminine — ideas that have bubbled up into the mainstream by way of far-right media personalities Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones.
He’s also been clear about wanting to fix what he thinks is wrong with Vancouver. In his 2014 interview with Vancouver Magazine, Wilson talked about driving around with the head of the city’s parks department to point out problems like Coca-Cola branded patio umbrellas and a restaurant blocking the view to English Bay.
Through his company Low Tide Properties, Wilson has been buying up properties in Gastown and on East Hastings Street for years. Having started his first business on West Fourth Avenue in Kitsilano, Wilson continues to have an interest in retail and the health of commercial streets in Vancouver, he explained to Vancouver Magazine.
Low Tide has an objective of owning $1.5 billion worth of real estate in Metro Vancouver by 2026.
And when it comes to the Downtown Eastside, Wilson told Vancouver Magazine he wanted to set up a space where residents struggling with poverty and addiction could come in and listen to Landmark motivational speeches on headphones.
While Wilson has been a critic of ousted mayor Stewart — a former NDP MP and university professor — he was a big fan of Gregor Robertson, a former NDP MLA and founder of the Happy Planet juice company. Robertson was mayor of Vancouver for a decade, when Robertson’s centre-left Vision Vancouver party held a majority on council. Elections BC records show that in 2014, Wilson donated $37,500 to Vision Vancouver.
B.C. was once known as the “Wild West” of political donations, because the province had few limits on who could donate to political parties and no limits on donation amounts. In 2017, the BC NDP brought in new campaign finance rules that limit individual donations to $1,200 per person and ban corporate and union donations.
But this year Wilson found a new way to funnel large donations to influence local politics. He donated over $380,000 to an organization called Pacific Prosperity Network, which aims to support right-wing candidates for local government by training candidates and offering technical support. According to the Vancouver Sun, Wilson also sent a letter to his business contacts, urging them to also make donations in the tens of thousands.
Ten days before the election, Pacific Prosperity Network sponsored a screening of a documentary called Vancouver is Dying.
The documentary depicts a city wracked by crime, open drug use and homelessness, and argues the Vancouver Police Department’s funding should be increased. The film was made by Aaron Gunn, a former BC Liberal leadership hopeful who was booted from the race after the party decided his views on reconciliation, diversity and acceptance would be “inconsistent” with the party’s values and policies.
Critics who noted the presence of Pacific Prosperity Network at the event called on Sim and his campaign to denounce Wilson.
One of ABC’s main campaign promises is to hire 100 more police officers, and the party won the endorsement of the Vancouver Police Union, whose president, Ralph Kaisers, appeared in the Vancouver is Dying documentary.
Allam said ABC had already repeatedly condemned Pacific Prosperity Network and other third parties that “promote misinformation.” He said ABC was formed as a more centrist alternative to the NPA, which had seen its board taken over by members who hold hard-right views, leading to an exodus of four out of five of its sitting city councillors.
Three of those councillors — Sarah Kirby Yung, Rebecca Bligh and Lisa Dominato — later found a home with ABC.
“It became clear to me how far to the right the NPA had gone, and maybe how far left some of the other traditional liberal-appealing groups had gone,” Allam said. “There was this wide-open space right in the middle.”
Allam asked Vancouverites to have a little trust that ABC is exactly who they say they are: a middle-of-the road party focused on reasonable solutions to the city’s problems, like working to speed up building permits.
"I know that people think that we are some crazy, right-wing kooky party," he said. "I think that as we go deeper and deeper into the administration and that trust is built, I think that [the public] will be satisfied.”
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