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From agitator to legislator: Jean Swanson’s first week on council

Swanson says she’s counting on the city’s grassroots activists to amplify her voice on council

By Ben Mussett , in City Feature story , on November 25, 2018

After decades as an activist, often in opposition to the city’s elected leaders, longtime anti-poverty advocate Jean Swanson now finds herself on the other side as a member of Vancouver’s city council.

And with her newfound political position, Swanson says she’s counting on the city’s grassroots activists to amplify her voice on council and help advance her agenda.

“It all depends on what people on the outside do,” said Swanson, the only councillor from the Coalition of Progressive Electors on the city’s new council.

“If renters want action on rent control, please come up to council. If people want action on lowering transit fares, please come up to council. If people want action on ending homelessness, please come up to council.”

However, political analysts are unsure whether Swanson’s activist style of politics will translate to legislative victories on a divided council with no other COPE councillors.

Swanson’s plan to apply extensive public pressure on the rest of the council might persuade some councillors to support her initiatives, they say, but it risks alienating others.

Instead, Swanson will likely have to embrace compromise — which then comes with the risk of alienating her ardent activist base.

The ongoing fight over a key site

In her first week, Swanson tabled a motion urging the city to recommit to “100-per-cent welfare and pension rate community controlled social housing” at a contentious social housing development proposed at 58 W. Hastings St. in the Downtown Eastside.

A sign advertising the community garden at 58 W. Hastings St.

About a dozen activists and neighbourhood residents came out to speak in support of the motion. The speakers were members of Our Homes Can’t Wait, an affordable housing coalition Swanson previously helped lead.

They left disappointed.

After each of them had made their case, passionately applauding one another once each of their five minutes was up, NPA Coun. Melissa De Genova put forward an alternative motion that watered down much of the original.

The new motion did not include Swanson’s proposed recommitment to 100-per-cent shelter and pension-rate housing at the Hastings site, nor was there any mention of “community controlled social housing,” consultation with Our Homes Can’t Wait, or Swanson’s proposal to use city dollars as a possible source of funding.

However, De Genova’s referral motion did keep Swanson’s request for city staff to look into the cost and potential funding needed to achieve the 100-per-cent low rental rates she wanted. It also directed city staff to “explore alternative options to achieve 115 units of shelter-rate social housing within the Downtown Eastside should 100-per-cent shelter/pension rate homes not be achievable at 58 W. Hastings St.”

Swanson and Our Homes Can’t Wait are pushing for all 231 proposed residential units at the site to be rented at shelter and pension rates.

The motion passed 8-1. Swanson cast the sole opposing vote.

Afterward, she sank into her seat while the dozen activists from the affordable housing coalition shuffled out of the council chambers and huddled together in the lobby.

“I guess we gotta go fight for more,” said one of the activists. “Okay,” replied another, “let’s go fight for more.”

“I’d be done if it wasn’t for knitting” 

On Nov. 12, the first day for Vancouver’s new council, Swanson was the first one in her seat, 15 minutes before the meeting was set to start. She didn’t bother removing her grey winter coat. A few minutes into the meeting, she pulled out two needles and some yarn and began to knit.

Before winning her seat, Swanson had been a seminal figure in the city’s activist scene ever since the mid-1970s, when she began working with the now-defunct Downtown Eastside Residents Association.

In that time, Swanson has witnessed the dramatic deterioration of the Downtown Eastside, a community long derisively labeled “skid row.” In recent years, the area has been further devastated by ongoing opioid and affordable-housing crises.

Swanson sees herself as the informal representative of the city’s most marginalized neighbourhood, whose residents she argues have been left behind by the previous Vision Vancouver city government and a shrinking social safety net.

“I want to stick up for renters, working people, low-income and homeless people,” said Swanson. “I want to be a conduit so they won’t just bash up against the political system and get nothing.”

Though her political purpose is clear, Swanson admits she’s still adjusting to her new role in government after a life in the grassroots.

“I didn’t think there would be so much procedural wrangling,” she laughed, reflecting on a mostly rookie council that isn’t always clear on process.

“I’d be done if it wasn’t for knitting,” Swanson said, again with a laugh. “It helps me. It keeps me from getting too antsy in the boring parts and helps me focus on what I need to focus on.”

When asked if she misses her activist work now that she’s a city councillor, Swanson doesn’t hesitate.

“It’s way more fun,” she said. “That’s where I feel most comfortable.”

Last week, when DTES activists held a demonstration on the steps of city hall, Swanson spent much of her lunch break alongside her former cohort, clutching a wool shawl in the November cold.

Before heading back inside, she addressed her small crowd of supporters. “Just on a personal level, it’s so nice to see you all here so I can be grounded in some reality after two hours of sitting in there,” Swanson said. “I’ve got to run in now, but keep up the hard work.”

The next day, after De Genova’s referral motion was introduced and a brief recess was announced, instead of discussing it with her fellow councillors, Swanson immediately made her way to the public gallery to consult her allies from Our Homes Can’t Wait.

A question of compromise 

With no party holding a majority on Vancouver’s new council, every councillor will have the opportunity to put forward elements of their agenda from time to time, said Stewart Prest, a political-science professor from Simon Fraser University.

Coun. Jean Swanson, dressed in blue, at a demonstration for affordable housing outside city hall on Nov. 14.

But, according to Prest, that will also require Swanson and others to compromise on certain issues.

“Swanson basically has two choices,” Prest said. “She can be the spokesperson for the strongest possible version of the equitable city that she’s been campaigning for and often be left out of the finished product of whatever council ends up passing,” he said. “Or she can water that down and try to build alliances with the Greens, [One City’s] Christine Boyle and Mayor [Kennedy] Stewart.”

Mario Canseco, president of public opinion firm Research Co., agrees that council’s divided makeup will create opportunities for Swanson to influence the agenda. Still, this depends on whether she is willing to compromise.

“There’s no worse way than saying, four years later, ‘I couldn’t get anything done because everybody else wasn’t a member of my party,’” said Canseco. “That shows political weakness.”

Though he acknowledged it was still early, Prest said Swanson’s strategy of flooding council with speakers to support her motions is a double-edged sword. It gives her the opportunity to demonstrate public support for her initiatives, but it’s risky.

“People often don’t respond well to pressure,” he said. “It might make finding some of those tactical alliances a little more difficult down the road.”

Nevertheless, Swanson is betting on this strategy.

“I’m on the inside and they’re on the outside,” Swanson said. “I’m trying to let them in.”

Those voices will be heard again this Tuesday, Nov. 27, when Swanson is scheduled to table her second motion to protect tenants from renovictions and other forms of housing intimidation.

So far, there are over 90 people signed up to speak. The hearing could last for days.