Joel Solomon speaks in San Francisco, July '08 - view videos
Vancouver City Hall under Vision is a mystery wrapped inside a riddle, and it is fascinating process to try and deconstruct it. It's not the uninspired public policies per se, which we and many others regularly remark upon. Rather, it's the people behind the scenes, the big money and the dynamics of the political movement for which Gregor Robertson is the figurehead.
Piecing the puzzle all together has not been an easy task. The people in Robertson's backroom, like most political advisers, eschew too much attention for themselves. To coin a phrase, what happens in Hollyhock, stays in Hollyhock.
The fact alone that the spiritual and financial birthplace of the Mayor's political career exists on a remote, sparsely populated island known as Cortes, 150 kilometres from Vancouver city limits should be enough to pique the curiosity of local politicos. But when the leading representative of your political movement publicly declares his goal as "systemic social change", and he'll use a powerful combination of business, charities, and personal networks to achieve it, you can be forgiven for being just a little curious.
It's the widely held view that the most influential person in Vancouver politics today never has had his name on a ballot in a local civic election. Joel Solomon is the principal adviser and financial backer of Mayor Gregor Robertson, as well as being a longtime friend. He hails from Chattanooga, Tennessee from a well-off family of Democrats and in 1980 he first arrived on Cortes Island after, as journalist Frances Bula puts it, "becoming the archetypal American hippie searching for a new life". Decades later in October 2008 Solomon, who is known to have a southerner's polite and self-effacing disposition, became a Canadian citizen.
Solomon in a healing ritual.
Photo: Bill Weaver
Solomon lived most of his life with a genetic kidney disorder which gradually threatened his health. In November 2007 Solomon received a kidney transplant thanks to an organ provided to him by Shivon Ravensong, the woman that co-founded the Hollyhock retreat & education centre, and today remains a member of the organization's board. Joel tells the story that he found the kidney with the help of a widely circulated email to his list of contacts, and a Facebook group. It was a lucky stroke that someone in Solomon's inner circle was a suitable match.
Before the surgery Shivon notified colleagues of her decision to donate a kidney to Solomon via an email. She and Joel participated in a healing ritual prior to going under the knife at St. Paul's Hospital. Solomon's sister Linda describes how a week later, she, Joel's wife, his mother, Gregor Robertson and his wife and family all toasted Joel's recovery at an American Thanksgiving dinner.
Solomon's new kidney re-energized his life and work. He quipped that Robertson's electoral victory one year later was a first anniversary gift to him.
"Using the power of business, finance and politics..."
During the concluding days of the 2008 civic election campaign, things were not going well for the NPA. Despite getting a bump over the badly handled Skytrain fare evasion scandal that dogged Gregor Robertson for days, a leaked in-camera document around the Olympic Athlete's Village reported by Gary Mason would unravel the NPA's chances for a respectable result in the election. Instead it was a rout.
With one week to go both Peter Ladner and Robertson kept a promise made months earlier to identify the names of donors who supported their mayoral nominations. What was immediately apparent from Robertson's list is that he received sizable donations from several resident Americans. The story never gained any traction with the mainstream media before Election Day.
The question asked by some then and several times since has been, why are a bunch of well-heeled Americans (such as New Age guru Andrew Weil) donating money to help elect someone to become Vancouver's mayor? The answer becomes clearer after listening to Solomon's 2008 speech.
Solomon's health troubles, his affluence and his family history around politics shaped his quest to influence public policy, and specifically in British Columbia. He elaborates in his opening remarks:
Any of us who have been awake during our lifetime have certainly come to the conclusion that the planet is on a very difficult and dangerous course. And I concluded that I should use the power and privilege that I had as a white North American male, from an affluent family, to use those tools – the power of business, and finance and politics towards the common good.
And if I did that, however many days I got to live, I'd be doing what I feel good about on my deathbed.
So I chose to move my career to Canada because of a great opportunity to work with a visionary inheritor of a substantial amount of resources named Carol Newell.
And we put together a strategy … which was to take a long term look at how to deploy financial resources towards systemic social change focused in one region.
So we make business investments, charitable grants, support collaborations, leadership development and capacity building with the hopes of influencing public policy and creating models of sustainability solutions long term.
If you live in Vancouver, BC you can't help but notice what it means to be in one of the wealthiest and most blessed places on the planet. And if you can't do it in places like that, and in places like [San Francisco] we have a real problem on our hands.
It's an interesting and perhaps unprecedented situation in Canadian politics. You have two people of significant means – Solomon and Rubbermaid heiress Carol Newell – from a rural island community (where Hollyhock is the largest employer) using their wealth to promote "systemic" social change in their adopted home. They're not only targeting "one region", but they now control the most powerful political launchpad in the province – the office of the Vancouver mayor.
Someone must have convinced the many wealthy New Age devotees and social enterprisers who supported Robertson in 2008 that the battle for Vancouver City Hall was a worthwhile investment. Was it because they too are persuaded that the goal of social change was most possible here?
As Solomon says in his speech, "if you can't do it in places like [Vancouver] we have a real problem."
Judging by what's happening at City Hall, it appears that part of that process of change involves placing people with direct connections to Hollyhock in some senior roles within Vancouver's historically independent civil service. Apart from that, no one has really explained to the citizens of this city what systemic social change, or what the 'common good' is supposed to look like.
Perhaps it's time for more of us to inquire.
- post by Mike. More on Cortes Island and the changing face of Vision Vancouver in the days to come.