Symbolic governmentalism rules the roost in Vancouver

Post by Daniel Fontaine in


Look, dolphins! Greenwashing isn't just for corporations, but City Hall too

There has been a lot of talk (and media coverage) over the last 18 months or so regarding a number of symbolic gestures taking place at Vancouver City Hall. The most recent item was a front page above the fold story proclaiming Vancouver as a Fair Trade City. The Vancouver Sun’s reporter Jeff Lee even noted in his article that the designation was purely “symbolic,” yet despite this it was prominently profiled.

Since the last civic election, symbolic governance has ruled the roost at 12th and Cambie. In some circles it has become wildly popular, and in others not so much. The term symbolic governance helps to describe an administration caught up in reading their own headlines and lacking any interest in making tough political decisions that are in the city’s long-term interest. For what it’s worth, here are my top picks of symbolic policies that have come to define this new Vision Vancouver administration.

Symbolic Vegetable Garden: First Michelle Obama announced she was planting a symbolic vegetable garden on the front lawn of the White House. Then Vision Vancouver followed suit. They threw out the previous plans for a peaceful green oasis on the front lawn of City Hall in favour of handing over the land to a handful of citizens to create their own private vegetable and flower gardens. Costs for this project continue to mount, and whether it has actually helped to create food security for even one family is rather doubtful.

Symbolic Bee Hives: A few months ago the Mayor announced that his vegetable garden was going to be pollinated by a new bee hive on top of city hall. It was revealed that Allen Garr, the Vancouver Courier ‘s political columnist and Vancity Board Director, was going to become the City’s new beekeeper. Garr has since pulled out of the project, but plans for the symbolic bee hive are buzzing right along with another apiarist.

Symbolic Chicken Farms: This symbolic gesture has almost everyone clucking. Councillor Andrea Reimer (known to Coun. Raymond Louie as "The Chicken Lady”) introduced a motion that would legalize the raising of hens in backyards throughout Vancouver. Staff then came back and said this symbolic gesture would include a $20K homeless shelter for chickens. Who woulda thunk? This measure was aimed at helping to symbolically demonstrate that Vancouverites can raise their own food if need be.

Symbolic Affordable Housing: In a last minute motion to help divert attention from the fact they weren’t selling off the costly social housing units at the Olympic Village, Council moved a symbolic motion to allow first responders access to the rentals suites on a priority basis. Even some of Vision’s biggest supporters admit this symbolic measure means nothing and will do nothing to keep Vancouver secure during a natural disaster. It did cause them days of negative press trying to explain away a back-of-napkin policy decision that seemed to catch everyone off guard.

Long gone are the days when Vancouver’s politicians regularly made tough decisions that had meaningful and long-lasting impact. Some of those decisions included keeping our seawalls open to the public for everyone’s enjoyment. How about the decision to actually invest money to build the seawalls in the first place. Long before it was fashionable, previous councils decided to forge ahead and densify Vancouver’s downtown and support controversial policies such as the Four Pillars Drug Strategy. They also voted to support initiatives like EcoDensity, which although it was politically risky, ended up introducing the wildly popular city-wide concept of laneway housing.

Did I mention that a previous council actually wholeheartedly voted to endorse Vancouver hosting the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games? Or how about incorporating 20% social housing in all new large, mostly upscale developments? Or how about opposing freeways within the city?

There are times when governments need to make symbolic gestures to send a message and help clear a path for future policy making. However, when a government becomes caught in a vortex of making a series of symbolic announcements, it runs the risk of appearing hollow and, ahem, visionless.

Besides moving ahead with the Burrard Bridge lane re-allocation (something that was politically risky), this government has been quite timid in its approach to public policy. Some folks tell me it’s because they’re a bit gun shy, while others say they simply don’t have any new ideas. A few have noted that with the departure of so many senior staff, there is just nobody around left with the insight and institutional knowledge to bring forward any big ideas. Regardless of which theory you support, the time for symbolic governance has passed and it’s time to take real action on a number of policy fronts.

In short order the pilot will be coming on the air to advise his passengers that we've passed the mid-way point of this journey and we are beginning the slow descent toward the next civic election. Time is quickly running out for this government to define itself as nothing more than a series of symbolic gestures. My guess is if they tried, the descent downard might be met with a bit of unexpected turbulence.

- post by Daniel


Check paragraph 5. I think you'll find its should read Councillor Raymond Louie, not Louis.
Typo or Freudian slip?

We need to elect a council that will leave Vancouver alone. No more projects, no more densification, no more consulting, no more traffic-calming (aka driver-enraging), no more worshipping the United Nations, and no more stockpiling green enviro-whatever funds while cutting services using the excuse that there's no money, and stop beautifying the manholes!

Just fix the roads, plow them when it snows, make the street lights work, add sidewalks where necessary, and stop putting up endless signs everywhere! Do we really need a speed limit posted every 15 meters on the seawall? Or 4 signs on every traffic circle explaining how to maneuver around these oh so complicated obstacles?

I think the 'Symbolic Affordable Housing' is about to catch up to them:

False Promises on False Creek- Rally for affordable housing - May 15

....'Gregor Robertson was elected in the Fall of 2008 with a mandate to “end homelessness,” but has instead continued the NPAs strategy of criminalizing the poor and abandoning housing commitments. To meet the staffing demands of Project Civil City and the ticketing quota and warrants system, Gregor has hired 100 extra cops, giving an extra $13 million to the VPD in 2009 alone. Now, in order to house these new cops, Gregor has, as of April 20, 2010, announced the elimination of almost all promised dedicated low-income social housing in the Olympic Village......

This is a response regarding Vancouver’s declaration as a Fair Trade City.

As a volunteer who helped put together Vancouver’s Fair Trade Town application, I want to clarify some confusion because while Vancouver Sun reporter Jeff Lee characterized last week’s motion as symbolic, I believe that Daniel Fontaine’s article misses crucial groundwork that was fundamental to this initiative.

First, on February 17th 2005, The City of Vancouver passed its Ethical Purchasing Policy (EPP) and Supplier Code of Conduct (SCC) in which Fair Trade and U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO) standards served as the centrepieces. The policy was the first of its kind in Canada, and so successful that Fair Trade stipulations—in this instance coffee—proved to be less expensive than regular coffee, and subsequently resulted in $3000 worth of savings. Drawing from the Standing Committee on City Services and Budgets meeting on May 6th 2010, the EPP was agreed to be a positive undertaking.

“After one-year’s experience with the[2005] policy, there has not been as significant costs as originally estimated, based on information from the supplier community at the time, leading to a clothing and uniform RFP outcome which allowed the City to contract for these items from suppliers who are compliant with the City policy and were cost competitive;”

Second, Mr. Fontaine does not take into consideration the scope of Vancouver’s declaration with respect to the Fair Trade Towns campaign—an international community in which 750 cities are participating worldwide.

In order to qualify for Fair Trade Towns status, Vancouver had to satisfy numerous criteria. First, there must be a certain number of retailers selling Fair Trade products as a percentage of the population. Second, there must be schools, workplaces and faith groups which serve and endorse Fair Trade goods. Third, there must be sufficient media coverage and public awareness in the city, in which non-profit organizations such as Fair Trade Vancouver and Engineers Without Borders are actively investing. Fourth, there must be a steering committee comprised of prominent leaders and professionals tasked with overseeing Vancouver’s Fair Trade efforts—Andrea Reimer, Vancouver city Councilor was just recently named as one of them. And finally, there must be a motion passed by city council, in addition to promoting other sustainable initiatives.

Vancouver not only exceeded all of these pre-requisites, it also received unanimous endorsement from city council, and became the first major city in Canada to reach this achieve Fair Trade Towns status. This undertaking is historic because Fair Trade ensures that the people who grow our own food are receiving consistent wages and that sufficient funds are made available to develop their communities.

In this particular instance, it is important to recall that all change; be it in practice or ideology is gradual, and with maturity it can transform into the very action that Mr. Fontaine desires. Vancouver’s Ethical Purchasing Policy and its status as a Fair Trade Town is evidence that the city is making a serious commitment to international development.

Thanks, landlord. Probably neither. When you don't hear about someone long enough you start to make mistakes like these.

Tough call. Which is better:

..An 'idealistic' government which pushes those ideas with series of symbolic actions to inspire community action in line with the token photo ops?


...An 'idealistic' government that takes its principles and tries to comprehensively implement them everywhere in detail through broad-ranging, decisive programs?

From the standpoint of honest government, the latter is obviously better. From a damage control standpoint, the former definitely has its charms. I think this might be a rare case where damage control might be the order of the day, no?

Check out!

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