Where's the Mayor in the Pandora flophouse fire deaths matter?

Post by Mike Klassen in


Leadership means being there in the hard times too – click for larger

On February 24, 2008, standing before a crowd of supporters which included many members of the Vision Vancouver caucus such as Tim Stevenson and Heather Deal, Vancouver-Fairview MLA Gregor Robertson made the following statement:

I reached a turning point a few weeks back, on hearing news about a tragedy in my so-called affluent part of town. A homeless man named Darrell Mickasko burned to death trying to keep from freezing on an icy cold night on the streets. Darrell died only three blocks away from the Lookout emergency shelter, which was full that evening. He died only 9 blocks from city hall.

Darrell is one of thousands. And I know I'm not alone in wanting this state of emergency to end. Collectively, we are letting this take place, in a city with enormous resources, with compassionate citizens. It's time for profound change to deal with homelessness.

We may all have a warm and safe place to sleep tonight, but thousands of our neighbours don't. In the midst of our affluence we see soul crushing poverty on a daily basis that is deplorable.

Darrell's death, and the lack of response from City Hall, shifted something in me. I love this city, but the extreme contrasts we live with are heartbreaking. As leader of this city, our mayor is failing us, and I can no longer stand by in good conscience.

On the evening of December 22nd, as City officials scrambled for answers to what happened on Pandora Street, where three men died in a fire trying to keep warm on a drafty rear deck of an Eastside flophouse, Mayor Gregor Robertson posted this update to his Twitter account:

going offline till january. family time beckons. thanks for your 2010 tweets+comments. happy holidays all!

And with that Gregor Robertson checked out. Complete silence on any City business until January 4th, and even then refusing any comment on the Pandora Street tragedy. Despite a groveling defense of Vision Vancouver by at least one member of the media, most of the fourth estate have stayed on the Pandora Street story because they know something more than the ashen remains of the rear deck stinks.

NPA Coun. Suzanne Anton was quick to ask for an independent review, something akin to a coroner's inquest which are standard practice when someone dies in police custody. Subsequently, NPA candidates Jesse Johl and Bill McCreery turned up the heat on City Hall, also urging a third party review. Was it mere politics that drove these calls, or perhaps indignation? It's a fair question.

But it's also a fair question to ask why Gregor Robertson feels it's okay to use the memory of Darrell Mickasko to serve as his excuse for quitting his post as MLA a year early to jump into civic politics. He said almost three years ago that Mayor Sam Sullivan was failing us, and "the lack of response from City Hall" moved him to run for Mayor.

Gregor Robertson was so married to that narrative created for him around poor Darrell Mickasko that he repeated it in his December 8, 2008 inaugural speech:

The Vancouver we hold in our hearts is not a city where people die of exposure. Not a city where a man named Darrell Mickasko, after being turned away from a full shelter, burns to death in a sleeping bag, trying to stay warm with his camping stove on a freezing night. If our vision of Vancouver is to become a reality, homelessness must end – and I tell you today that it will end.

So, dare we ask, was Mayor Gregor Robertson (as Kennedy Stewart once framed it) a "Homeless Champion or Heartless Political Entrepreneur?"

One thing is absolutely certain. He is not a leader.

Instead, Gregor Robertson has taken the advice of his political advisers and kept his head down. Like on several other occasions during his term where a whiff of controversy exists, Gregor ducked. It could have been different though.

First, Gregor gets paid about $140,000 annual salary not including other perks. To me that's still a lot of money, and as a Mayor it means you get paid to do your job year-round not just when you're not on vacation. That's why they call it public service, capice? As with his trip to Cuba in December 2008 while the city experienced Snowmageddon, Robertson fails to recognize that leadership means being engaged to your post during the good times and the bad.

A leader would do this. Immediately accept calls for an independent review. First of all, by the time the report is done the heat around the story has passed. Second of all, as Mayor you can prepare a response. If the recommendations are unkind to either your administration, or the civil service you are in charge of, then you promise changes. You assure the public that although you may have inherited systemic problems, you will take swift action and report back to the public with your plan.

It's that simple. You take responsibility for the city that you claimed to love in your bid for Mayor. But somehow, taking responsibility for bad stuff just doesn't seem to be in Gregor Robertson's genes.

Last week, CTV's Lisa Rossington asked tough questions of City staff (see video), and not surprisingly she got to interview Vancouver's nanomanager Penny Ballem. When asked if previous statements from the City were accurate (Sadhu Johnson and Kerry Jang both suggested that action against the property owner was "imminent"), Ballem said no, the City was not in the process of shutting down this house.

In a time when we seem to move from one story to the next, we must give credit to several media sources such as CTV BC, The Province, GlobalTV BC, 24 Hours, CBC and Metro News Vancouver for sticking with the Pandora Street story. It's only with their continuing pressure that the Mayor and the City Manager may acquiesce and heed calls for a fully independent inquiry on this matter.

Even after a decade of inspections, emergency calls and City demands to fix safety violations, not to mention the agony of neighbours, nothing happened which could have prevented the needless deaths of those three men just before Christmas Day. Surely an independent review could only help to shake up the institutional rot which allows these flophouses to prosper.

If Gregor Robertson cannot lead, then it must be the media and the public which forces change.

- post by Mike


Really? Another post about this?

We get it, the mayor is mia. What could he possibly say now that would make a difference/make anyne feel better?

Mike, your point is well-taken.

Being Mayor of a city is a full-time job. Even when the Mayor is on vacation, when incidents of terrible impact occur, it is incumbent on our elected civic leader to not just comment, but commit to action.

The fact that Gregor Robertson offered as rationale for his running for Mayor his commitment to the homeless is now missing in action constitutes disreputable and unbecoming conduct.

You don't get it.

Gregor came on TV a few years ago crying and telling everyone what a horrible city this was, that it didn't care about the homeless and the poor. Then when he becomes mayor he doesn't give a dam enough to even say his condolences to the families of those poor souls who died in that slum shack.

Instead he sends out Kerry Jang, Ballem, and anyone else he can think of to stand infront of a camera and lie to the public.

A few days before the fire Gregor was holding a big news / PR event telling everyone how wonderful he was and that the homeless and poor were now moving into the million dollar Olypic Village units.

This is a story, a story about how two faced Gregor Robertson is and that he will say anything and do anything to get elected.

Then again you can't expect much from someone who is bought and paid for by some American special interest group

Perhaps ....I'm sorry

How about "I'm will conduct and independent review and find out if the city could have done anything more". Boohoo if anybody else were in the mayor's chair you would demanding they take action and you know it.

Mike this is a great post. Keep up the pressure. Eventually Gregor will come out from under his desk and have to face the music. Let's hope other media don't drop this.

No James, I wouldn't. As I've already said, him standing up and demanding some sort of action is, imo, just as hypocritical of most people on this blog and others screaming for action because of this specific incident while we collectively shrug at the greater issue.

sorry boohoo
I missed something, what is the greater issue?


Sorry, I'm referring to the previous post.

I find it strange that everyone is so outraged, so shocked that this kind of thing has happened. Everyone demands answers, independent reviews--how could we let this tragedy happen. Where's the mayor! Why isn't he saying anything! Why do we have bylaws if they aren't enforced! etc etc etc.

The greater issue is we have this problem in Vancouver/BC every day and we generally don't care. We have flophouses and deadbeat landlords and unsafe conditions all over the place. Where's the outrage? Why no cries for action?

Because we really don't want to take the actions necessary to prevent this long term. We want short, quick, easy solutions. More bylaw enforcement! More announcements about how we care! More appearances by the mayor! All of that amounts to sfa unless we demand true action. But in our big list of priorities, when it comes down to it, this isn't near the top.

Got it.. what do you consider more of a priority on the top of the list?

People can say what they like about Sam Sullivan and Larry Campbell for that matter, but there is no way either of those two previous mayors would have turned their back on this issue.

They would have faced the cameras head on.

I agree 100% Max...I'm confused by his obvious avoidance of the issue... What is there to be hidden.
If he can publicly show outrage when gangsters shoot up his neighborhood, why can he not show some leadership and at least offer his condolences to the families.
Where is his basic human compassion, for the families. I personally think he is getting bad advice from the backroom boys on this one.

My take George:

They don't want to admit culpability - not publically anyway.

If they do, it opens them to further scrutiny and as it stands, the families of these men are looking at the city for responsibility.


It appears that way to me as well..

@ Max, "What is there to be hidden?"

Well a few things actually. For starters C. Stevenson said in 2007 when the apartment roof fell in that he wanted to see real changes to fix the problem. 16 December, 2008, when the new Vision Council had taken charge, he introduced a motion asking staff to report by 31 January on what to do to fix the problem in the DTES. In his Whereases he said :

"WHEREAS the Standards of Maintenance By-law is one of the most important tools the City has to maintain and protect rental housing stock;
WHEREAS without enforcement of the Standards of Maintenance By-law, properties can degrade to the point that tenants are forced to leave;
WHEREAS the City has the ability, through the Standards of Maintenance By-law to repair buildings and charge the costs to the owner;
AND WHEREAS the costs borne to the City go beyond the repair of buildings or staff time, but also include emergency aid and shelter displaced tenants;".

There are a few things which may need clarification here, such as: what are the boundaries of the DTES? were single family houses be included? is a single family house illegally rented to several unrelated tenants a multi-tenant dwelling?

In light of the above knowledge, why did C's. Reimer and Jang, and CM's Johnston and Ballem variously say there were no life safety issues which would allow them to close the house, the City had done all it could and wouldn't do it differently, and we have and we have not initiated legal action against the slumlord?

It is clear from Stevenson's motion that the Vision Council were aware that:

"the City has the ability, through the Standards of Maintenance By-law to repair buildings and charge the costs to the owner".

They appear to have used this authority to close the Dundas building last week. Does this by-law also give them the authority to order the demolition of a house (ie: Pandora)? If not, where did they get the authority to do that?

When the details of this fire come out, after the investigations and the coroner's inquest, there are further very unsettling aspects of this matter yet to come. It is not over.

I question the Mayor's continuing lack of leadership and misguided priorities particularly over the Holiday season. We have seen his return from holidays yesterday for a good news announcement that panhandling is down Downtown. Yet he refused to answer very serious questions about the Pandora Street rooming house fire which killed 3 people.

Surely he could offer the families of these men condolences on behalf of the City of Vancouver. Why isn't he personally clearing up the misleading, conflicting and confusing statements made by Councillors Jang and Reimer, and City Managers Sandu and Ballem over the past two weeks.

The Mayor seems to be self absorbed with good news but, trots out his staff to deal with the hard stuff. Who is running the show? Who is the leader of this City, the Mayor or his staff? Mayor Gregor Robertson has a responsibility to lead, and not leave dealing with the bad news to senior staff, who themselves appear to be confused because of a lack of direction from him. He’s mayor of all the people all of the time, not just for the good times. Show some leadership Mayor Robertson.

I think your response was directed to me Bill, and again I thank you for offering such great information.

I think had the Mayor stepped forward from the beginning and showed leadership, offered sincere condolences and a solution, he wouldn't be feeling the wrath of so many right now.

In his effort to avoid and cover his behind he has created a much worse situation. One that the taxpayers will be responsible for, if these families do sue.


Wow, I have to say that your website is sure conflicting. To the point it sometimes comes across as very unbalanced.

In the last post you explained why George Abbott's carbon tax policy makes him unsuitable to be the next leader of our province and the BC Liberals. You provide rationale and support your argument. Mr. Abbott appears to be photographed with his supporters, no fuss, no muss. You've made your point. All good.

However, the above post, is drastically different despite also being about leadership. First, there's the heavily photoshopped and fake image of Mayor Robertson under a table. Why does the mayor get that treatment when Abbott gets a straight up photo? Where is the respectful critique?

Second, the mayor is pictured along with two other elected officials:

- Churchill walking in post-Blitz London during which more than 43,000 people were killed and more than a million houses were destroyed or damaged.


- Guiliani walking in New York after the Twin Towers came down in an attack of international terrorism, killing some 3,000 people died and costing untold billions of dollars in damage and warring.

Are you inferring that Mayor Robertson's response to the tragic situation of 3 people dying in a flophouse fire here in Vancouver comparable to these international incidents where thousands of people died? It's clear you are unhappy with Robertson's response but your comparison is frankly disgusting and inappropriate. If you want to compare the mayor in a situation of international significance perhaps his performance during the Olympics is more appropriate. Or you could look at how previous mayors in our city have responded to local tragedies. Or any manner of more appropriate and respectful comparisons than the ones you used.

I will end by saying that I am one of those fickle Vancouver voters that supports candidates based on their apparent competencies and policies. I've supported NPA, COPE and Vision in the past and intend to in the future. I like good ideas, not partisan cheap shots. But this blog seems to employ these too often. In my opinion it does nothing to improve the NPA brand. Nor does it communicate your suitability to be an elected representative in our city.

Respectfully yours,


hear! hear!

It is clear that you are a paid player in this game (clear the air).

I suggest that Mayor McCheese's post at the bottom there summed it up best.

Gregor is your typical do-gooder progressive . . . shallow and willing to exploit the poorest and most vulnerable for his own benefit under the guise of "helping".

When it is convenient for him.

Can't wait for Novemberr to vote against this fool.

@ clear the air posted:

'Are you inferring that Mayor Robertson's response to the tragic situation of 3 people dying in a flophouse fire here in Vancouver comparable to these international incidents where thousands of people died? It's clear you are unhappy with Robertson's response but your comparison is frankly disgusting and inappropriate.'


What response? Mayor Robertson hasn't given a 'response'.

Not a word. Nothing. Zero. Zilch.

Not even his sympathies to the families of the men that died.

And this is not the first time he has gone underground. (or under his desk)

Hence the problem.


I wonder if he's said something to the families but just not publically? I don't know and I'm sure that wouldn't make a difference to most here...

Hired hand,

Please tell me you're joking?


You can't wait to vote against Vision. Such a lovely philosophy. Perhaps I'll have my cat run and see how many votes he gets based solely on hate.

I like the pictures. Churchill and Giuliani were both flawed individuals whose best qualities were brought out by desperate events. Robertson's true nature was exposed in the most banal situation of his trying to evade the consequences of evading his sky train fare.

-Clear the air, the word you want is 'imply' not 'infer'.

-Boohoo, your know it all cynicism can get very tiresome.

Maybe he could send me a postcard or bring me a t-shirt from Maui or Disneyland or Acapulco wherever the hell he went to escape us this time. Just a little token of appreciation for those of us who have to slog it out in "his" city twelve out of twelve months of the year. Maybe a Cuban cigar...? That would make me feel better!

@ Clear air.

Mike does like to dramatize a bit now and then, but that doesn't take away from the fact that 3 men died. Agreed, many more died in 911. However, it's not the numbers that count in matters such as this. An important part of a Mayor and a Councillor's job is not just 'making the tough decisions' but to be our leaders as well.

So, where is Gregor? The Mayor’s back, but where’s the Leadership?

We have seen the return of Mayor Robertson from holidays last Thursday for a good news announcement that panhandling is down Downtown. Yet he has refused to answer very serious questions about the Pandora Street rooming house fire which killed 3 people.

The Mayor has a responsibility to lead. Why hasn’t he said anything about the three deaths and one injury caused by the Pandora fire? Surely he could offer the families of these men condolences on behalf of the City of Vancouver. Why isn't he personally clearing up the misleading, conflicting and confusing statements made by Councillors Jang and Reimer, and City Managers Sandu and Ballem over the past two weeks.

There are several serious questions that the public has a right to have answered:

1) How did the City manage to order the eviction and closure of an entire apartment building on Dundas last Thursday? The life safety issues are similar and Pandora was also being used as a multi-tenant building.

2) If this power existed, why was it not acted upon immediately after 31 October in the Pandora Street case?

3) If such power exists today, why did Jang, Ballem and Johnston say the City was powerless to act in November?

4) Why did the Mayor allow his City Managers to mislead the public when the City clearly has the ability to act?

5) Why is Mayor Robertson silent on the entire affair, and is still refusing to acknowledge the death of the 3 men?

7) How many more "Death Traps", other than the 30 the City says it's aware of, is the City aware of, and how will they deal with them?

And now, we see the City Manger doing a walk-about of Firehalls and comes up with $800,000 to patch them up. Well and good. The Firemen deserve to have decent work/live places. But, where did this money come from? We have been told we had to cut $20m this year and $40m last year. Why didn't the Mayor make this announcement? Surely he'd like to take credit for improving the Firemen's working conditions?

She's also making inaccurate and/or incomplete political statements, inappropriate for a City Manager, blaming the 'previous administration'. In fact, this Vision Council has cut and held the line on the Fire Department's budgets 2 years running, which played a role in their union's recent approaches to the NPA. Is this not, therefore, another attempt at damage control rather than a sincere attempt to improve the Firehalls? It rings a bit hollow and it probably will in the Halls as well, but hey, you got what you needed. Good on you lads and lasses.

I see that the city is having the Pandora Street house demolished.

If there is to be an independant inquiry, do they not need access to the building?

Council discussing this situation and need for inquity.....

Can't believe I'm listening to Gregor making this a Provincial issue, thanking staff.. no apologies or condolances to to family???? what a coward! he is disappointed with political posturing by Anton.... What is he doing. Am I missing something here..

Pot calling kettle black...Shame Shame Shame on you Gregor.

Thank you to Frank Kurz for holding a moment of silence....

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