#LostVotesYVR: Give permanent residents a voice

The City of Vancouver passed a motion to permit permanent residents to vote in local elections in April. Ela Esra Gunad, a human rights and social justice advocate, as well as a presenter at 2018 High Ground, shares her thoughts on this motion.

At the Centre for Civic Governance’s progressive forum in 2014, I was on a panel that asked, “Who isn’t voting in the upcoming municipal election?” I was the only one in the room – packed full of dedicated, progressive British Columbians – who raised their hand.

That was the moment when I decided to leverage my research and engagement to advocate for extending the right to vote to permanent residents – because voting matters.

In the 2014 municipal election, Vancouver lost 60,000 votes. This number is equivalent to the thirty percent of the voters, who elected Vancouver’s current municipal government. Sixty thousand permanent residents are currently excluded from voting in local elections in Vancouver.

What makes a system a democracy?

An essential part of a democratic system is that any given member of the community has a right to participate in and to be equally considered during decision-making processes.

Permanent residents are members of the community who may be skilled workers, refugees, caregivers or sponsored family members. They may obtain their permanent resident status after living here for many years. They live here, work here, pay taxes here and send their kids to school. They use city services. Vancouver is their home –just like you and me.

I was one those children who always asked, “Why?” Now I ask, “Why not give people who are invested to living in Vancouver a chance to be part of the community?” “Why not give them a voice on the decisions that directly affect them?” “Why can’t we level up our system to become a true democracy?”

Our electoral system in Canada is a product of a 150-year process. In the early days, the number of people who were allowed to vote was actually much smaller than the number who were not – ‘one man, one vote.’

The system was first structured to exclude people based on class, gender, race, religion, and ethnicity. Initially, only some men, who were property owners and over 21 years-old, could vote. Women, Asians, Indigenous people and members of certain religious groups were among those who fought for the right to vote for decades.

When women’s suffrage happened in Canada in 1918, at first most women of colour, including Chinese, Hindu or East Indian, Japanese and Indigenous women, weren’t allowed to vote at the provincial and federal level. In 1949, Japanese persons received the right to vote in BC. In 1960, Indigenous persons received the right to vote in federal elections.

Today, through the #LostVotesYVR campaign we’re advocating for the voices of permanent residents living in the City of Vancouver to count. This campaign is organized by the Vancouver Foundation and Fresh Voices, which strives to increase the public participation of racialized immigrant and refugee youth in creating and improving systems and policies that impact their lives. Our goals is to make local government accountable to everyone who lives in the City of Vancouver.

Why does it matter?

Excluding permanent residents leaves them without the representation of elected officials whose decisions affect them. Even though they have all the responsibilities of a citizen when it comes to municipal services, it suggests that their voice is considered less valuable.

This is a major loss for a city like Vancouver… a city that celebrates the benefits of inclusion, diversity, and multiculturalism every day… a city that believes engagement is vital to create vibrant, inclusive, and strong communities. Political engagement is key part of that.

I often see individuals and families with children take pictures in front of voting poll. The moments we want to record and shared with our loved ones are often the times we feel love, pride and excitement. Voting for city council or the school board inspires confidence in a democratic system. It provides an equal opportunity for those who contribute every day to the city they call home.

Sometimes I am asked, “Why can’t they wait?” Or I’m told, “Just become a citizen and earn it!” It’s not that simple. I volunteered in the municipal elections even though I wasn’t eligible to vote. In fact, I saw three elections before I became a citizen.

People must live here for many years before they can apply for citizenship and the time it takes to process an application is becoming longer and more expensive. Many permanent residents face financial barriers. For some that means giving up the citizenship of country of origin, choosing which family member can apply first or being challenged to not go back easily to see or support families back home.

Making the voices count

Extending the right to vote to permanent residents offers them a good entry point to Canadian life and public engagement. Recent research by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship shows that new Canadians vote and feel that their voice is important.

That is why today more than 45 countries, including six US municipalities, are granting voting rights to permanent residents. Eleven Canadian municipalities are working to take steps toward this direction and Vancouver is one of them.

Once I was asked, “Wouldn’t it upset Canadians to know that foreigners have a say on what happens in their City?” We live in a city where almost half of the population is not born in Canada. These people were all permanent residents before they became Canadian citizens.

As a Canadian, I would be proud to live in a city with a fair, accessible and representative electoral system enjoyed by all – where we motivate people to not only feel like responsible residents, but also like they belong and are represented.

Regardless of where they are born, I hope all Canadians use their privilege to support an inclusive electoral system. Maybe that starts with challenging the historical systemic barriers that prevent the participation of certain groups in the community.

Democracy should not have a glass ceiling. Our system has one and it’s up to us – only us – to shatter it. Supporting the #LostVotesYVR campaign is one of the ways to make it happen.

Ela Esra Gunad is a human rights and social justice advocate. She is a former City of Vancouver Independent Election Task Force member and has been an adult ally at Fresh Voices where she works on #LostVotesYVR in partnership with the Vancouver Foundation.

Build a better waterfront with nature

This post is an adapted excerpt from Lea Elliott’s book: Work Like Nature: Sustainability lessons from ecosystems for your job or business.

“Every time I walked the waterfront, I saw it as a bit of a disaster. I could see what was wrong and what could be right,” said Adrian Rowland, a coastal engineer and West Vancouver resident.

West Vancouver’s urban shoreline is a mixture of sandy beaches, rocky shores, grassy parks, seaside trails and luxury homes. Much of its expansive waterfront has been altered by development over the last 100 years. With these changes, the foreshore became less accessible for residents, less ecologically diverse and more vulnerable to storms.

Could the community work with nature to reverse the damage?

The cost of hardscaping

In 2001, a rainy windstorm pummeled West Vancouver’s waterfront. Ocean waves toppled the concrete walls erected to keep the sea at bay and the adjacent trail safe. The surging water heaved large logs onto the path as easily as you’d toss a dog a stick.

On the beach, rocks the size of five-pin bowling balls rolled and squished sea life. On the land, rainwater rushed through concrete pipes. Any sand carried in the pipes with the rainwater bypassed the beach and was dumped into deep water.

The cost for repairs was estimated at $250,000 and this story of storm damage was very likely to repeat itself during future winter storms.

Change started with knowledge and collaboration

Rowland was itching to redesign West Vancouver’s waterfront, so he volunteered for the public Engineering Advisory Committee at the District of West Vancouver. Once he was on the committee, he sat down with reams of paper to read thirty years of waterfront stories. The reports said West Vancouver’s waterfront, although highly valued by its citizens, was unstable, unattractive and inaccessible:

  • In many places, you couldn’t get to the water because of the steep, tightly packed, ankle-turning boulders.
  • The view across the water was nice, but there was little eye-catching scenery at the waterfront itself; and,
  • The concrete seawalls, instead of making the coastline safe, contributed to its vulnerability.

The shoreline was a mess, but changes could be made to improve it.

Rowland was fortunate to find others who were also willing to step up and take action. In the community, Rowland and fellow residents formed the West Vancouver Shoreline Preservation Society to support the project. In the district, Councillor Trish Panz had also studied the many waterfront reports and was in a position to garner support for the works. And, Stephen Jenkins, Environmental Manager, became the project champion inside Municipal Hall.

Let nature do the heavy lifting

In 2006, eight pilot projects were launched to recreate a naturally self-sustaining shoreline. Basically, this meant:

  • Placing boulders and logs on the beach to capture sand and stones;
  • Building underwater reefs to reduce storm wave energy and increase marine diversity;
  • Replacing straight, hard concrete walls with a dynamic shoreline of boulders, sand, logs and plants; and,
  • Freeing creeks from their concrete shackles to flow freely over the beach.

All these works mimicked what the shoreline once was. They were a first step to what Jenkins described as “letting nature do the heavy lifting.” He said that they “attacked the source of the problem: wave energy. This isn’t us versus nature. It’s us with nature.”

Although the project had its obstacles, in two years the eight pilot sites were up and running. This short timeline was made possible thanks to Jenkins, Panz and Rowland’s fortitude, citizen support and the district’s unique lease over the province’s underwater land holdings.

The benefits of working with nature

“When you’re working with nature, you’re not sure what the unintended consequences of your actions will be. You need to sit back, watch and see what happens,” said Panz. At the pilot sites, marine life colonized rocks, kids and salmon returned to the creeks and storm wave energy was softened. “In West Vancouver, we saw incredibly quick returns.”

According to Rowland, “In essence, what we’ve been doing here is spending a dollar and getting a hundred dollars because we’ve been letting nature do the work.”

During an intense winter storm in 2007, $250,000 worth of sand and stones was deposited on West Vancouver’s beaches. This was a good thing: instead of the sand being lost to the deep ocean, like before, it was now accumulating into a beach. During the next big storm in 2010, there was damage in other areas on West Vancouver’s waterfront, but not at the pilot sites.

This is a story that could have had a different script. One missing piece and it wouldn’t have happened. Eight years after the project began, all three key players – Rowland, Jenkins and Panz – have left their roles. Small waterfront restoration projects continue to be initiated, but it remains to be seen if the public shoreline works will be expanded substantially. For now, small pockets along West Vancouver’s waterfront have been redesigned to tap into nature’s services. The sand is gathering naturally on the beach, the waterfront is less vulnerable to storms and the shoreline has become more fun to visit.

Lea Elliott, principal at Naturehood and author of Work Like Nature: Sustainability lessons from ecosystems for your job or business, believes everyone can make the world better through their work. Lea uses her two decades of environmental experience to help public sector managers develop tailored green action. With her keen listening and observation skills, optimistic outlook and holistic approach managers can launch successful initiatives that are good for their team, organization and the planet.