Interview with Gregor Robertson

Mayor Gregor Robertson

Interviews with British Columbia mayors

This page is a participant in the Vancouver Voter Funded Media campaign.

November 8, 2011

A corporate CEO turned NDP member of the provincial legislature turned mayor, Gregor Robertson won his first term at city hall in the municipal election of 2008. Since then, his administration has been best known for implementing a number of high-profile initiatives relating to homelessness, transit, and the environment — though not always without controversy. He’s now seeking a second term under the left-leaning Vision Vancouver party banner.

Before you got involved in municipal politics, you were a member of the provincial legislature. Is there anything you miss about those days?

I’ve never been asked that question before. It’s usually the other way around.

Victoria deals with some really important issues; health care, the environment, education, land use, agriculture. Key issues for our province are debated, and that made it really engaging. But at the same time, I found it frustrating not to be able to influence the big decisions being made. So I much prefer being the Mayor of Vancouver and being able to get a lot done. Victoria was tough, because we were in opposition.

I just miss some of the subject matter and issues. They were really engaging and interesting. And people. There were lots of great people working there.

What is the difference between Vision and the NPA?

There are many differences.

Our style of governing is different. Vision is a big tent, and more positive and collaborate, I think. The NPA was very partisan and was not effective at delivering solutions. Contrast our records on solving homelessness, for example. We’ve had a dramatic decrease in the number of street homeless people over the past three years after nothing being done and the numbers climbing under the previous council.

Vision is action-oriented and I think we’ve demonstrated that over the last three years. We’ve gotten a lot done for the city in a constructive way. NPA represents a kind of “old-school” politics that no are no longer effective given the scale of challenges now face.

You talk a lot about wanting to make Vancouver the world’s greenest city. Why does Vancouver have to be the greenest city in the whole world? The world is a big place.

It’s an attainable goal that gives us a big competitive advantage, economically, and makes our city more livable.

We’re in the top ten now, by most accounts. So striving to be number one, I think, is a worthy endeavor to push us along to be leaders. We’re well positioned to get there if we focus on our strengths. It creates jobs. It makes our city healthier and wealthier. So it’s win-win.

What is the single biggest thing a city government can do to create jobs?

I’ve had a big focus on job creation and economic development, from local construction to attracting jobs and investment from overseas.

We used the Olympics to attract jobs and investment, which was a huge success. For the whole region we had over 25,000 jobs created from our Olympic business program, that ten of the cities worked together for.

I think the city has a key role to play in job creation and supporting the business community and promoting Vancouver to the world as a great place to do business. Our talent now drives some leading industries, like digital media and green technology. We’ve got leading talent here in Vancouver that we need to promote.

How much of a role did city government play in your own success as a businessman?

Vancouver is a good market for healthy products and local foods, which was my field. So it was a great place to start and grow my company, and expand from, and export from. There was a solid base to build from here, because people care about food and good quality. So that was an advantage for my specific business.

More broadly, I think it’s about government getting out of the way and not creating problems and red tape and excessive taxes. Government needs to enable business to do its thing, and business will find its way to succeed. It’s more about not causing problems and getting out of the way.

Do you like cars?

Do I like cars? Yeah!

I ask because some have characterized your policies as being hostile to cars. Is that unfair?

I love cars. I hate pollution. I’m really keen on the new electric vehicles coming now. I drove a Tesla once — fastest car I’ve ever driven. So you don’t sacrifice performance with EVs.

A lot of people, myself included, need cars to get around some of the time. That’s a requirement. So our city has to be good for all forms of transportation — including cars, since cars remain the dominant form of transportation. We invest tons of money every year in improving the road network and streets for cars. Shifting people into transit and walking and biking actually address the traffic problems we have.

We’re a small geographic space that is increasingly congested, so we need people to be using all different forms of transportation so all of them can move more freely. I think we saw that with the Burrard Bridge, for example. We’re seeing it work because people are using it in different ways.

This is what every big city struggles with: dealing with congestion and pollution and supporting cleaner and more affordable transportation.

Is there enough racial integration in Vancouver?

That’s a good question. We’re an incredibly multicultural city now and there’s lots of harmony. We’re seen as a model city for many cultures getting along. That said, there’s still a lot of solitudes and I’ve been to many different communities that are not integrated.

I think we’re lucky to have festivals like Dragon Boat or the Vaisakhi parade that bring all cultures together in celebrating one tradition. But we need more of that kind of multicultural celebration to keep opening up everyone’s eyes and building understanding. It’s not something we can be complacent about. We have to be purposeful in bringing cultures together and improving relations and connections.

I think we’re doing better than almost any other city in the world on that front. But there’s still room for improvement.

What was the lesson of the Canucks riot?

Well, the independent review clearly identified the mix of booze, rapid transit into downtown, and a once-in-a-lifetime event as a perfect storm that resulted in chaos. I think the lesson is prepare for the worst-case scenario, and ensure that we’re on top of that combination of booze and transit and people all concentrating in one area so we have a game plan to ensure that doesn’t happen again. Hopefully we’re in the Stanley Cup finals next year to prove it.

How worried are you that Occupy Vancouver will turn violent?

I’m worried. There’s increasing concern that there’s a whole different crowd on the site now that’s there for trouble. The original protest crowd has had enough, and wants to evolve the protest to be more constructive, and not connected to a tent camp which is no longer safe.

So we’re tracking it by the hour, and watching closely. We’re hoping to find a resolution that ends the tent camp, but still supports a protest on the site, and has a peaceful transition. That’s the bottom line.

As a progressive man yourself, is it difficult to be seen as a symbol of “the system” by protestors you sympathize with?

I think it’s a sign of progress that many of the concerns being expressed by the Occupy movement resonate with the vast majority of people. There is real concern about the global economy and income inequality and climate change. We’re grappling with huge challenges and not seeing leadership at some levels of government to tackle it.

I feel privileged to be mayor of a city that is concerned about these issues, but also frustrated that I can’t do more about them within the boundaries of our city. These are global, national challenges and we’re struggling with them at a local level. We can’t change the world from the city level. But I think by focusing on affordable housing and homelessness and social justice and greening our city we are working on things that do change the world. We’re creating a new model of a sustainable city that can help many other cities change and become better places to live.

But tackling the global economic system and the global financial industry from here is really difficult.

So it sounds like you’re saying “don’t blame me.”

Yeah. I’m focused on doing everything I can do here as the mayor to make a difference on the ground. If we can do that in cities across the world it will add up to big change. But the Occupy protest has definitely illuminated that we have global challenges that are not being addressed, and we’re not seeing global leadership from the establishment to make the needed changes.

There’s always a lot of talk about social housing in Vancouver municipal politics, and creating more affordable living spaces for low-income peoples. But there are a lot of young, middle-class people who would argue the city is unaffordable for them to live in, too. Would you agree?

Absolutely. That’s a huge concern. There’s a lot of focus on homelessness and people who are sleeping on our streets, but we also have a huge problem for, as you said, young people on middle incomes who can’t afford to get into the market.

Certainly purchasing a place is really tough in Vancouver, and the rental market is tight. So I see this as the number one issue in these next three years: getting more affordable housing and low and middle-income housing built in the city. If we increase the supply hopefully we can create some new models for affordable home ownership, plus more affordable rentals.

We’ve had some success with the STIR rental program and laneway housing. We’ve tried some new things that we’ve been among the first cities to try. Hopefully that helps, and we should ramp them up and scale them up so we can have a lot more supply.

But it’s a huge issue and I think a lot of people are struggling with it in this city. I don’t know how my kids are going to live in this city. The way it’s going is just unimaginable compared to when I was first looking for a place. So we’ve got to work hard on it at City Hall.

Complete this sentence: he will be remembered as the mayor who….

That’s a tough one to narrow down. There’s too many things I want to stick in there.

“Who solved homelessness and brought in a new generation of politics in Vancouver.”