As the on-going blowback against Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps borders on hysterical, it’s time for a reality check
Freya Wasteneys, Features Editor
Cynthia Tran Vo, Illustrator
When we think of Victoria, we often think “slow-moving and quaint,” – a land of high tea, parliament, ivy-laced buildings and brunch. Perhaps a tad traditional, but pleasant on the whole. Sadly, on the less flattering side, the city – like Vancouver – has its skeletons. The enduring housing crisis, a staggering homeless population and polarizing political views keep Victoria divided. Since the municipal elections in 2014, Mayor Lisa Helps has been trying to make lasting changes, but her efforts to bring the city into the 21st century have been met with resistance.
Despite bringing experience, education and good intentions to her post, Helps has garnered more than her fair share of criticism. As we approach the municipal elections, there are many who seem resolved to take her down. The polarizing views, which she hoped to quash during her time in office, are more prevalent than ever.
While she has stayed true to her original platform, Helps is criticized for reckless spending and vanity projects. Her successes, which when accounted for are numerous, often go unnoticed by those resolved to hate her.
Her 2014 platform promised to improve the active transportation networks, grow the local economy and build more affordable housing. She has done her best to follow through with these promises. While issues remain, no one can accuse her of sitting stagnant. The investment in bike lanes, bridges and housing may come with a high price tag, but this should not come as a surprise. The reality these days is that people say they want change, but balk at the financial realities of making such alterations.
Most of the hate directed towards Helps has been on social media through attack groups, ads and comments. In March 2018, the negativity caused Helps to delete her Facebook account, and the decision received a wave of attention in the media. “[Facebook is] actually designed to create segregated echo chambers” said Helps in an interview with the Vancouver Sun, “[It perpetuates] negativity, fear and anger rather than anything happy.”
The attention she received for deleting her Facebook was nothing compared to the backlash she experienced more recently after she removed the statue of John A. MacDonald on Aug. 11. This act instigated yet another outpouring of hate on a variety of news and social media platforms.
Nicola Spurling, the Green candidate for Coquitlam, believes that constituents should have been consulted and that some backlash is justified, but finds the amplification of hate worrying. “My guess is that this hate was already there and people just had an issue to latch on to and to try to use against her,” said Spurling. “I also think that there are a lot of people who are stuck in their ways, who are afraid of change, and who are still clinging on to problematic aspects of our history. We can preserve our history without forcing people in our community to walk by this statue and relive the dark aspects of our history on a daily basis.”
Helps apologized in an article published in the Times Columnist but stated that she stood by her decision to relocate the statue. “The statue in its original location was a barrier to Indigenous communities’ engagement with city hall. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls upon all levels of government to engage with Indigenous Peoples on reconciliation action. Without relocating the statue, we were not able to invite First Nations to city hall in good faith and respect,” wrote Helps.
In the future, she has agreed to consult the community, stating that reconciliation is a learning process.
The removal of the statue has been the cause of contention both locally and nationally, and has been yet another excuse for people to call Helps unqualified – a criticism far from reality. In addition to her experience as a city councillor, Helps has a Master’s Degree on the history of Victoria’s public spaces, experience working with micro-lending and non-profits and is currently pursuing a PhD on housing, homelessness and governance of poverty in Victoria.
Of course, there are those who will point out that there are still homeless encampments, and that housing prices continue to be an issue, but it’s also important to note that there have been improvements. An article in the Globe and Mail highlights Helps’ plan to construct “2000 units of housing built over the next 10 years,” noting that “just over half of it will be so-called ‘affordable.’” Meanwhile, she has also brought the retail vacancy rate from 11 per cent down to four per cent, and built a slew of (albeit controversial) bike lanes in the process.
That being said, every politician is bound to receive flak at some point in time. It is part of a healthy democracy to have discussions around what constitutes good and bad decisions, and to hold politicians accountable. But when constituents lose sight of the issues, and employ hate-fueled tactics and criticisms unrelated to the platform, it calls into question the validity of our political discourse. When constituents start making libelous claims about the mayor being a money launderer, like they did in a recent Facebook ad, we know we’ve reached a new low in Canada.
Dr. Michael Markwick is a member of the Communications faculty at CapU, with a doctorate looking at the democratic communication and pluralism relating to the ‘war on terror’. As a Green candidate for West Vancouver-Capilano, he holds strong opinions regarding fair democratic discussion. “I think the fundamental issue we should be questioning our mayor and council candidates on, is their capacity to serve the people with integrity, to be free of conflict of interest, to be free of influence peddling,” Markwick said. “These are foundational to have a democracy.”
He laments that the distraction caused by Helps’ removal of the John A. MacDonald statue hinders constituents’ ability to deal with bigger issues. “I think the thing that really worries me is that the space that we need to deal with the meta-issue, which is the integrity of the government, isn’t there,” said Markwick. “Instead what we’ve got is noise.”
“While I think she could have handled the decision about the statue more effectively and more democratically, to see the things that she wants to get done in Victoria eclipsed by this one issue – especially when Victoria is faced with so many important things to address – is… well, it’s a little perverse,” he said.
Markwick admits that his “spidey-senses” tingle when it comes to the criticism of Helps. “My gut feeling is that some of the blowback is because she’s a woman,” he said. “It just seems to me that our ability to look at these things with proportionality, and to take a reality check about what really counts, to check our own judgement, are things that we owe to each other as citizens.”
There is no real way to prove that the flak she has received is related to her gender, but the comments on her Instagram (on a photo of a sunset no less) seem to hold a common theme. To name a few, she has been called “an absolute disgrace to the country,” “disgusting witch,” “vile woman” and a “traitor.”
“I hope your legacy gets erased as opposed to a man who did more for Canada than you ever have or ever will,” said one. This is certainly not to say that all people voting against Helps are misogynists, but it appears to be an influencing factor in many of the online reactions.
When asked whether she saw a difference in how candidates were treated based on gender values, Spurling said “Absolutely.” Spurling, who is transgender, has seen both sides of the equation. “As someone who’s been viewed as a man and as a woman, I see the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in how folks are treated whether as politicians or as constituents,” she said. She did however address the fact that the removal of statues is a loaded issue.
“Seeing how polarizing the removal of statues in the US can be makes me think that she’d have received similar backlash if she was a man, but it may have been targeted in different ways,” Spurling said.
At this point, it’s all speculation. However, Markwick brings it back to the real issue. “We don’t owe each other the space to emote everything, we owe each other good reasons for the decisions we’re making. And until we grow that capacity, we’re really on thin ice when it comes to democracy,” he said. Regardless of whether the issue is gendered, criticisms should be viewed proportionally.
“If the noise about the statue persists, even after she’s apologized, then we’ve failed the task of making sure we actually elect people with integrity,” he said. “Where is the vetting of her opponents? Where’s the discussion about how they will measure up?” With every election, Markwick believes that constituents should bring the discipline of a juror. Citizen jurors to be exact.
And as we enter our own race for mayoral candidacy in Vancouver, hopefully we can bring down the same critique upon ourselves. A hard task to achieve, but necessary nonetheless. So who are you voting for? And more importantly – why?