COMMENTARY: How my once downtrodden, suddenly pricey riding speaks to this election


The block my family lives on in the Vancouver Kingsway riding exists on the East Side and nowhere else in Canada. About half of the homes on our maple-lined block are Vancouver Specials, the locally ubiquitous (more ubiquitous on the East Side) style of home made between the 1960s and 1980s.

Known for their low-pitched roofs, second-floor front balconies and boxy look, Vancouver Specials stand out from the rest of the country. Just like our rainboot winters, our summer Night Market and the three billion or so (a slight exaggeration) coffee and bubble tea shops in the city.

With a national election approaching, you’re wondering, “Why should I care about your riding?” Well, the issues that constituents here value are ones experienced by many Canadians, from coast to coast, but “grande”-sized.

Having already mentioned the Vancouver Special, I’ll start with housing, the issue looming large on many Canadians’ minds. Last year’s forecast of a pandemic-induced housing slump was about as accurate as a certain U.S. politician’s prediction that COVID-19 would simply “go away” as the price of the average Canadian house has risen from $450,000 to $700,000 in the six years Justin Trudeau has been PM.

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In my neighbourhood, 700-large would barely get you a two-bedroom condo in my riding, where an average home topped $1.3 million. At those prices, young families flee cities, “renoviction” becomes a commonly used term and bathrooms are listed for rent as “micro studios.”

Income equality is another issue for which this riding is a hothouse. On our block, the haves live alongside the have-nots, like the neighbours I use my shaky Cantonese with who search for empty bottles in the recycling bins of the homeowners with Teslas in the driveways of their new custom-built homes. The average income of our traditionally working-class riding is over $20,000 less than Vancouver Quadra, the riding immediately to the west, even if some of the families on our block are “house rich.”

Maybe it’s this reason that the New Democratic Party (NDP), the party campaigning on a wealth tax, has held this riding under incumbent MP Don Davies since 2008.

But Davies, a former labour lawyer, found himself at odds recently with many of his constituents. Running against him for the Liberal Party, the only other party elected in the riding, is Virginia Bremner, who hopes to be the first Filipino-Canadian MP in a riding that is about 70 per cent visible minority.

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Click to play video: 'Focus BC: Addressing affordable housing in the federal election'

Focus BC: Addressing affordable housing in the federal election

Focus BC: Addressing affordable housing in the federal election – Sep 3, 2021

“I think that there’s a difference between genuine inclusion and exploitation of communities,” Davies told the Georgia Straight when asked about political parties running “diversity” candidates as cannon fodder in ridings those candidates are unlikely to win.

“To me when a party … essentially appoints a candidate that has no connection with the community, and they have no sort of mandate from their fellow community members, that to me speaks more of exploitation than a genuine sense of trying to reflect the diversity in the community.”

Buried in the NDP candidate’s condescension is a valid point about the cynical expediency of putting a “diversity hire” in a situation built to fail. But his suggestion that Bremner, who attended Killarney Secondary and whose family still lives in the riding, has “no connection to the community” is not only incorrect but resonates negatively with generations of immigrants who’ve been told we don’t belong — in Canada or at their job.

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The issue also touches on a larger issue of representation. In 2015, shortly after forming a government, Trudeau announced a cabinet featuring 50 per cent women. “Because it’s 2015” was his blunt and convincing reply. Well, now it’s 2021 and visible minority MPs are still underrepresented by 50 per cent. When will our Parliament truly reflect our multicultural country?

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Incumbent Liberal MPs Harjit Sajjan and Hedy Fry were quick to pounce on Davies’ comments. Acting quickly to stem the damage from his self-inflicted wound, Davies rushed to apologize with a workshopped statement that uses buzzwords like “lived experience” and “inclusion.”

Perhaps sensing some traction, Bremner declined to accept Davies’ mea culpa: “(Davies’) apology is not mine to accept…. He should apologize to the entire community,” Bremner tweeted.

Ultimately, given the polling trouble experienced by the Liberals, I don’t believe Davies’ remarks will be a mortal blow. But it’s worth noting that the campaign issues I’ve mentioned are interrelated. Wealth inequality erodes affordability and exacerbates housing prices. And all those forces are reshaping the demographic makeup — who actually belongs here and who doesn’t — of the riding. In the past decade, much has been made about how Mainland Chinese immigrants, with their foreign capital, have established a footprint in Vancouver’s traditionally affluent west side and displaced those who are “from here.”

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Click to play video: '‘Affordability’ among key issues with a third of the election campaign in the rear view'

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‘Affordability’ among key issues with a third of the election campaign in the rear view – Aug 26, 2021

But less has been said about how those “old stock” Canadians (to borrow a phrase from Stephen Harper) have moved to the east side. A few years back, when my stepson was attending an elementary school in the riding, I noticed the shifting demographics in the school based on the class portraits from years past. A predominantly Asian student body was becoming whiter.

A Vancouver Special recently sold on our block for over $2 million. Like that uniquely Vancouver type of dwelling, which not long ago was derided as cheap and cookie-cutter but now embraced as a versatile structure that allows for multigenerational living, East Vancouver is having its moment. Once known as crime-ridden and undesirable, this part of the city is being rebranded as “gritty” and “cool.”

But what happens to a place when the people who once lived there are forced to leave? It becomes less special. It becomes less Vancouver, too. At least, the one I’ve called home.

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Kevin Chong is an author and creative writing professor at UBC Okanagan.

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