Over the last four years, there have been a number of trends in local politics across Metro Vancouver: debates over the pace of development, the inability of split councils to work together respectfully, attempts to nimbly deal with the effects of the pandemic.
But one of the most noteworthy developments has been a group of young, first-term female councillors that have pushed their councils on progressive issues.
On climate change, reconciliation and many other topics, if a municipality has been asking their city to do more than they have in the past, it’s often come from one of these five people: Vancouver Coun. Christine Boyle, New Westminster Coun. Nadine Nakagawa, North Vancouver District Coun. Megan Curren, Burnaby Coun. Alison Gu, or Port Moody Coun. Amy Lubik.
The five aren’t a political party, but they’ve certainly been an informal coalition pushing the region to take more progressive policy positions.
And as they discussed at a roundtable discussion with CBC News, they’ve certainly leaned on each other as they’ve navigated the often turbulent waves of municipal governance.
“There’s so much that you want to do so fast, and we can’t always do it as fast as we would like,” said Lubik. “It’s important to have that support network that’s out there saying you can do it. Here’s how you can do it.”
An honour to stand beside some of the very best people I know. These women lead with compassion and are champions for addressing the intersecting crises of climate, housing, health, poisoned drug supply and more. @amy_lubik @megancurren @christineeboyle @go4gu pic.twitter.com/TttDW83aoc
Staying in your lane
Arguably, the most significant place this happened at a policy level is on climate change.
Early in her term, Christine Boyle put forward a motion asking Vancouver to declare a climate emergency. It passed unanimously, and then other municipalities followed suit.
In each case, the motions called on staff to bring forward specific policy recommendations to reduce emissions in their cities, some of which are now underway.
“It’s a matter of embedding climate and equity in the way that we make decisions,” said Curren, who pointed to new policies across Metro Vancouver around building requirements and active transportation that have been accelerated in recent years.
The case of climate advocacy often brings up a debate the five of them are commonly involved in — whether national and international issues should be addressed primarily by provincial and national governments. In local government parlance, it’s called “staying in our lane.” And it’s a dichotomy they fiercely reject.
“People will tell us that it’s out of our jurisdiction, but we know that climate policy is housing policy; it’s transportation policy; it’s public space policy,” said Nakagawa.
“If we build our cities through a climate lens, we will actually build better cities for everyone.”
From left to right: Vancouver Coun. Christine Boyle, New Westminster Coun. Nadine Nakagawa and Burnaby Coun. Alison Gu reflect on their first terms in office. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)
Advice and support
The ability to talk to one another is helpful in two distinct ways, says the group. First, it allows each municipality to build on what others are doing.
“The examples are so helpful. I think about the leadership from Burnaby and from New West on renter protections and housing policy and what that’s meant for the whole region,” said Boyle.
“And one of the pieces of pushback that I certainly experience is … ‘it’s not possible. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ And on that, it’s incredibly helpful to be able to say, look at what [they’re] doing.”
But there’s also moral support as well, in emails and texts to one another.
“I think in local government, I’ve learned that there are a lot of really nuanced and hard decisions to make,” said Gu, elected in a Burnaby byelection in 2021 at the age of 24 to a government where the next oldest councillor is in their mid-50s.
“I’ve reached out to Christine [Boyle] before because of questions that I didn’t know how to handle and that has been really, really impactful, especially as somebody who … represents a huge range of ages within my council for the community.”
Virtually all politicians have noticed an increase in social media criticism in recent years, and the five women can often find themselves as outliers on council, both in policy and demographics.
“Running and being a change-maker can be really difficult. It can be really lonely. And when you’re advocating for change, you get a lot more heat for that,” said Nakagawa.
“It’s really, really helpful just to be able to prove that what we’re doing isn’t radical. It’s actually life-sustaining but also that it’s what’s needed to be done in municipalities.”
What comes next?
All five councillors are seeking re-election this October. While they have more fans and detractors than four years ago, incumbents are historically re-elected approximately 80 per cent of the time, and most of them are in municipalities that typically elect politicians on the left of the political spectrum.
As they look to another potential four years in office, many of them cited reversing the rising trend in housing prices as a focus. At the same time, they emphasized their commitment to a continued focus on climate.
“These years have really been about sowing the seeds for transformation and laying the groundwork,” said Curren.
“We know what we need to do. We have the solutions. It’s not an issue of technology. It is an issue of leadership: Will we be able to look back and say that we did all we could?”
And they’re hoping to have more demographic support in the future as well. Nakagawa started an organization called the Feminist Campaign School: in 2018, just 36 per cent of candidates were women, with a smaller percentage winning.
“I think the really important piece about that question is ensuring that we are encouraging folks who are not represented to run but also making the supports to allow them to thrive in these roles,” said Gu.
“It is a difficult job, and we have informal networks, but there should be more formal support … and make sure that the voices of everyone in the community are actually thoroughly represented.”