Vancouver, British Columbia

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“We need to acknowledge the tragedy in Orlando, which has certainly impacted our city and cities around the world. […] Many sentiments have been expressed by our community. The word ‘love’ has been the dominant word, and it is what will prevail.”

Somber expressions filled Council Chambers as Vancouver’s City Council meeting was called to order. Councillors, staff and citizens alike nodded their heads as the Mayor spoke of love prevailing over tragedy.

In the days since the horrific mass murder at a nightclub in Orlando, mayors from around the world have spoken out on behalf of their cities with messages of sympathy, solidarity, and support. Mayors (and other leaders) have attended vigils, recognized the victims during official functions, called on their communities to donate funds, and reinforced the importance of local Pride events in the continued battle against hate and intolerance.

Why do mayors do this? The shooting didn’t happen in their communities. They have little ability and no authority to do anything to help the situation. Are they just scoring cheap political points, or do these expressions actually matter?

I believe they do. I think they matter a lot, actually.

Mayors are uniquely positioned to speak for cities. In good times and bad, mayors become the voice of the community they represent. Some describe mayors as ‘living symbols of their cities’, selected because they represent a collective aspiration of the city for its future. In the words of one author, mayors are “a symbolic centre that can try to give meaning to notions of community.” (Garrand, 2007)

The message that “love will prevail”, spoken by the Mayor of Vancouver, is not just a message for the people of Vancouver. It’s a message about Vancouver. It sets a tone. It gives hope. It translates a tragic act that is hard to understand into an affirmation of Vancouver as a city that believes in tolerance, acceptance and love.

Vancouver is unquestionably one of Canada’s urban success stories. With a spectacular skyline cradled between majestic mountains and the rugged pacific coast, the city really is a sight to behold. Vancouver is widely viewed to be one of the most livable cities in the world, and a leading example on many dimensions of sustainability. The city is diverse, vibrant, and has that laid back vibe you can only find on the coasts.

In my tour of ten Canadian cities, this was one of the only places where I never took public transit – not because Vancouver doesn’t have a great public transit system (it does), but because I didn’t need to. The city is compact and highly pedestrian oriented. I arrived on a seaplane from Victoria right into Vancouver’s downtown harbour. I left by walking to the train station. Everything I needed in between was easily accessed by foot, and I was in good company. There were times when even the very wide and well designed sidewalks started to feel like a traffic jam.

Vancouver is also a particularly interesting city for my purposes, because the role of the mayor is very different than in other Canadian cities. First off, Vancouver has local political parties. Montreal also has parties, but they are often leader-centric and less ideologically based, and tend to come and go with election cycles. Vancouver’s parties, by contrast, are more enduring institutions which typically run slates of candidates not just for city council but also for the school board and the elected parks board. Vision Vancouver is the party which currently has a majority on city council, including the mayor and 6 of 10 councillors. Although the Vision caucus has been criticized for meeting in private, the ability to organize positions through a party caucus was recognized by many interviewees as an efficient part of the decision making process. The duties of Vancouver city councillors are also unique, as all members are elected at large so the distribution of duties is based around policy areas rather than geography (similar to a cabinet).

In addition to the power that comes from leading a majority party, the role of the mayor also has more formal authority in Vancouver than most other Canadian cities. Vancouver has its own charter, which provides the mayor with the responsibility to “oversee and inspect the conduct of all employees” and the power to “suspect from his employment, if he thinks necessary, any such employee.” Council has the ability to reinstate the employee, but in a situation where the mayor governs a majority on council, this would seem an unlikely prospect.

As this project has (hopefully!) demonstrated, the role of the mayor varies considerably across Canada’s cities. The legal authority, institutional arrangements, and position of the city – not to mention ‘soft power’ features – all have an important influence on the nature of the role of the mayor. One outcome of this project will be a detailed ‘job description’ of sorts for urban mayors in Canada, detailing of the many factors which shape it and how they vary by city. This baseline understanding of the role then enables a more complicated (and interesting!) exploration into what mayoral leadership looks like in practice, and what role mayors play – individually and collectively – in leading Canada’s cities. Lots more to come!

In the meantime, I’m thankful for my time in Vancouver, the last stop on what has been a truly epic learning (and life) experience for me. I am indebted to the people in every city visited for making time to share their insights – and in many cases, their love for their communities. I’ve learned a lot about mayors, about local leadership, about cities, and ultimately about Canada. I’m coming away from this experience with a heightened sense of how important cities are to the lives of Canadians, and the success of our country.

As we struggle through the sad wake of tragedy, I am encouraged to see Canada’s cities defining themselves as places that are inclusive, safe, and welcoming. I’m glad our mayors are speaking up.

It gives me hope that love will indeed prevail.

 

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The Pride flag at Vancouver City Hall.

 

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The Mayor speaks in Vancouver Council Chambers.

 

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Who wouldn’t walk to work if the walk looked like this?

 

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Doing some reading in a rooftop hot tub. Vancouver has this quality of life thing figured out!

 

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I started this leg of the trip in Victoria to visit family, and travelled to Vancouver via sea plane – a highly recommended way to travel!!

 

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I seem to get the most comments on my food pics, so I’ll keep them coming (mostly so you’ll keep coming and reading about mayors!). This was actually from Victoria but trust me, I was still thinking about it in Vancouver. Delish!

 

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This journey started in the most eastern part of Canada, on the Atlantic Ocean. After nearly two months of wandering west, it’s finally reached the Pacific Ocean. We live in an extraordinary country, from coast to beautiful coast.