Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 4: A history of community-building in BC — with Bob Williams

Speakers: Jamie-Leigh Gonzales, Melissa Roach, Am Johal, Bob Williams

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Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  0:00
You’re listening to Below the Radar, a knowledge mobilization project out of 312 Main. I’m Jamie-Leigh Gonzales and I work for SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. This podcast is about bringing forward ideas to encourage meaningful exchanges across communities. Each episode we interview guests on topics ranging from environmental and social justice, arts, culture, community building, and urban issues. This podcast is recorded on the unceded territories of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. 

Melissa Roach  0:29
Hi, I’m Melissa Roach from SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. This week we’re shifting our focus south of the Fraser to Surrey. Bob Williams talks about the capacity for Surrey to be a hub outside of downtown Vancouver, talking about the SFU Surrey campus and how it’s drawing more talent and attention these days. Thanks for tuning in, and take a listen. This is Bob Williams interviewed by Am Johal.

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Am Johal  1:03
Hi, welcome to Below the Radar, our podcast. Thank you for joining us again this week. We’re with Bob Williams, former NDP cabinet minister from the Dave Barrett government from the early ‘70s…

Bob Williams  1:16
That’s below the radar!

Am Johal  1:20
Bob was, for a long time, a board member with Vancity Credit Union and he’s been involved with dozens of projects before and since then. Welcome, Bob!

Bob Williams   1:30
Thanks Am, good to be here! Especially at 312 Main.

Am Johal  1:34
Yeah, I was wondering if you could talk about your involvement at 312 Main, actually. Why don’t we start there.

Bob Williams  1:39
Well, maybe it’s our joint involvement at 312 Main! When Jim Green, who was the great community activist that changed the whole neighbourhood and defined the neighbourhood was in Toronto, he came across the Centre for Social Innovation, probably 20 years ago or so, and he was very impressed by Tonya Surman and the people that created it and it became a centre for social innovation to be really creative around social innovation and working with NGOs and disadvantaged communities and others. It evolved into a great success and Jim could see the case for it in the Downtown Eastside, and he kind of left that burden on me when he passed away. It’s what he still wanted to see down here. And so you and I got together and we convinced some other people, and Vancity became involved and provided a small endowment to the Green Foundation, which we’re still part of, and we initiated the project. And now it’s sort of partly open, at Cordova and Main, and it’s coming along more or less in the direction we hoped. It’s very active and the NGOs are moving in. The ground floor isn’t activated, but some of us saw this as a matter of learning about social capital and human capital and how it could be transformational in a place like this. So I guess there is a burden on my conscience and I think all citizens’ conscience in the city about the loss of the First Nations women and the serial killer that was involved. And so I saw a project like this as being partly redemptive in terms of what we owed the community because of our failure to look after some of the most disadvantaged people in this neighbourhood.

Am Johal  3:49
For a long time, Bob, you’ve been building relationships between Vancity Credit Union and the University of Bologna related to their relationship to cooperative economics, and Pier Luigi Sacco came here about 12 or 13 years ago, and has been here more recently to Surrey, but I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about the work you’re doing in terms of the relationships in Emilia-Romagna region in Italy and the cooperativized economy that they have there.

Bob Williams  4:21
Yeah, it’s fascinating really, and not enough people in North America know about the great university there. It’s the first university in Europe, so it was established in 1088, and it’s part of the great roots of the Enlightenment and the transformation of Europe after the Middle Ages. And so the University of Bologna and the University of Edinburgh were at the heart of the Enlightenment after the darker years in Europe. So it’s fascinating too, for somebody to get re-educated amongst the intellectual elite of Europe, which sounds terribly snobbish, but it’s also just a recognition of we have a hell of a lot to learn here. And so in Emilia-Romagna, it’s been a wonderful history. They were the first out of feudalism in Europe in the Po River Valley, and out of that, they really established the first real citizenship after. And so they had to manage the Po River Valley and its flooding and everything, and that requires cooperation. So these poor people of the valley realized that their future lay in cooperating, and they now are the beacon for cooperative economics in the world. So we were lucky with Vancity Credit Union being what it is to establish an ongoing program there for the last 15 to 20 years, where we took our staff there and they could learn more about it. 

Bob Williams  6:00
But at one point we thought, let’s bring one of these great professors to Vancouver to look around, and that was Pier Luigi Sacco. And he’s one of those intellects that has developed both sides of their brain. So the mechanical, mathematical side and the analytical side, and the artistic, romantic side are both highly developed. So, 10 years ago, he came and looked around the whole rim of False Creek and the arts community in Vancouver and said, you know, the east side rim of False Creek is the creative centre of the city. And it truly is, if you sort of map it. So he led us to the whole idea that something like 312 Main would make a lot of sense, and part of it might be in terms of integrating the arts community and the economic community. I think we’re on our way in that regard. But we decided about, well just this year, to talk to him again because we’re doing work in Surrey, and so we gave him a call on Skype, which for an old fart like me is brilliant stuff that I’m not used to, and it’s like we never left one another and we talked him into coming out for another trip for a week, mainly to look at Surrey because it’s evolving as our second great city in the Lower Mainland, and it’s evolving in a way that will have its own central business district, just as Vancouver has its own central business district. And I was involved earlier in creating what we called Central City, which is a wonderful galleria, shopping centre, and tower, and which we intended in moving ICBC to. The new government didn’t agree with that, so the tower is used by all kinds of free enterprises which are excited about being able to have such classy surroundings in Surrey, and the galleria is one of the glorious spots in the Lower Mainland. And many of us here in the city are kind of snobs and don’t get out to Surrey and are totally unfamiliar with the beauty of that project which involved Simon Fraser University. And its a fascinating building block going on now to create a new CBD across the river. 

Bob Williams  8:30
Historically we’ve always been a two-centred region, with the old interurban line and street car system, the other centre was in New Westminster and Vancouver. And now it’s shifted over to Surrey, North Surrey and Vancouver. And so it’s well underway, and for those that don’t get to visit Surrey, you need to go out there, because the University is there and the galleria, and it’s magnificent, and they’re just finishing the new engineering centre and other projects. So we’re on the edge of having a university city across the Fraser River and that’s where all our new growth is, that’s where all the kids are, and it’s transformational. That university right now is attracting the top 2% of our students in British Columbia. It’s that good, and most people don’t even know it’s happening. And it’s in that whole exciting world of engineering, the arts, and digital stuff which I don’t fully understand. But it’s the future of technology and new employment, I think, in the region. So it’s fun to see these bright kids around, doing projects that just blow your head off. And all of this is happening in this maelstrom of new construction and so on. I never believed when we built Central City, with its 20-odd storey tower and its great galleria that I’d be able to look to the north and see a 60-storey hotel tower with Kwantlen University and other projects just down the street. Or to see another Bing project - Bing Thom, our great architect - who designed their library just down the road, a library that must be one of the great libraries of the world. You go into it and it’s almost like a flower opening up before your eyes. Nobody expects that in Surrey, you know? We’re pretty snobbish in this town and you know, what’s evolving is a glorious centre. 

Bob Williams  10:38
So the real question is now, as I still look at it from my ancient precipice, well what about the social glue? We’ve got this physical thing happening, it’s really quite dramatic and beautiful. But what is the social glue? And Whalley, historic Whalley, the old centre, was a commercial slum, and we were very bold to have built what we built. But at the same time, you have this dramatic new capital spending and construction, tons of money being spent, and at the same time there is an underclass right nearby, until recently was a tent city on one of the northern avenues. The city is finally dealing with that and providing temporary housing and so on. But there is an underlying question about what about the people that have been forgotten out there, just as the Native women have been forgotten out here in the Downtown Eastside, so there’s real questions about First Nations women out there as there was here. There’s real questions there, even more so than here I think, around immigration. It’s the focus of integration. So we have to ask, as we did with Pier Luigi, well what about all this, all happening at the same time? What about the social glue that this Central Business District needs? And he says yeah, there’s no question. So I see that as one of the great challenges. Can the university, Simon Fraser University, accommodate to some extent the forgotten underclass that they are in the middle of? I think not. And can they do something that is an integrative way of marrying some of these pieces together so it isn’t just a social work project, not that there’s anything wrong with social work per se. But there is an opportunity there to build a new community, I think, in terms of culture, and the economy and the forgotten people. And I think that’s a fascinating new base for a downtown. It’s stretching a bit, but that’s what we have to do when you’re building a new town.

Am Johal  12:48
Now certainly the demographic trends in Surrey would back you up - by 2040, it’s going to have a population larger than the City of Vancouver. The geographic space in Surrey is much larger than the City of Vancouver.

Bob Williams  13:05
Three times!

Am Johal  13:08
Yeah, and there has been recently the civic election where they had a plan for the streetcar system and the new mayor is pushing again for Skytrain, and I’m wondering if you can speak, with your urban planner hat on because that’s when you started your career, in terms of strategic public investments can work towards the type of vision you’re talking about.

Bob Williams  13:31
Yeah, it’s fascinating, and the new mayor was the old mayor. He was the old mayor when we did the galleria.

Am Johal  13:41
Deja-vu all over again!

Bob Williams  13:42
Sure is! So, well of us old farts do recycle ourselves one way or another, and it’s fun! I was told by a colleague just yesterday, I’d forgotten that I’d met the existing mayor because at the time I was a big shot cabinet minister, and I was ready to build this university and tower and move ICBC there. And this old colleague said, do you remember this meeting? And I said no, I remember working with the city manager and the staff, and he said, well you know, this fellow...who’s the new mayor again? What’s his name?

Am Johal  14:25
Doug McCallum.

Bob Williams  14:26
Yeah, anyway he was there and he was stewing away because I was seen as this socialist bogeyman who was going to come in and tell him what to do and all the rest of it, he said. And so he was shaking and he was upset, and here he is the mayor and why is he worried about someone like me? Good question. So he says, you walked into the room and said ‘oh, it’s so much fun to be back in Surrey! I was a young consulting town planner and Bill Vander Zalm was the mayor of Surrey, and he hired me!’ ‘You mean the social credit guy that became premier of the province and was a bit of a screwball? He hired you to be his advising planner?’ And I said yeah! He wanted me to advise him on what about density in apartments around North Surrey? What about a plan for Cloverdale? I did all that stuff. And my old friend said, after that he was just overjoyed and happy to work with you. You weren’t this mad socialist who couldn’t work with anyone across the river. Well now time moves forward and he’s suggesting a range of ideas that I don’t think are crazy at all. So accelerating Skytrain, that doesn’t bother me.

Bob Williams  15:39
The top people in transit were saying they wanted it in a decade anyway. Is that a killer? No. And we’re lucky enough to have a new mayor in Vancouver that said yeah, let’s try and work with them if that’s what they want. And as we played with some of these ideas, you know, one of the things that everybody should be looking at is trying to get some of the cost of this capital spending back out of the landowners. I think there’s kind of a win-win possibility out in North Surrey where we try and get landowners to pay a good chunk of the infrastructure, the streetcar that’s going in, or the - pardon me - the Skytrain that’s going in. And this mayor just might be able to have a win-win game. Let’s think about old Hjorth Road, that's 104th, and that's the road that goes from downtown Central City to Guildford. Well Guildford is a huge shopping centre, and they’re beginning to think about high density and what that could mean in that centre and making it a much more liveable community. I think they’re ready to pay a ton in order to get that streetcar going. So I think if the mayor is not foolishly anti-tax and wants to win and win, he might have the prospect of having at least a trolley along 104th and Skytrain heading to Langley, and that’s a win for everybody.

Am Johal  17:07
Bob, now, one of the things that was talked about in this election, it’s been a crisis for a very long time, is the crisis of affordable housing. You’ve seen and read the city over a very long moment, from the time you worked as a planner, you grew up in East Vancouver. I’m wondering if you could give your take on the affordable housing crisis across Metro Vancouver.

Bob Williams  17:32
Well you know, I’m so old that I went through the World War II housing crisis. My dad was in the army and came back, and we were in the army camp up in Vernon, BC at the time, and we were going to come home to Vancouver. Vancouver didn’t have any housing for all these soldiers coming home, it was terrible, and it was probably worse than even now. And so what do we do? We moved in with my grandmother, and my aunt had to share a bed with me, which wasn’t a lot of fun for her I’m sure. And then we had to strike out and we ended up renting the back of a store on the East Side, and we lived in that for 3 years. And we didn’t have a bathtub. Imagine going to high school and not having a bathtub, yeah, you can imagine! So it was a terrible time, but the Feds really built them. They had massive housing programs, and neighbourhoods like Fraserview in Vancouver and Renfrew Heights were all built by the federal government and it took three years for us to move from the back of a store to a veterans’ housing project at the same time. So the Feds invested massively in housing. They don’t do that now. So that was transformational. We have to gear up for more of the same; now, it’s overdue. My colleague Thomas Bevan has been looking at what’s working well at the moment, and these temporary boxes, you know these freight boxes on the ships that are sort of modern ones, prefabricated in a few months and then moved to empty city land look like a very quick answer to solving immediate homelessness. But then you need a whole ton of programs, and you also need to rethink taxation and begin to tax land to the degree you should, that begins to loosen it up to development. So the new council in Vancouver is taking it seriously, all the candidates wanted to deal with housing. The provincial government is ready to get more serious about it, and so on. So we could be on the edge of really good work on the part of government, but it’s a ton of work and a ton money, too.

Am Johal  20:03
Now let’s talk about your mad, socialist period for a moment, since you brought it up. Things got covered a little bit by the book by Rod Mickleburgh and Geoff Meggs, but I’m wondering if you could share an anecdote or two about that ‘crazy mad’ period between ‘72 and ‘75 in the Barrett government.

Bob Williams  20:23
Oh I’d love to because I could be the class historian. And sadly nobody’s really interested in history in this day and age. But for us it was a ton of fun, because here we were, democratic socialists, that wanted government to do more, be more meaningful and effective and helpful.

Am Johal  20:44
You were Bernie [Sanders] people before Bernie.

Bob Williams  20:47
That’s true! So we had to think twice about it, we’re just going to do it. And we did it, so the amount of housing that was constructed in those days was phenomenal. We simply took over a company like Polygon, the big company around here right now, and bought it lock, stock and barrel. So we had the brightest housing developers in the provinces - not bureaucrats - housing developers building projects and they had a land inventory. And the true story is, Michael Audain, who’s now the head of Polygon and grew very successful, we hired as our deputy, one of our deputies, in the housing ministry. And we had a lot of money to spend in those days, and Dave Barrett was a wonderful guy who was happy to let us do a ton of stuff. He heard the numbers wrong, and he was both premier and minister of finance. So the true story is, we spent 10 times what the request was because Barrett hadn’t heard the request properly. So in that sense, we were a bit of a chaotic government as well. So in the ton of housing was built it was 10 times more than Michael Audain had asked for. So he really had to bust his ass to bring it. 

Bob Williams  22:05
So we didn’t have a housing problem in those days at all. And we still operated within the budget, so it was wonderful. And I was a gutsy kid that wanted to play more of a role in the forestry industry. So I ended up as Minister of Forests, buying up companies that were ready to sell to somebody else and I said no I’ll buy it from you instead. So we ended up building a forest industry owned by the crown for pretzels, and we ended up making nothing but money out of it and saving employment in the northwest and the southeast, and I learned a lot about how to run a forest company real fast, I’ll tell you, real fast! And I found people who could advise me and, of course, were more qualified than I. But the combination was killer - we had the most stimulated period in capital spending in the forest industry in our history until then. And now, in the time since, 40 odd years or 50 or however long it is, it’s been in decline ever since. It’s a sad story. We’ve seen the city booming, but the hinterland is declining. They keep voting Liberal, and they’re declining, and Surrey started voting for the NDP, and they’re booming like hell. Is there a political message here? You’re damn right there is.

Am Johal  23:31
You recently wrote a report for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives on forestry in BC. I’m wondering if you could talk about that a little bit.

Bob Williams  23:39
Yeah, I felt it was overdue because I never achieved what I wanted in forestry because I was busy in all these other departments and interfering with them and helping them. So there’s a terrible gap between the communities and the managing of the forest and the running of the companies. So until we transform that, our marvellous forest lands are essentially being abandoned to a digital, mechanical way of running them for the benefit of the international corporations. That’s 95% of our land. That’s such a sterile, dumb idea, I can’t believe it. When I was a kid, and I worked in the forest service when I was 19 and I worked in the Kootenays when there were still paddlewheelers on the Arrow Lake, imagine that! And kind of, gaslamp trains and stuff like that - it’s hard to believe! And there’s people that settled there from Britain and elsewhere in this hinterland before the lake was flooded. I mean, I remember sitting on that paddlewheeler and they just ram into the dock. If you had a flag up, it was such a shallow barge that you could just park right there on the beach, and there was a place in Halcyon Hot Springs, where a Boer War general retired there. Still wore his epaulets and he had a pet goat tethered with a rope to his waist. And he would blow a whistle to welcome the paddlewheeler. 

Bob Williams 25:16
This is a kid from the East End here, and I flew a 1927 Junker Aircraft. And I was so dumb and good on air photographs that they had me be the bombardier in this crazy, German aircraft, the biplane, and I was so dumb that I was willing to tie myself to the fuel latch, pull out the trap door, and then drop food drops on distant trailways for young kids that were marching along and needed a food drop midway on one of their long journeys. I did it all, and the pilot would say to me, ‘hey kid, you know I’m the only one who will try to land on this bloody lake, you know that?’ So it was an indelible education for a city boy. So I feel an obligation to try and cart back to the times when people were relevant in these distant areas. It’s all digitalized and financialized and brutalized now, so it’s a dramatic comeback that’s necessary, and hardly any of us city folks know how awful our policies are. So the way is to create a forester general who reports to the whole legislature and not tied up in the internal politics, and have local regional foresters, so that there’s a feedback loop between both communities. That’s the essence of it. The goal is to democratize it, and that’s really the great challenge in modern society. How do we democratize this crazy, digitalized world?

Am Johal  26:51
Yeah, the last couple week were our first couple of episodes we interview Maria Dobrinskaya from the Broadbent Institute and then Bill Tieleman from the ‘no’ side, but since we have the benefit of an old fart like you here, Bob, I was wondering if you can give your perspective on the proportional representation referendum.

Bob Williams  27:11
Well, this province has generally suffered right-wing governments, at one point or another. Not hopelessly right wing, like the US has, but still right wing governments that serve primarily corporate interests. And every now and then, the public decides they’re too crooked, the shit in the stable is too deep, oh well we can let the socialists clean out the stable at least and let them govern for a little while. So that’s my read of the present system. Every now and then, we clean the shit out, and they don’t trust us to govern. After we’d had to do that, clean the shit out from a government that they shouldn’t have trusted in the first place! So you know, how do you grapple with that? It’s all nonsense. And I know the hinterland the way I do from that early work as a kid. We need diversity, we greatly - this is a great, great province. The potential is almost limitless. So we desperately need diversity and I have no trouble working with the Greens one way or even with true Conservatives. Red Tories are wonderful people to work with.

Bob Williams  28:28
And I think learning to work in coalition governments could be quite exciting, especially if we attempt to try some of these decentralized models that I’m talking about for forestry. The great tragedy is that we’re not using the human skill and desire and goals and passions and ideologies to inhabit this giant, bloody, province, you know? All of the hinterland is declining in population, and we’re crowding ourselves in the Lower Mainland. We really need diversity to re-populate the province. So in some ways, the really grand question mark for British Columbia is what should our settlement policy be? How should we settle Northern Vancouver Island, which is empty? How do we decentralize the whole North-Central Interior, which is empty in many ways? This is a world, world scale opportunity, and none of us think of it that way. Now it’s up to those goddamn corporations who continue to rob us blind in some ways. So we really have to straighten out and fly right.

Am Johal  29:42
Great, thank you so much for joining us, Bob.

Bob Williams  29:44
Thank you, it’s fun.

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Melissa Roach  29:47
Thanks for listening this week. Thanks to Bob Williams for talking to us and a huge thanks to our producers, Jamie-Leigh Gonzales, Maria Cecilia Saba...I won’t thank myself, I’m Melissa Roach, and of course, Am Johal, your host for this week. Tune in next week, we’ll be talking to Patricia Reed, a Berlin-based visual artist.

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
November 26, 2018

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