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Ken Sim swept to power a year ago promising to reduce waste, make our streets safer and bring Vancouver’s “swagger” back. But can his open-book style win over the critics?
I’m sitting on a couch in the mayor’s third-floor offices, and Ken Sim is walking over to his turntable to put on another record. “How about the Police? I love this album.”
With the opening strains of “Every Breath You Take” crackling to life, Sim is explaining his approach to conflict resolution, and how he takes inspiration from the classic management tome Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.
“The way they approach things is, instead of having an adversarial relationship in every decision we look at, imagine you’re two judges on the same side of the table, trying to opine on a very difficult case and get to the best answer,” he says. “We’re just looking for the best answer.”
Suddenly, the office door swings open and Sim’s chief of staff, Trevor Ford, pokes his head in (for the third time in the past 10 minutes). “We have to go. Now.”
“Okay, okay,” says Sim, turning back to address me. “Do you mind if I change while we’re talking?” And so the door closes again—and, without further ado, the Mayor of Vancouver drops trou and goes in search of a pair of shorts, continuing with a story about how some of his west-side friends are vocally against the massive Jericho Lands development promising to reshape their 4th and Alma neighbourhood.
“And I’m like, ‘Let me be very clear: I 100-percent support it, this is why—and we’ll have to agree to disagree,’” he says, trading his baby-blue polo for a fitted charcoal grey T-shirt. Meanwhile, as Sim does his wardrobe change, I’m doing everything I can to keep my eyes on my keyboard—and hoping the mayor finds his missing shorts.
It’s fair to assume that previous mayors weren’t in the habit of getting naked in front of journalists. At least, I can’t quite picture Kennedy Stewart doing so, or Larry or Gordon Campbell either.
But it also fits a pattern that’s developing with Ken Sim as a leader entirely comfortable in his own skin. He’s in a hurry to accomplish big things—no matter who’s watching and what they might say (or write). And he eagerly embraces the idea of bringing Vancouver’s “swagger” back—outlined in his inaugural State of the City address, and underlined when he shotgunned a beer at July’s Khatsahlano Street Party.
In four short years, Sim hopes to change the trajectory on some big hairy issues, including housing attainability, community safety and economic prosperity. And he’s promising to do it all with a focus on data and evidence, not politics.
For some of Sim’s biggest supporters, the fast pace and brash tone of his first year in office is a breath of fresh air. “We have to be so thankful to get somebody that’s run a profitable business, and understands organizational structures,” says Chip Wilson, the polarizing founder of Lululemon and an early Sim backer. “To have somebody like Ken—who has all that and knows how to motivate people—is a dream come true.”
He’s also been a target for criticism—from those who never supported Sim and his A Better City (ABC) agenda in the first place, but also from some erstwhile allies, including former city councillors Kerry Jang and Peter Ladner, who perceive a rightward shift since last fall’s campaign.
Still, Sim seems adept at stickhandling opposing viewpoints and defusing tension, according to those who’ve watched him in action. “I’ve seen people come into council—members of the public who are very upset, heated and critical of Sim and ABC,” says Dan Fumano, city columnist with the Vancouver Sun. “He always keeps his cool.”
On the campaign trail, Sim often touted the story of his parents and what they sacrificed in moving from Hong Kong in 1967, with $3,200 to their name. Sim—born on October 18, 1970—is the youngest of Francis and Theresa Sim’s five children; the first three were born in Hong Kong, where Francis was a banker, while Ken and an older sister were born in Vancouver.
When the Sims arrived, Francis had trouble finding work, selling bowling ball bags and soft-shelled roller bags near the PNE; while he spoke five languages, English was bottom on that list. Theresa, who spoke good English, quickly got a job as a secretary—and for many years supported the family while Francis bounced from job to job and the family moved from rental house to rental house.
Sim memorializes many of those homes with replica street signs in his City Hall office: one from Alamein on the west side, another from East 54th, one from West 62nd and another from Ash Street. One particular sign, for the Sim home on 1772 McSpadden Street, offers an early political omen for Sim (though perhaps not ideological): “During the last election, I was doing an interview and someone said, ‘That’s the same house [former NDP Premier] Dave Barrett once lived in!’”
Times were tough financially, and there was also growing tension within the household—especially between Francis and his youngest son. Sim recalls one fateful night: in 1986, in his grade 12 year at Winston Churchill High School.
“I remember waking up at about two o’clock in the morning to my mom screaming, and I came upstairs and I looked at her,” says Sim. “She was really confused. And she said, ‘He hit me! He hit me!’ And then I went up to my dad and said, ‘Don’t you ever fucking hit my mom.’ And I grabbed my mom and brought her downstairs. And she slept in my room.”
The next day, shaken, Sim went to school. And when he came home, his mother again looked out of sorts; to his eyes, it appeared as if she had broken her neck. “And so I jumped to conclusions,” says Sim. “I confronted my dad—and we got into a pretty significant pushing match. But I had the sense to leave the house this time. I called the cops and had my dad arrested.” Sim was only 16.
Sim later discovered that his mother had, in fact, had a case of encephalitis—which led to her confusion and accusations of abuse. “My dad never hit my mom. I still feel badly for what I put my dad through,” says Sim.
But his father never forgave him, and until the day of his death in 1999, the two didn’t speak. (Theresa Sim, after decades of health issues, died in 2016.)
While he never repaired the relationship with his father, it’s clear he found inspiration in Francis Sim’s hardscrabble story—and a desire to succeed where his father had failed. In 1989, he enrolled in UBC’s Bachelor of Commerce program to pursue a career as an investment banker. But when Sim graduated, it was in the midst of a deep recession and he couldn’t find a finance job; he took additional CPA training and signed on instead as an accountant with KPMG. It was there that he met his future wife—Teena Gupta, a client at the City of Richmond. They began dating in 1994, and were married four years later.
The couple moved to London in the late 1990s, after Sim took a job with CIBC World Markets, but by 2000 they were ready to move back home to start a family—and Sim was ready to leave the corporate life. He’d recently read Boom, Bust and Echo, which had a five-page section on home health care. Shortly thereafter, during a difficult pregnancy with the couple’s first child, Teena came home with an order for emergency bed rest. “We tried to hire some caregivers and had really bad experiences,” recalls Sim. Those experiences led to an aha moment, and then a business plan, for a private in-home caregiver service.
Nurse Next Door Professional Homecare Services was launched in the fall of 2001, with Sim taking a two-thirds ownership stake and then-business partner John DeHart taking the other third. Today, there are more than 300 Nurse Next Door franchisees—in Canada, the U.S., Australia and Europe—and Sim expects system-wide revenues to approach $150 million in 2023. Four years ago, Sim bought DeHart out—though Sim hasn’t had an active operational role in the company for over a decade; he has been dabbling in other ventures, including the Rosemary Rocksalt bagel franchise, which he co-founded with Teena, along with Parise Siegel and Tim Hopkins, in 2013.
It was in the early days of Nurse Next Door that the seeds for Sim’s political future would also be sown. At the time, the company had an office on West 41st Avenue in Kerrisdale, where Sim and his small team were neighbours with Provident Security, led by Mike Jagger. The two men became fast friends—and Jagger soon encouraged Sim to join the Vancouver chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, where Jagger was a member. It’s also where Sim met a future political ally: Rebecca Bligh, then in her early 20s and working at Provident.
“As part of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, there were a lot of opportunities afforded to members,” recalls Bligh, one of five ABC city councillors. “Through Mike and Ken, I got to experience all these
leadership development programs. We really connected on that piece.” Bligh thinks that this journey of self-improvement—“the overarching commitment to growth and seeing yourself as part of the solution”—is what led both her and Sim, independently, to pursue political office in 2018.
“You’re really seeing yourself as ‘cause in the matter,’” says Bligh, borrowing a phrase from Werner Erhard, the intellectual father of the controversial Landmark Forum (a personal development program, in which both Bligh and Sim took courses, that academics have described as “large group awareness training”). “It’s not someone else’s job to fix the problems. You see yourself as part of the group that can seek solutions and be part of positive change.”
On an unseasonably warm Saturday in May, I make my way over to the Jericho Rugby Field to watch the Vancouver Rogues play the visiting Seattle Quake. The boisterous crowd is a few (barely concealed) beers into it, lustily cheering the home squad in a winning effort.
I spot the mayor on the sidelines—leaning on his black e-bike and decked out in a white T-shirt, teal shorts and aviator glasses. He’s talking to a player twice his size—and as soon I’m identified as a member of the press, the player playfully puts Sim in a headlock. “Where’s my money for the fields, Ken?”
The player, Brennan Bastyovanszky, is president of the Rogues—Vancouver’s gay-and-inclusive rugby team—and a newbie Vancouver Park Board commissioner. As Bastyovanszky tells it, he’d never previously considered public service: “I wasn’t interested in politics. I just had an issue with the Park Board, because I was trying to build this community—trying to make this sport safer—and the previous board was against field sports. I’d had enough.”
His cousin, who had worked with Sim, suggested that Bastyovanszky give him a call to express his concerns. “I was calling Ken to tell him what my problem was—and he’s like, ‘Well, you’d be better at fixing it if you got elected. Will you run with me?’”
Sim’s inaugural run at politics wasn’t quite so successful. In March of 2018, he had received a call from a high school acquaintance, Greg Baker, who was then president of the Non-Partisan Association (NPA). “I hadn’t spoken to Greg in maybe 30 years,” says Sim. “So I knew he was calling about one thing.” While initially reluctant, Sim decided to run—if only because he was worried about the future of the city for his four teenaged boys (today, ages 14, 17, 20 and 21): “They didn’t—at least the older ones didn’t—see a future for themselves in Vancouver.”
After a heated nomination battle, Sim became the NPA candidate for mayor—but ultimately lost the October 2018 election to Kennedy Stewart by 957 votes. Almost immediately, he and other disaffected NPAers set about to build a political movement from the ground up: the ABC party, which officially launched in 2021. Three sitting councillors—Bligh, Lisa Dominato and Sarah Kirby-Yung, who had each run and won under the NPA banner in 2018—joined in summer 2022. A year later, in a rematch against Stewart, Sim and ABC won a sweeping victory at council, park and school boards.
David Grewal—a long-time family friend of Teena Gupta—was among those who ran with Sim in the 2018 campaign, finishing just shy of the 10th spot on council. Today, he serves as Sim’s senior advisor—the mayor’s eyes, ears and voice when Sim is unavailable.
For Grewal, the biggest concern is the countdown clock on Sim’s mandate. “We don’t have the luxury of time,” he says. “It’s hard to turn that ship around with so little time. I think we’ve already tackled about a third of our 94-point platform, but there’s a lot more we want to do.”
For a reminder of Sim’s key priorities, you need only look at the whiteboard in the mayor’s office. At the top, there’s a row labelled “Daily Focus (Top 4)”—which are, in order, 3-3-3-1 (ABC’s housing program); Chinatown; Business Advocacy; and Mental Health/Safety.
On some files, like Chinatown, there have been clear advances: council unanimously approved the Uplifting Chinatown Action Plan in January, which devotes more resources to cleaning and sanitation services, graffiti removal, beautification and other community supports. The plan also includes a new flat rate of $2 per hour for parking meters throughout Chinatown (to encourage more people to visit and shop in the area) and a new satellite City Hall office, to improve representation. And on mental health and public safety, the ABC council moved quickly in November to take action on its promise to fund 100 new police officers and 100 new mental health professionals—though the actual hiring will take time.
Perhaps nothing, however, has seen more concerted effort than ABC’s housing plan. Adopted as city policy in June, “3-3-3-1” promises new standards for a variety of permits or approvals: three days to approve home renovations; three weeks to approve single-family homes and townhouses; three months to approve multi-family and mid-rise projects; and one year to approve a high-rise or large-scale project. While it’s still early days, the City claims that half of permit conditions from Engineering Services and Development, Building and Licensing (DBL) have been eliminated or simplified—leading to a 30-percent reduction in review times—while reviews for low-density projects went from 12 weeks to 18 days. The City is also pushing to eliminate restrictive single-family zoning rules—effectively rezoning the half of Vancouver previously off-limits to greater density.
But other, unscripted actions—like the mayor’s decision to clear encampments on East Hastings in early April, citing safety and fire risks—have produced decidedly mixed reviews.
Chip Wilson (who, through his family real estate arm Low Tide Properties, owns several buildings along East Hastings) argues that the move to “clean up the east side” has been one of Sim’s boldest moves so far: “I think the issue is that there’s too many people who are making salaries running charities dependent on the east side staying exactly how it was” he says.
Those working on the Downtown Eastside see things differently. Sarah Blyth, who is executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society (OPS) and has an apartment on Hastings, gets noticeably agitated when I bring up Wilson’s name: “Chip Wilson has no business talking about poverty and harm reduction—unless he has some help to offer.”
A former Vision Vancouver Park Board commissioner who supported Kennedy Stewart in the last election, Blyth says she often sees Sim walking the streets of the Downtown Eastside (where OPS provides front-line support in the harm reduction movement), and says she’s “always open to work with any mayor—anyone who is going to make a difference.” But she strongly disagrees with the move to clear tents: “I think spreading people around, these sweeps to ‘nowhere land,’ does not work.”
The decision also caused heartburn for Sim’s former chief of staff, Kareem Allam, who resigned in February. Just before assuming office, Allam and several ABC councillors had met with Exchange Inner City—a nonprofit dedicated to an “equitable local economy in the Downtown Eastside.” The incoming administration was asked whether they were going to send cops to decamp Hastings, and Allam responded that they wouldn’t until housing was in place.
In May, Allam made a public apology to the group. “I went out and I made a commitment that turned out to be not true,” he tells me. “I felt a tremendous amount of personal obligation to stand behind those words; I think people believed me, I think people trusted me—and I feel that when you do break your word, you’ve got to own them.”
Even Bob Rennie—the founder of the Rennie group of companies, an advisor to Vancouver’s development community as well as a long-time power player at 12th and Cambie—has some words of caution for the mayor.
Rennie, in the last election, supported Kennedy Stewart (his name was famously included on a list of Stewart donors that mysteriously found its
way onto a West Broadway sidewalk
mid-campaign). He’s since come on board the Sim train—holding a fundraising breakfast for the mayor in late May, with 26 people in attendance tasked with contributing $12,500 each (the legal maximum).
Still, he questions the focus on “cleaning up” neighbourhoods without solving the endemic issues first. “You can’t save Chinatown without saving Hastings,” Rennie tells me. “You can’t do it at the expense of mental health and fentanyl and tents. You just can’t. Everything has to be looked at holistically. Chinatown wants to thrive, but it’s not allowed to until Hastings Street is solved. Let’s bring the swagger back once we have looked after our streets.”
At 8 a.m. on a Tuesday in May, Sim, along with several councillors and city staff, joins a gathering of VPD brass to celebrate the 137th anniversary of the Vancouver Police—bringing cake to mark the occasion. As Ken Sim marks a year in office, it’s unclear whether there will be any cake: the health-conscientious mayor, beer-chugging aside, sees a trainer three days a week and fasts every Monday. Also, Sim seems wholly uninterested in questions of legacy or personal milestones.
“I actually don’t care how I’m remembered,” he says as we make the short walk from VPD headquarters to City Hall. “What’s going to happen is people are going to forget who Ken Sim is. And if we just leave this place in a way better spot, I’m happy.”
When Sim runs for reelection in 2026, as he promises to do, he’ll have a great backdrop for his campaign—the city having just hosted several games for the FIFA World Cup, which is expected to bring in $1 billion and 900,000 visitors over five years.
The renewed swagger of Sim’s city will be on full display for the world to see. So too—if left unresolved—will some of Vancouver’s most glaring and intractable social problems.