Inside Colleen Hardwick’s Polarizing Path Through Vancouver City Hall

As the former movie producer and tech entrepreneur ponders a run for mayor, does the Vancouver she longs for still exist?

Contrary to the beliefs of some of her critics, Colleen Hardwick doesn’t technically have a backyard. Despite Hardwick being labelled an anti-development NIMBY, her house on the edge of Kits Point instead has a side yard just off of a basement suite. That’s where I find her chatting with her eldest daughter, who lives in the suite with her partner and toddler.

After letting the young family know of an upcoming get-together, Hardwick moves briskly up the front stairs, her blond hair whipping back and forth as she checks on plants and rattles off facts and figures about things that happened decades ago.

At almost 63 years old, her small frame is showing few signs of slowing down. She leads me through her home—which she calls a “teardown”—stopping to wax poetic about old movie posters (“David Bowie was such an incredible guy”) and showing off Gemini awards won by her partner, actor Garry Chalk.

We reach the balcony, which possesses one of the better views in the city, and she looks north across the water with her trademark steely determination. Up here, she’ll talk about her deep distrust of city hall staff, her historic record of abstentions and her steadfast belief that the city is headed in the wrong direction.

Mostly, though, she talks about the past and the future. Her family looms large in both visions—her former alderman father, and her daughters and grandchildren (there’s a second on the way), respectively.

Is she really the only one on council who actually knows what’s going on, the only person qualified to lead the city into an affordable, utopian future? Or is she desperately clinging to a Vancouver she used to know, one as gone as the rail cars that once ran up and down her old neighbourhood?

Credit: Courtesy of Colleen Hardwick.

Colleen Hardwick marches in a 1970 protest with her father for the preservation of Gastown.

“First Lady Mayor”

Hardwick was 10 years old when her father, Walter Hardwick, his brother David and a group of associates created the municipal political party TEAM (The Electors Action Movement) around the Hardwicks’ living room in Kerrisdale. The party was formed as an alternative to the then-ruling NPA, and it didn’t take long for TEAM to gather momentum. The elder Hardwick, a UBC geography professor, got elected to council first in 1968 and then again in ’70 and ’72.

Among Walter’s political accomplishments were his advocacy against a freeway going through the city, and his party’s redevelopment of False Creek and Granville Island. Crucially, Hardwick chaired a committee that set up leaseholds for the 1,800 homes on the south end of False Creek instead of selling them off to developers.

Colleen recalls that era with fondness. “I remember going down to Granville Island in gumboots and my mom being worried that we were going to step on rusty nails,” she says. “I was putting up lawn signs and working the phone banks. It was the excitement of my life.”

That wasn’t the only job Hardwick had in her youth. She “mucked out stalls in exchange for riding lessons” in Southlands, babysat and took over her younger brother’s Province paper route when he didn’t want to collect payment at the door anymore. Hardwick didn’t have a problem with that.

“Colleen was one of these older kids people looked up to,” says Keith Spencer, a partner at the Vancouver law firm Fasken Martineau Dumoulin and a childhood friend of Hardwick’s brother, Doug. “She was a fairly serious person—there was a very determined side to her. She wasn’t considered a jokester or anything like that.”

Hardwick used that determination to graduate a year early from Magee Secondary. The line that closes her high school yearbook writeup? “To become Vancouver’s First Lady Mayor.”

A Vancouver She Remembers

It’s fair to say that, as Hardwick sits on council today, it’s not quite what she imagined in the days of her youth.

The trouble started less than a month after the 2018 municipal election, in which she proposed a motion to rescind a recently approved bylaw from the Vision Vancouver-controlled council that allowed duplexes to be built across most of the city.

Hardwick contends that re-zoning is one of the reasons the city has become so unaffordable, as land is assessed on its highest and best use. So single-family homes get assessed as if they were multi-family units and empty plots of downtown get assessed for their development potential.

She’s also shown grave opposition to most development in Vancouver, voting no or abstaining on a vast majority of proposals, with an insistence that, under the current rate of population increase, staff targets for housing are more than double what the city actually needs. To her point, the Metro Vancouver Regional Growth Strategy calls for 32,000 new units in the city from 2017 to 2027, whereas the 2020 Housing Vancouver strategy stated that it aimed to build 72,000 new units in the next 10 years.

Hardwick worries that the increase in new builds will lead to promoting rezoning in excess of pace-of-change, which, she argues, inflates land values further. “If it was a business like a startup, where you’re trying to blue sky your financials, it makes a lot of sense,” she says. “In 2009, Vision regularized developer contributions as revenue in the capital budget… We’re setting targets that are more than double the population projections. And so staff are always trying to make the targets and with that comes money.”

But Hardwick’s population point is flawed, says Stuart Smith of Vancouver housing advocacy group Abundant Housing. “I think that argument is popular among people who don’t want any change; it reinforces their point of view,” Smith says. “But it’s fundamentally mistaken. You can’t have population growth if you don’t build housing. So the only growth we see is people who are rich enough to overcome the barrier or are willing to subject themselves in ever-more crowded conditions in the housing that exists.”

Hardwick also contends that there is no need for further zoning in the city, making the point that “if you take a map of the city and put a Plexiglas box over it to match the zoning… there are huge swaths that can be developed without doing another rezoning.”

Asked where those areas are, Hardwick says she can’t exactly say, because the city hasn’t given her the data she’s requested on what can be built in existing zoned capacity. If you ask her opponents, they’ll say that it’s in areas that are already overdeveloped.

“My sense is that she’s yearning for a Vancouver that she remembers when she was younger. But I don’t think we get good results when we try to limit housing,” says Smith. “The artificial line has been drawn. South of 16th and west of Arbutus-ish is only houses, and that’s the cause of a lot of our problems. The actual height everyone focuses on, how many storeys, to me, all of that is a sideshow. The real distinction is geographical segregation: where are people who can’t afford houses allowed to live?”

Credit: Courtesy of Colleen Hardwick.

Hardwick and David Bowie on set.

Tough and Effective

The Hardwick family moved to Victoria shortly after Colleen graduated from high school, as Walter had accepted the role of deputy education minister with the provincial government. After going back and forth between UBC and UVic in pursuit of a geography degree, Colleen was set to follow in her father’s footsteps toward a career in urban planning. Then, as she says, “the circus came to town.”

The Glitter Dome was a TV movie produced by HBO and starring James Garner, Margot Kidder and John Lithgow. It was shot in the Hardwicks’ home, and an impressionable Colleen fell in love. “I was really amazed by the industry, and watching how people came together so quickly to produce a product,” she says. “In production, whether you’re building buildings or movies or building code for a tech company, the planning principles are the same. The variables are different.”

Hardwick became a location manager and then a production manager before founding her own company, New City Productions. It worked as both a production services entity and its own house, and Hardwick saw success selling American networks on Canadian stories, such as with 1997’s The Perfect Mother, based on the murder of a Coquitlam woman.

“I think her reputation was being sort of tough and effective,” says Chris Ferguson, who worked as a production assistant with New City and is now president of Vancouver production studio Oddfellows Entertainment. “She was very bold and ready to go her own way. She wanted me to learn exactly how everything was done from the ground up and work on how we could break it and fix it and make it better.”

To that end, Hardwick’s goal was to take the industry to the proverbial “next level,” in which New City and other B.C. production companies would be developing their own content, and doing the financing, marketing and sales. “I tried to create an investment fund for the film industry that would allow B.C. films to have similar backings to what technology companies have.”

After discussions with the province, including then-premier Gordon Campbell and minister of finance Carole Taylor, “we were all ready to go,” recalls Hardwick. “Then Ontario upped their tax credits—whenever that happens, the B.C. industry goes crazy, the sky is falling.” At the same time, the Tysoe Report came out, outlining labour issues in the industry and prompting the Globe & Mail to run a piece in 2004 titled “Hollywood north at risk.”

It was enough to convince Hardwick to move on. “For me, the whole hope of building a B.C.–based industry was not going to happen, certainly not at that time.”

Credit: Courtesy of Colleen Hardwick.

Hardwick and her daughter at the Liberal Party leadership convention in 1984.

“What If They’re Right?”

By late July of this year, Hardwick had racked up 250 abstentions from council decisions in two and a half years at Vancouver City Hall—150 more than the next closest councillor. Abstaining counts as a yes vote, so the action is more about voicing displeasure with what she deems a flawed city-wide planning process and a belief that city staff aren’t providing councillors with the information they need to evaluate decisions.

“How do I put this diplomatically?” asks Green Party councillor Adriane Carr with a laugh. “She’s a bit harsh on staff. Actually, that’s being too nice. She’s harsh on staff. I don’t appreciate that. Our staff work exceedingly hard.”

Hardwick hasn’t exactly had rosy relationships with past senior staff members, like chief planner Gil Kelley, or city manager Sadhu Johnston, who opposed her successful motion to open an auditor general’s office.

Hardwick recalls a particular instance in which she asked a senior staff member how he knew there’d be enough projects to satisfy development projections. “He said, ‘Well we have a pipeline of projects.’ So I said, ‘Really? Show me the pipeline!’ He said he wasn’t allowed to.”

Neither of those two men could be reached for interviews, and a request with current director of planning Theresa O’Donnell was declined.

Carr allows that Hardwick is a “consummate person on civic issues” and believes one of her key strengths is her “dogged determination in relying on data to create change.”

So does she have a point about not having enough information to make decisions? “I think she’s belabouring the wrong point,” says Carr. “On the issue of our Housing Vancouver plan, with this data, I put forward an amendment a year and a half ago, and it was simply to have staff rejig the Housing Vancouver targets to match with the actual demography of the city. We actually do have the data, we just haven’t done the analysis in a concrete way to base our plans on real need.”

Another point that Hardwick often reiterates is the “Americanization of city hall” that she believes started with Vision, in which the city manager and staff are tied to the political well-being of the mayor and the party in power.

That’s an argument echoed by Andy Yan, director of the city program at SFU. “She’s tough, she asks tough questions, she questions those in authority that aren’t used to that,” Yan says. “I think she’s brought forward a certain level of truth and pursued a set of decisions that are not necessarily popular. But what if they’re right?”

The Flame That Burns the Brightest

In 2005, Walter Hardwick died after a struggle with early-onset dementia. “He retired in 1997 because they had mandatory retirement at the age of 65,” recalls his daughter. “And it was almost like someone flipped a switch. The flame that burns the brightest, burns the fastest. He was always the smartest guy in the room. And then, all of a sudden, he started asking the same questions over and over.”

Colleen spoke last at Walter’s funeral, following a who’s who of influential Vancouverites, like former premier Mike Harcourt, famed medical researcher Pat McGeer and renowned architect Bing Thom.

“I talked about the future,” says Hardwick. “And a bunch of his old colleagues came up to me after and said, ‘Now it’s your turn, you’ve gotta do this.’” TEAM had fallen apart in the ’80s, so the only real option was running for the NPA: “It was a challenging construct, since we grew up thinking the NPA were the evil empire.”

Over the summer, she worked to prepare for the NPA nomination in September. She was successful, but only had seven weeks to prepare for the election. Ultimately, she fell three spots short of the 10-person council.

Instead of going back into producing, Hardwick developed the idea for Movie Set, a tech startup that would track movies in production and give fans insight into what was happening behind the scenes.

“Film companies could integrate and bring their production online, and then spin a certain amount of content onto the fan side,” she says. Movie Set won Hardwick an award for new media innovation at Toronto’s McLuhan Festival of the Future.

“A lot of the stuff she was working on really didn’t get adopted until now, when COVID forced it,” says Ferguson. “If she was pioneering it now, people would be all about it. Just a little too far ahead of her time.”

Hardwick managed to raise $5 million in Series A funding in the first half of 2008. Of course, the second half of that year wasn’t so kind.

“The lead investor was out of New York,” says Hardwick. “I went out there—it was a ghost town, no money anywhere.” She was able to “wind it down clean,” getting everyone but the VCs their money back. “You always start with the little guy and work your way up. I learned that in the movie biz.”

After flirting with the idea of being a developer (yes, seriously), Hardwick founded Place Speak, a location-based community consulting platform that received the support of the National Research Council of Canada.

Centre of Discussion

In 2018, Hardwick again ran for the NPA, but things were different this time. For starters, there was no policy boot camp like Hardwick had been through in 2005. So, she took the campaign into her own hands.

“I looked up everybody I’ve known since kindergarten,” she says. “Because they know me, know my history, know what I know.” She raised some $15,000 and looped in volunteers and friends from the movie and tech industries, and from university. She came in fifth overall and was the second-highest NPA vote-getter, behind incumbent Melissa De Genova.

But when she started meeting with her fellow party members, she realized they “were not on the same page, policy-wise.” Now, she often finds herself voting with COPE councillor Jean Swanson against projects like the Broadway subway.

And so Hardwick—who is, along with four of the original five NPA councillors, now sitting as an independent—has blazed her own trail, one that makes her perceived placement on the political spectrum shift depending on who you talk to.

“She’s definitely right of centre,” says Carr, noting both Hardwick’s reverence for the taxpayer and her opinion that that the city is voting on things above its scope, which explains her votes against and abstentions on Indigenous reconciliation and climate change matters. “She’s thinking about cities as they were 50 years ago. They were largely about very basic public services in terms of infrastructure, roads, water, pipes, that kind of stuff.”

Tim Louis, a former councillor who represented the left-wing COPE, calls her “more progressive” than her former NPA brethren. Notably, she voted with the mayor and against her NPA teammates on Stewart’s proposal to increase the empty homes tax.

“Colleen is a centrist,” says Shannon Turner, who Hardwick met in university and counts as one of her closest friends. “She’s not a spin doctor, she’s never been good at positioning herself in the public eye. She’s pragmatic, has long sight and is dedicated to planning models that reflect the voice of the community. Change is afoot in the city, and it’s very necessary.”

On Twitter, which Hardwick calls a “cesspool,” there’s no shortage of bile spewed in her direction every time she abstains or votes no on a motion. On other social networks, it’s a different story. Her LinkedIn and Facebook profiles are updated frequently and her posts are mostly celebrated.

To the people liking and sharing those posts, the change that was requested in the last election with the ousting of Vision Vancouver hasn’t come. And Hardwick’s insistence on a “balanced” housing system that listens to the city’s neighbourhoods (she’s used Place Speak to consult 50 different residential boroughs and the community groups within them) is appealing to certain voters.

“The livable city is what Vancouver has been known for, going back to my dad’s day,” she says. “That was a city in balance. A city people could afford to live in, for starters.”

Hardwick still hasn’t decided whether she’ll run for mayor in 2022 in what’s becoming a bit of a crowded (albeit male-dominated) field. Stewart will run again, while former BC Liberal advisor Mark Marissen, NPA park board commissioner John Coupar and former NPA mayoral candidate Ken Sim jockey for support from the centre-right.

“I’m going to build a team if I do this; I’m not going to do it alone. I know that there are other people out there who share my concerns,” says Hardwick. “I think it’s time that we focus on Vancouver and its residents. I’m a planner, I plan for the future, that’s where my head’s at—to plan in a way that’s going to enable my grandchildren to live in this city.”

It’s a safe bet that, even as she heads into her mid-60s, Hardwick isn’t going anywhere. She’ll keep fighting for her vision, one that older residents of the city will start to recognize. Maybe it works.

Or maybe, like the sand on the beach below her balcony, it’s swept up with the city she used to know.