Is a New, More Independent Era of Politics Underway in Vancouver?

A game of municipal musical chairs has left Vancouver with four more independent councillors than the city voted for in the 2018 election. 

Concerns with the Non-Partisan Association (NPA)’s recent appointment of John Coupar as its 2022 mayoral candidate sans membership vote led four of five NPA councillors to leave and sit as independents.

The civic shakeup comes more than a year prior to next fall’s municipal election, but UBC Political Science Professor Allan Tupper says it mirrors a trend in politics that’s emerged from the pandemic. 

“This is certainly a period of increased citizen skepticism about the political systems and parties and excessive politics and all that, so if you hold those views, it’s a good thing to have independent candidates.”

According to the 2021 Proof Strategies CanTrust Indexone of the largest studies of trust by Canadians in leaders, sources and institutionstrust in political leadership is declining. Trust in mayors fell to 37 per cent this year, down six points from 2020. When it comes to getting reliable information, politicians were one of the least trusted groups, placing 10th on a list of 12, above only social media influencers and celebrities. 

That’s why Tupper thinks independent candidates have a chance of gaining support in the next election. “Some people just don’t like parties,” he says.

Historically speaking, Carole Taylor remains Vancouver’s only elected independent councillor, serving from 1986-1990 after losing the NPA’s nomination vote. She believes Vancouver’s party system remains strong due to low voter turnout at municipal elections, as well as a lack of press coverage for independent candidates.

Carole Taylor is still the only independent to have ever been elected to Vancouver’s City Council.

“Most people don’t have the time or interest to research the values of each independent running, says Taylor, pointing to the perks of established party ideologies. “From the citizens point of view, I think it gets complicated if you’ve got a long, long ballot, with lots of independents.”

While a record number of council hopefuls ran solo in 2018, none of the 27 independent candidates found a spot in the city’s chambers. But in the same election, Kennedy Stewart cinched the title of Vancouver mayor, the first independent candidate to do so since 1980. 

Taylor argues it’s easier for an independent mayor to get elected because of the singular ballot, unlike the 10 decisions voters face with council. Despite the hard campaign independent councillors will face, Taylor believes the municipal level is the best place to serve as an independent. 

“You don’t get that freedom often in politics. If a party gave individual councillors that independence, then maybe the party system would work better on the municipal level,” says Taylor, pointing to the fact that the NPA was originally meant to do just that as a nonpartisan association.

“I think the fact you’re seeing so many independents is just this absolute frustration with a structure that tells you what you’ve got to do and how you’ve got to think.”

Sarah Kirby-Young was one of four concillors to leave the NPA to sit as an independent on city council.

“When you have the privilege of sitting in the seat, it really is about what you do with it,” says Kirby-Yung, who left after the NPA’s mayoral election took place behind closed doors and without the support of councillors. 

“Making that decision was really about stepping away from an environment that I couldn’t support anymore and just focusing on doing the job.”  

The environment on council right now isn’t ideal either, according to Kirby-Yung, who claims Stewart—who has made his ideological issues with the NPA public—has ignored formal meeting requests from her and fellow former NPA councillors for months.

Yet the makeup of Vancouver’s current government—four independents, three Greens, and one representative each from COPE, OneCity and the NPA—and the fact that this council is the first with a female majority, signals a desire for renewal and change. 

Independent councillor hopefuls may be deterred by the rise of social media, however.  In the past decade, politicians have become targets of online hate, especially if they’re visible minorities. 

“It’s hard to get anybody to run right now, to be honest. I mean, it’s just become quite an ugly profession when you look at what’s happened to social media,” says Taylor, joking that criticism came in the form of handwritten letters during her terms as councillor. 

Regardless, political experts say big change is on the horizon for future Vancouver governments. 

“I think the recognition of racial issues will have very strong implications for municipal politics and the way people look at the established roster of candidates,” says Tupper. “I don’t think this is one of the flash in the pan things, it’s just going to take a bit of time.”