Voices from the City: Ivan Leonard on Harbourside, and Citizen Participation in Local Democracy

Local legend and community activist icon Ivan Leonard shares his thoughts with NVUF on the recent public hearing regarding the Harbourside development, and the role of citizen participation in the creation of the public realm:


“Consider this unique idea folks, a Government with no opposition. Unthinkable? Yes! Yet that is exactly what our City Governments are. What they decide becomes law. The difference being each Councillor is, or should be; free to express his or her own individual independent opinion, where the majority vote counts. With the intrusion of the ‘Slate,’ partisanship has removed a full council of independent voices. But, whereas senior governments face an elected opposition each time an issue is voted upon, Municipal Councils only face the very Citizens that elected them when an opportunity is specifically afforded the public to be heard. While much of that opposition is expounded in letters to the editors or in local coffee shops, there are associations, groups in most neighbourhoods that become the voices of the citizens, and who confront Council as
the unofficial opposition.

For instance, The Lonsdale Citizens Association (TLCA) was formed practically overnight, in 1987, by citizens outraged with shock that their ‘City government’ approved 30 towers of 29 storeys to be built in the lower Lonsdale area. The Council backed down in the face of furious opposition from the community. Only one tower managed to be built. The Association maintained an active role from then on. Another momentous occasion occurred in 2008 when they led community and stopped the “iconic” 450 ft tower from darkening the waterfront and the whole of the Lower Lonsdale neighbourhood.

Associations are kept simmering by a strange breed of citizens that attend Council meetings and have been named Council Watchers. But, when a community feels pressured by Council and becomes aroused, Associations come alive, as is presently happening right now. The communities feel threatened by all the construction and density erupting around them, so the Council Watchers suddenly become activists, educators and protectors of their communities. Recently the Low Road Project alarmed the community to such an extent that the project was delayed by two years and almost redesigned. Without the formation of a well organized community Association one can only wonder what the new road would have done to the neighbourhood.

The largest project yet to come before our City government came before Council Monday night, June 18th. The North Shore News had headlined a letter to the editor days earlier “Mega Project needs Mega Opposition”. Without these Council Watchers cum Activists informing the communities and lighting the torch of action, Council would have just approved the developer’s request, and no one would have been aware of any of the issues the City will face when 2000 more people become residents of our little city, all the result of just a single vote of yeas and nays. No one would have known how the councillors voted. That is often the reason why the same names end up in the Council seats election after election.

Councillors are constantly confronted with projects where the developer has attached councillor’s pet ideas forcing discussions to focus on minor incidentals and ignoring the greater needs of the community. Associations will aggressively refocus the discussions to the citizen’s point of view where livability is their major concern.

Citizens face new buildings blocking their view, casting shadows across living rooms at midday and vehicles plugging their street. They suddenly notice it’s taking half an hour longer to get home, construction slowing more and more traffic and their favourite store is gone or their quiet green space isn’t quiet any more. They face the realization that their mortgage is only half paid while their view is also half gone and their taxes keep going up. The next rent increase will mean having to find a cheaper place to live.

Because these Council Watchers helped to keep the Associations members informed, last Monday’s Council meeting was held before a packed Council Chamber and a full lobby. The Public Hearing of the Harbourside project lasted over 4 hours with more than 30 well prepared and knowledgeable speakers presenting many important and unresolved issues, offering sound opinions in opposition to the project.

As in all governments, some members will respond to citizens documented and informed opinions, while others will reject them. Such was the case in this instance. The opposition was defeated 5-2. This was the vote they had expected. But whereas the Chambers would have been empty without the opposition, the Citizens are now fully aware of all the issues and how the Councillors voted. They now feel connected with a greater awareness of their own Community and the thinking of their City Council. What was most enlightening was that the Council Chambers were still half full of citizens when the vote was taken at 11:15 p.m.

The Mega Project did receive a Mega Opposition. Sadly, the decision was made long before the doors ever opened.”

Ivan Leonard