Photo: Dan Toulget

by Geoff Olson

I first came to Vancouver in the spring of 1970, on a short trip with my family. As a kid, the region seemed magical to me compared to flat, cold, Southern Ontario.

Mountains! Beaches! Huge, all-season Christmas trees! A public aquarium with performing whales!

The entire family moved to B.C. permanently in 1973. I recall ambling through Jericho Park when Vancouver hosted Habitat 1 in 1976 — a conference championing the progressive notion that government had a responsibility to ensure its citizens proper shelter.

“The Vancouver Declaration” from Habitat 1 stated that “unacceptable human settlements circumstances are likely to be aggravated by inequitable economic growth and uncontrolled urbanization, unless positive and concrete action is taken at national and international levels.”

A decade later the city hosted Expo 86, a world exposition on transportation and communication presided over by a used car salesman and a robot named Ernie. By then I was old enough to recognize the transportation theme was a thin conceit to advertise Vancouver to the international investment community.

In 1988, the province sold the Expo lands to Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing for the fire sale price of $145 million. Soon developers were erecting cheap, Santa Fe-style architecture on the city’s West Side, laying the ground work for the infamous leaky condo crisis another decade down the road.

In 1989, long before the arrival of wealthy Chinese investors, I noticed the proliferation of Jaguars, Mercedes and other high-end cars in the city streets. Coincidentally or not, this was the same year I noticed homeless people appearing in the streets of my Kits neighbourhood.

The deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, with only fragmented support services to help them, had begun in earnest. Ironically, Vancouver’s status as an international hotspot was coupled with its distinction of having the poorest postal code in Canada: a sacrifice zone occupied by disturbed people self-medicating in the streets.

The effects of the Thatcher-Reagan-Mulroney group grope were being felt across the Anglo-American world; globalization was ascendent and aloof Vancouver took on a mercenary edge as it adopted the free market mantra.

With B.C.’s resource-based economy on the slide, the stage was being set for increased commodification of shelter.

As urban policy expert Elizabeth Murphy reminded me recently, the Sino-Cascadia pathway across the Pacific was well-prepared by local policy decisions.

It started with the City of Vancouver’s drive “to rezone massive amounts of the city, removing checks and balances like Third Party Appeals to the Board of Variance, changing from the Liveable Region Strategic Plan to the Regional Growth Strategy, unhinging transit from transportation to the delivery system of development, dismantling of heritage programs while encouraging the destruction of the older more affordable housing stock,” Murphy writes.

“Blame foreign investment all we want, but our governments invited them, accommodated them and sold us out to an invasion of international wealth we can never compete with,” she adds.

Asian investors with yuan to burn — ill-gained or otherwise — are acting as rational economic players by responding to a red carpet rolled out by a succession of blinkered civic, provincial and federal officials. The blame lies squarely on this side of the Pacific. (See Kerry Gold’s excellent article in The Walrus for an overview of Vancouver’s surreal estate story.)

The past six years has seen residential property prices go asymptotic, with perfectly liveable homes reduced to landfill for the sake of ticky-tacky mansions. It’s like butterflies pupating into caterpillars in the city’s gutted neighbourhoods.

Also over the last six years, St. Paul’s hospital has recorded close to a 90 per cent increase in mental health emergency visits. “At least 46 homeless people died in British Columbia in 2014 — a 70 per cent increase from the year before,” according to report released by the street newspaper Megaphone.

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of young people in Metro Vancouver are choosing the temporary “lifestyle alternative” of living in vans, rather than rent or own property. When I was young, we called that “homeless.”

Ah, Vancouver. You were always an austere beauty, with the looks of a Hollywood starlet, the warmth of a customs agent, and the depth of a gnat. Only now do I realize, four decades after arriving here, that I once loved you. And with lingering feelings of connection, I despair your extreme makeover is far from complete.

The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 7


Comments by e-mail (names changed/removed):

Hi Geoff,

It seems that an alarm went off recently that woke up some of the media, which are now starting to talk for real about this stuff. A bit. And some are still only using spokespeople who benefit from the real estate insanity for their “expert opinions.” Nothing wrong here, it’s normal, etc etc. The Courier has been a fabulous exception in a good way.

We are presently living in NH and trying to extend our work visa so I’ll use a pseudonym. My husband is a surgeon and got fed up with fighting for operating room time in Vancouver (the waits were harming his patients) whereas here surgery is a profit-centre for the hospital and it’s just about unlimited. That said, the US system is no picnic and we want to move back to YVR, except we can’t afford the house we sold 2 years ago; it’s gone up by a million bucks! WTh? Typical price here in Hanover, NH for a BIG huge house and a couple of acres $600k.

Happy Friday, and thanks again,


Message: Hi Geoff,

I read your latest in The Courier about Vancouver’s Extreme Makeover. I just want to say thanks for adding your thoughts to this ongoing conversation. It’s an excellent follow-up to Kerry Gold’s piece in The Walrus. I notice that writing on this subject is becoming more honest and articulate.

Like you, I first experienced Vancouver in the 1970s, and my family relocated here from Toronto in 1979. As a child, it was a fantasyland. I still view it through those eyes, despite the socioeconomic changes. I’ve since lived in other great (and not so great) cities. I would take today’s Vancouver over anyplace else. A cut in salary and savings are worth the general environment and quality of life.

I left Vancouver a few months ago to do a Masters overseas. I didn’t leave for the reasons everyone complains about. I don’t mind renting, I find the people very friendly, and I don’t think Vancouver is all that expensive if you don’t expect the royal treatment. That said, I do acknowledge that more people are living in vans and being shunted out of being contributors to their city and neighbourhoods. I could afford to leave — some people can’t, and as you rightly point out, they are technically homeless. There is a larger crisis looming if action isn’t taken now.

The reason I left had more to do with the job market and the way employers treat job seekers. Four years of their psychological beating took a toll. I did everything and more to make myself employable — taking courses, retraining, networking, consulting with HR experts for resume and interviewing advice, not to mention re-writing my CV hundreds of times to fit whatever job I was applying for.

It would have been easier to take if employers said, “Sorry, it’s a tough market, there’s just not many jobs.”  Instead, they say there are jobs galore and blame candidates for using the wrong font on their CV, or not being able to answer inane interview question not related to the job. Even when I got an internship at a multinational (at age 46) I was told I wouldn’t be in line for a $15-an-hour job if I didn’t extend my unpaid services to three months (but no promises after that). They called it a training period, as if someone who’s worked for the past 27 years needs that much training to fill customer orders. Of course, that statement is evidence of the “wrong attitude,” right?

Final straw was a magazine publisher that asked me four simple questions, and deduced from their formula that I was unable to demonstrate initiative. They wouldn’t look at my portfolio of editing assignments and published work, because that would have biased the process. If they had engaged me in a conversation about my work, they would have seen ample evidence of initiative. Instead, they try to make me feel inadequate because, I’m told, I didn’t study the right HR formula before the interview.

At a certain point, one has to throw in the towel. I could have continued my job search overseas, but I chose school. I’m too burned out and beaten down to handle one more application, one more interview. An MA is a bit of a breather.

In other respects, I retain a lot of love and good will toward Vancouver. I believe it can be saved from itself if more people keep writing and talking about it — and getting politically involved instead of fleeing. I still hope to return one day, though I’m not sure I can deal with Vancouver’s job culture again. I’ll probably have to stay overseas until retirement.

Thanks for your writing. I think all of you at the Courier give the city some of its most essential journalism. The Sun and the Straight, unfortunately, don’t cover city politics that broadly.


(To read further comments on ‘Extreme Makeover’ posted to this blog, see below.)




  1. Just read Bruce Mason’s column in Common Ground… similar article. Its really sad. We are addicted to the prestige of being/becoming a “world-class” city, rather than the small town we used to be. And just like most addicts, we don’t think about the future costs… No compassion. I guess its the plutocrats running things:
    “Throughout history, political thinkers such as Winston Churchill, 19th-century French sociologist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, 19th-century Spanish monarchist Juan Donoso Cortés and today Noam Chomsky have condemned plutocrats for ignoring their social responsibilities, using their power to serve their own purposes and thereby increasing poverty and nurturing class conflict, corrupting societies with greed and hedonism.[5][6]”

    I’m starting to see Canada, and especially BC, as being corrupt. We are starting to have many attributes similar to South American banana republics, where we dont’ even attempt to hide that all our policies are for the wealthy. (I read the Icelanders were thinking the same thing about their country/leaders – throwing bananas at their parliament. 🙂 )

    I guess you can’t avoid that when you lower taxes every year. You are essentially defunding and pursuing a program of gradually dismantling civilization – schools, hospitals, courts, infrastructure, etc… Heard Midori House on “Monacle 24” last night(?), saying the U.S. is a laughing stock because they’re letting their infrastructure crumble.

    Everything great was done in the 1950’s, and we are living on our parent’s work, and have given up on building any kind of society.

    I blame computers and TV for hiding us away from our fellow humans and neighbours, as opposed to the pre-TV age leading up to the 60’s, where all of life was either reading books, or interacting with people, playing card games, and spending the time planning and doing stuff. We at least had time to be bored and think about things. Now we are driving ourselves into a state of chronic anxiety, doing anything to avoid thinking or “being bored” – to avoid having to deal with our lives itself.

    Now even my wife and I always eat in front of the TV, and we find it really hard to squeeze in time to plan our lives together for things like reno projects. Or taking down our still-up Christmas tree.

    Dilettantes of life, all of us.

    Scary to see us all so horribly, horribly powerless. It seems like those of us that are fighting against entropy just form a hopeless rearguard action…

  2. Well said, Chris. And yes, virtuality is great to disguise the collapse of the ‘real world’ around us. With enough electronic distractions, we can ignore the glaring problems for a time, until they become unavoidable and insurmountable.
    Imagine what Dr. Seuss could have done with this theme!

    1. Dr. Seuss… I like that… There was a healer… Your comment causes me to realize I should look at this from another angle. We are all free. Funny how I was essentially forcing myself in to a corner there… Thanks for the Dr Seuss tangent to lead us to freer thoughts… 🙂

  3. Thank you for your refreshing article and walk down Memory Lane.

    Extreme Makeover is a great phrase because Vancouver is rapidly becoming an Extreme City of The-Haves and The-Have-Nots. The fact that Vancouver is a “Safe Haven” is now laughable! Your article outlines the long road that created this new wounded, hostile bush that was once the welcoming Sea-to-Sky Beautiful BC place that once hosted the altruistic “Habitat for Humanity: habitat76.ca”

    On a personal note, when my parents emigrated from Belfast in 1970, an architect and a teacher (2 “public service” professionals) could build a ‘privileged’ life for their 2 children in Southlands. At mid-life, I am saddened that the Vancouver of my (our) youth is gone; as well: the Vancouver of the 90s is no longer. [At the millennium, I felt that I had to leave Vancouver for Australia for the very reasons that you write about (as a single person, in the arts, paying a 1990s East Vancouver mortgage). ]

    Your article outlines (and some recent academic presentations and some other mainstream writing) that the today’s unreasonable housing market here is NOT a recent phenomenon at all — that this situation began to be created in the mid-80s.

    Amazingly, having sold in 2004, I recently returned to find that, today, I would be crippled 10 fold by financial pressures if I tried to enter the housing market. As an artist, I am sad to say that I used to enjoy the mix and diversity in East Van; now I am nervous of the emerging ongoing frustration of the urban poor.

    As for my life, I am likely going to feel “safer” returning to Belfast or another post-conflict or post-traumatized “zone”, rather than create a mid-life career here where I am forced to witness the new ugly extremes play out: in a different sort of Vancouver-in-The-Making.

    Perhaps some ‘real’ agendas for sustainable urban development will be presented /debated at Habitat III http://www.habitat3.org/the-new-urban-agenda/about ?

    Vancouver suddenly looks like a another planet to me.

    My phone screen saver, for the last year, has been the textile/text piece on the wire fence near at False Creek — which must have been made by an anonymous Public Artist or Art student: “Looking for a place [to call home] that doesn’t exist” (with my insertion for the purposes of this article!).

    For those who have slipped into poverty or are faced with “disability-with-poverty”, I hope that the social work communities can continue to get the funding to help those in need: http://www.povnet.org or http://www.disabilityalliancebc.org/dwpnetwork.htm

    For those on the West Side who want to educate their kids on how Western Countries are supposed to put in place safeguards for liveable cities and lifes, perhaps this “wee” educational blog (that I just googled) might be a good place to start? Poverty and Wealth: extreme global patterns: http://www.skwirk.com/p-c_s-16_u-185_t-495_c-1821/NSW/7/Poverty-and-wealth-in-extremes-identifying-global-patterns/A

    Here’s a 1980s project that has always stayed in my mind — by a Canadian artist (who perhaps should be invited to Vancouver a.s.a.p (!!) ) Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle Project from Art, Love and Politics in the 80s http://www.walkerart.org/magazine/2012/krzysztof-wodiczkos-homeless-vehicle-project

    Geoff, your brave words have made some excellent points and I am glad that, as a result, this debate is continuing in the public eye, due to your active participation. A city like Vancouver is NO LONGER a safe haven if it is not protective of the varied and diverse citizens who are trying to build safe, sustainable lives and, then, contribute to a creative society.

  4. Thanks LT. Appreciate the personal perspective. Your remarks about possibly choosing a ‘post-conflict zone’” over a city consistently rated with a “highest liveability” score are telling.The offspring of the middle class are becoming the underclass, which our civic, provincial, and federal leaders position as an opportunity for them to become their own ‘agents of change’ in the gig economy.

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