A tribute to Vancouver's Jim Green
Published Monday, February 27, 2012 4:07PM PST
I went to a great party for a dying man yesterday. That's an opening line I hope my friend Jim Green will appreciate.
In typical fashion, the celebration of Jim's life at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre Sunday afternoon was part rockabilly concert and part political revival meeting. It was planned as a private gathering for Jim's closest friends and colleagues when it became clear that the lung cancer Jim fought so bravely a few years ago was back with a vengeance and would take this old warrior out before too long.
But as Jim's "friends" include about half the city's residents -- and pretty well all of East Vancouver -- by the time Sunday afternoon at the "Cultch" rolled around, the event had morphed into a chance to award the highest civic honour to a complete original. The images and video you see here online and on CTV News broadcasts for Feb. 27 were provided, with Green's permission, by the City of Vancouver.
After a unanimous vote by Vancouver City Council, the man who many called "the best mayor we never had" was awarded the Freedom of the City award Sunday by Mayor Gregor Robertson. Previous recipients include Milton Wong, Art Phillips, Dal Richards and Arthur Erickson. Along with the fancy plaque, the city gave Green a "lifetime free parking pass." Jim didn't skip a beat and came back to the mayor with, "Is it transferrable"? He didn't get an answer, by the way.
As the mayor spoke, I looked around and saw MLAs past and present, city councillors of all stripes, a former premier and a man who would be premier, union leaders, developers, academics, artists and guys from Jim's beloved Bladerunners organization. That's the job-training program Green started a decade ago for mostly aboriginal kids in the Downtown Eastside. Jim used his muscle and his persuasive powers to get many of them work on the new BC Place. When I had my last beer with him, he talked a lot about Bladerunners and sent me to visit them as an example of where the "future of activism" lives on the DTES. And Green is still working on a plan with architect Gregory Henriquez to transform the former remand centre into low-cost housing designed especially for these guys.
In addition to Bladerunners, as my colleague Rod Mickleburgh of The Globe and Mail noted recently, you scratch almost any worthy cause in his beloved neighbourhood and you'll find Jim Green was in on the ground floor. The list includes: more than 1,000 units of social housing, United We Can, UBC's program to bring courses to DTES residents, the Portland Hotel Society and -- of course -- the transformation of the old Woodward's building into a model for the world of mixed-use social and market housing.
I met Jim Green in 1986 when I was working at BCTV. I was a cub reporter and he was beginning his political career at the Downtown Eastside Resident's Association. While the rest of the media was partying it up in preparation for Expo '86, I was assigned to cover the evictions on the Downtown Eastside. I particularly remember one old logger, Olaf Solheim, who was evicted from the Patricia Hotel and died a few days later. Jim was, quite simply, ferocious in his anger over the man's eviction from a home he had enjoyed for decades. Jim understood that the fate of one man would capture the public's imagination more than general hand-wringing over evictions ever would. He knew how to use the mass media on behalf of the people he represented. And we, in turn, loved Green's fierce honesty and his rough-and-tumble persona. He was a "clip factory." He was a character. And we have too few of those now in public life. In the end, Solheim Place on Hastings Street lives on in Olaf's honor. Of course, Jim Green can take much of the credit for that.
I have another great memory of Jim Green at the Toronto airport -- it might have been the summer of 2003. I was on my way home from a journalism conference, and Jim was on his way back from the opening of the new Canadian Opera Centre in Toronto. As anyone who knows Jim will know, he is a massively cultured man. Art, literature, jazz, blues and especially opera -- there's very little he can't speak about with authority and eloquence. That day, I spotted him in a lounge at Pearson in a good suit and his trademark porkpie hat. We sat and talked for a long time before they called our flight. I wanted to talk about the old days. Jim was impatient with my nostalgia and he wanted to talk about opera. He was the longshoreman who loved opera. The activist who understood how to move the money men. The leftist who started a bank. The guy who could effortlessly wear a good suit to a meeting with the homeless.
My next great memories of Jim were around the time of the Vancouver Olympics. CTV -- of course -- was the Olympic broadcaster. Jim -- like so many on the left -- was initially pretty ambivalent about the Games. But when plans were announced for the final leg of the torch run into David Lam Park, Jim's ambivalence evaporated. His great friend Ken Lyotier of United We Can would carry the torch into David Lam Park on Feb. 11, 2010, the night before the Games began. Lyotier is a formerly homeless guy and addict who cleaned up and put his street smarts to work building a wonderful organization employing binners on the Downtown Eastside. That the Olympics would honour a man like Lyotier in this way put any doubts Jim had to rest. And when they ran the torch through the Downtown Eastside the day the games began and anti-Olympic activists threatened to disrupt the ceremony for veterans at the cenotaph, Jim ranted about their "disrespect" on live national TV. Even on Sunday, Green paid tribute to Lyotier as an example of the "best of who we are."
In the end Sunday, it was Jim Green's passionate tribute to his adopted city that really brought down the house. Trust the guy from Birmingham, Alabama, who came here as a draft-dodger, to teach us all a thing or two about civic pride. In accepting the award, Green said, "I do know if you look at our environment, how beautiful and clean it is, the civility, how people say good morning to one another and how people thank the bus driver ... this is remarkable. What a place. What a city to live in. It's not bullshit. It's not bullshit. We can really do it in Vancouver and send a Vancouver message to the world. When I hear the word 'Vancouverism' it touches me to my soul."
Margo Harper is the News Director at CTV British Columbia. She attended the private gathering for Jim Green as a board member of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival and the guest of its executive director.