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City of Vancouver considering requiring grant recipients to be 'respectful' in order to get funding

A file photo shows an aerial view of Vancouver City Hall. A file photo shows an aerial view of Vancouver City Hall.
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Vancouver city council has asked staff to shape a policy that would require grant recipients to engage with officials in a "respectful manner," a move that one political scientist says suggests an attempt to prevent or punish criticism.

During Tuesday's meeting, before council approved $6.2 million in grants for 105 non-profits, ABC Coun. Peter Meiszner said he was concerned about a specific comment made in the media after Mayor Ken Sim was elected in October of 2022 by someone who works with one of the organizations receiving funding.

"The person behind this non-profit that's receiving these two grants said, 'I know that the Chinese-Canadian community is really excited about the first Chinese mayor being elected. I just want to point out that just because someone looks like you, doesn't mean that they're actually going to take care of you. That's the unfortunate truth,'" Meiszner quoted, adding that the person also said they were "disappointed" by Sim's election.

The comments, Meiszner said, raised a "huge red flag" and were "very personal." He said they would be ruled out of order "immediately" if they were made in the council chamber, citing the city's respectful workplace policy.

While neither the person nor the group was named during the meeting, the comment was made by Rachel Lau, program manager of the Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice, in a story published by The Canadian Press. The organization works with low-income seniors in Chinatown and on the Downtown Eastside.

"I have an issue with this organization receiving two grants for $70,000 when we have all these other amazing organizations in the community that aren't getting anything," Meiszner said. The grants in question, according to the staff report, are to operate a seniors' drop-in, and to provide information and advocacy for low-income, Chinese-speaking seniors who are renters.

Meiszner then moved an amendment directing staff to come up with new granting rules that would require recipients to be "non-partisan" and to communicate "to, about, and with city officials in a respectful manner." The amendment, he said, was being brought forward in order to address broader concerns about how the city decides to allocate funding and a lack of vetting.

STIFLING CRITICISM OR COMBATTING HATE?

Coun. Pete Fry immediately responded by objecting to the use of the term "non-partisan," saying it ran the risk of excluding anyone who advocates for any issue or policy from qualifying for funding and also potentially violated Charter-protected rights of freedom of expression and association.

"I fear that this puts a chill on anybody who gets a grant from the City of Vancouver having an opinion," he said, before putting forward his own amendment to strike the term.

The revised version passed unanimously, with the majority of the councillors using their time to talk about how they have seen an increase in violent and vitriolic rhetoric, hate, and division in Vancouver and beyond.

"We have to be very conscious of that line between passion and hate," the mayor said.

"When we see issues like this, I think it's up to us to point them out and really question whether or not we should be supporting organizations potentially crossing the line."

Vancouver-based political scientist Stewart Prest says understanding what happened at the meeting requires separating out the two different conversations that were happening.

On one hand, he says, an increase in abuse directed at elected officials is cause for concern.

"I think that's something that all of us can agree is something we want to try to find solutions to, to try and reduce, because it creates all kinds of harms and is corrosive to our political discourse," he told CTV News.

On the other, Prest says the example raised by Meiszner was not hateful, threatening, or even particularly disrespectful.

"It was disagreeable with the current council, it was critical of incoming Mayor Ken Sim, but to use that as an example of a lack of respect suggests that what this majority on council is concerned about is political criticism," he said.

REVERSAL OF ACCOUNTABILITY

The overall impression Prest says the move gives is one of a party that is "thin-skinned" and "keeping score." Further, setting a standard for "respectful" speech and behaviour that could be interpreted subjectively and applied broadly is a chilling proposition.

"One useful way to think about it is as a reversal of accountability," Prest explains.

"Whenever we're in a situation where politicians are holding citizens to account for their actions and penalizing citizens for not acting in a way that politicians see as being appropriate, that's a potential problem. Even amid concerns about a lack of respectfulness in politics more broadly, we also really want to avoid a situation where citizens feel like they have to behave or speak in a particular way – to express opinions or even avoid expressing opinions – if they hope to work with the city."

Prest also said applications for funding for specific programs or services ought to be evaluated on their merits. He cautions that adding additional, unrelated criteria could result in the rejection of "the most worthy" projects in favour of ones that are "the most politically palatable."

Earlier this year, the ABC majority on council voted to deny a $7,500 grant to the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users for an art table. In that case, city staff said the program met the criteria for funding and had been successful at achieving its aims, which were to operate a weekly drop-in on the Downtown Eastside where vulnerable residents could connect with one another, be creative and use art as a therapeutic tool.

While VANDU campaigned against the election of Sim and his party, the decision, in that case, was not explicitly because of the group's activism. Instead, concerns were raised about how the group had used a separate, unrelated grant.

The mayor and ABC councillors, when speaking about their decision to deny just one of the hundreds of recommended grants, stressed the need to "send a message" to the organization.

The opposition councillors were unanimous in their criticism of the move, saying it seemed like VANDU was being singled out, and questioning whether the decision to deny funding was politically motivated.

In a media release following Tuesday's meeting, the City of Vancouver said that a "comprehensive review" of the city's granting programs is currently underway, with a report due back to council in June.

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