Activism bred in the bone: Ellen Woodsworth COPEs with the election campaign

Published in The Vancouver Observer | November 3, 2010 | Circulation: 99,000

Ellen Woodsworth in the Downtown Eastside, where she organized for decades. Photo by David P. Ball

“It takes knowledge to understand others, but it needs a clear mind to know oneself.”

Ellen Woodsworth, taking a break from the civic election trail in Chinatown, glances at the Lao Tzu quote painted on the building-high mural of the ancient Chinese mystical philosopher. It’s one of her favourite works of public art, she says, and fittingly our conversation undulates easily between campaign issues and philosophy.

When a coffee shop is suggested, she points at a vacant curb in a Chinatown parking lot and says it will do fine for an interview – besides, she says, it’s in the sun. Not the type of politician to shy away from the rougher edges of life, Woodsworth sits down on the concrete and launches immediately into an issue she has worked on for decades: affordable housing.

“Housing is a right, it shouldn’t be a commodity,” she says. “We’re in the greatest housing crisis since the Depression. More and more people are homeless, more and more don’t have enough for rent.”

“People have to organize to fight back. What gives me hope is how neighbourhoods are active. When people don’t have organization, then we lose.”

The long-time Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) councillor – first elected when the left-wing party swept to power in 2002 on a platform of ending homelessness — comfortably spells off other areas she’ll address if re-elected November 19: Electoral reform (she wants councillors to represent neighbourhood wards, and reveal all donations before the vote). Homelessness and gentrification (she wants a moratorium on new condominium development in the Downtown Eastside until social housing is increased). Transit. Combatting homophobia. Increased support for urban Indigenous people.

Over several interviews, Woodsworth reveals herself an interesting mix of traits. She is widely hailed among progressives as a passionate grassroots activist, but also occupies a central rung in the COPE establishment. She minces no words in criticizing the economic system, developers or election donation excesses, but is careful to respect the electoral alliance with Vision Vancouver for which she  pushed hard within her party.

In some ways she might be a political insider at City Hall, but Woodsworth is known in the community for being willing to bring her principles to the proverbial concrete curb.

“My experience is she does everything she can to support grassroots people,” says long-time community organizer and author Jean Swanson. “She’s very progressive. It’s a thing that exudes from Ellen — in a fundamental way.”

Swanson laughs when I mention the curbside interview in Chinatown, with Woodsworth unconcerned with dirtying her campaign clothing.

“She dresses snazzy, but she gets right in there whether people are squatting or whatever. She used to go around the hotels and meet and talk with (residents) about their rights and how to get involved.”

In fact, it’s hard to find many who will say much against Woodsworth – even her opponents express respect for her. When she announced her party’s proposed ban on new condominiums last month – arguing that unregulated development leads to the displacement of low-income renters from their neighbourhoods by rising prices – she did it in front of the contentious Sequel 138 development. The former Pantages Theatre, on the struggling 100 block of Hastings near Main Street, has generated heated controversy and numerous demonstrations over the condominiums, and Woodsworth herself has joined the protests.

“I respect Ellen Woodsworth,” said the Sequel 138’s developer, Marc Williams, who has gained infamy in  activist circles for referring to the area as a “dead zone” and releasing ironic press releases when faced with protest. “She works hard. She is honest. She holds strong beliefs, and she speaks from the heart. I like that in a politician, especially when we may disagree about an issue.”

“I respect Ellen as a person, but we simply cannot afford ‘all social housing, all the time.’ It is impossible. Their policy is simply unaffordable.”

Woodsworth cites her politically active family as the formative influence in her life. Her great-uncle was renowned socialist churchman J.S. Woodsworth, a founding leader in the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation – the New Democratic Party’s predecessor.

“Especially when times are tough now – the environment and our social systems are being unraveled — I think of him. When things are hard politically you have to stand with your principles and stay steady.”

She also names her aunt, feminist parliamentarian Grace MacInnes, as an inspiration. And while she grew up steeped in activism – “It’s bred in the bone,” she jokes — it was acts of mutual aid that most impacted her. She was raised on stories of her grandfather organizing farmers to deliver food to unemployed homeless people during the Great Depression.

“As the story goes,” she recalls, “my mother was talking to him about the unemployed living on the street. He came up with truckloads of food.”
It is in such economic crises that movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring flourish historically, and Woodsworth is eager to express her support when most other city politicians are discussing how to get rid of the Occupy Vancouver encampment.

“It’s very important that people talk about the growing unequal distribution of wealth in Canada,” she says. “The divide is increasing and the social safety net is decreasing.”

Not only is she unconcerned with removing the tent city protest, she has spoken at its General Assembly and even offered a workshop. There’s no time limit on dissent, she explains.

“You have to protest from nine-to-five and go home? The Arab Spring was not something that just shut down and went home overnight.”

But while she’s hopeful about social change efforts – from global justice movements to neighbourhood councils – Woodsworth has also seen political turmoil first-hand. Shortly after COPE’s 2002 landslide victory, the party splintered apart as then-mayor Larry Campbell and three councillors broke away, eventually forming Vision Vancouver.

“It was a really a tragic situation of an organization fighting over core principles,” she recalls. “Splitting the party was an overarching betrayal.”

But today, Woodsworth is one of COPE’s leading advocates of electoral cooperation with Vision, agreeing to run only three council candidates – a decision which caused upset in COPE’s more radical ranks, accusing her of defeatism, but which she says is vital to fighting the right-leaning Non-Partisan Association (NPA).

“We have so much more in common with Vision than with NPA, who believe that private markets are the only way,” she said. “People have to be strategic. Any time we split that vote, we lose.”

“There are huge things we agree on. We support the green agenda, fighting for real affordable housing, the rent bank, lists of landlords, supporting tenant advocacy groups. When we disagree, we speak out on the council floor.”

Her day of electioneering only partway through, Woodsworth rises from the parking lot curb, laughs about the bizarre interview location, and heads for lunch — with a Vision candidate — at a nearby homeless shelter.

“You know what?” she asks. “I think people matter. As city councillor I meet them where they are.”

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