COPE’s Ellen Woodsworth braces for political winter, next steps

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site  |  December 7, 2011  |  Circulation: 100,000 average monthly readers.

Ellen Woodsworth, in her east Vancouver home, is surrounded by cards of thanks and support from across the city following the loss of her City Council seat November 19. Photo by David P. Ball

Former city councillor Ellen Woodsworth offers me a pair of hand-knit blue striped socks as she welcomes me into her east end row-house just off Commercial Drive – to keep my feet warm, she says. She’s on her cell phone, and as she busies herself making us tea the house phone rings.

“Can you, uh, get that for me please?” she asks. Thankfully, no one is on the other end of the line. As I settle into a faded brown couch in the living room of the row-house Woodsworth has rented for 32 years, I realize I’m completely surrounded by a decades-long collection of art, sculpture, fabrics and furniture. No knick-knacks here — all of it evidently meaningful to her and her partner, Jo.

On Tuesday, Woodsworth – known for her principled stands on affordable housing, homelessness and support for the Downtown Eastside community — officially ended her her second term on city council (the first was 2002-2005). Her brother, Dick, helped her move out of her office. He shows up during our interview, chatting about their great-uncle, renowned socialist politician and churchman J.S. Woodsworth. The office boxes he helped his sister move are yet-to-be-unpacked in the basement.

When prompted, she reveals she’s most proud of raising the profile of housing and homelessness, fighting for human rights and civil liberties — particularly during the 2010 Olympics – and securing resident-developed neighbourhood plans for Marpole, the Downtown Eastside, the West End, and Grandview-Woodlands.

Woodsworth draws my attention to a large framed Stewart Marshallwatercolour adorning one wall – it’s a large, bleak prairie landscape, snowy furrowed fields pierced by a stubble of cut grain stalks, a solitary grain elevator shining against the vast sky. To me, the stark, eerie landscape reminds me of Woodsworth’s new title of “former councillor” – pushed off city council by only 91 votes, uncertain of her next steps, waiting for a warmer season. In fact, she explains that she actually bought the Marshall print right after she lost the 2005 election.

“I had my last pay cheque from city hall,” she laughs, as the kettle begins to shriek comfortingly. “I had no idea where I was going to get money from – (this painting) just moved me very much.

“You can feel them,” she adds, motioning along the arching ploughed lines of cut grass, “how stubbly they get out of the season.”

The veteran activist-turned-Council of Progressive Electors (COPE) councillorspends the next hour reminiscing about her second term in office, her theories on why COPE was pushed out of all but Allan Wong’s lonely school board seat (a combination of overspending by Vision and NPA, vote-splitting on the left, and not putting David Cadman’s name on the ballot) — and what’s next in her own life. Her tone is considerably more upbeat than when we spoke on election night, and later when we arranged our visit today – that tone, I’d describe as sombre, disappointed, perhaps resigned.

“In a way, this may be a gift,” Woodsworth says calmly, looking out the living room window at a housing cooperative across the street, and newly commissioned street mural. “There’s other really, really important things I couldn’t do while I was on council.

“I was able to do so much – I’ve really accomplished a lot. But there’s all kinds of other ways in which you can accomplish building a better world, fighting for social justice.”

That ultimate question – her next steps — depends mostly on whether she and her partner are evicted from their long-time home. The heritage row house  they’ve rented for decades has been sold to a new owner, and their future is up in the air.

“Where do we go?” she asks. The question does not seem intended to draw pity; it is not rhetorical. “My partner’s on a low income. I thought I had a job — now I don’t have a job – and the income I thought I would have to find a house all of a sudden isn’t there.

“It was something I understood from working in the Downtown Eastside and being a renter, but now that I’m personally in that situation — all of a sudden out of a job and trying to find housing – it’s a very frightening world out there.”

The precariousness of being one day a councillor whose election seemed a shoe-in to many – to being unemployed the next – draws us into a tactical discussion on vote-splitting on the left, but also a worsening economy in which more and more people are on the edge of homelessness and poverty.

“Ninety-one votes later — after a few hundred people were turned away from voting in the Downtown Eastside — I don’t have a job and we don’t get unemployment insurance. Bam.

“Across Canada, you have a widening income gap and a shrivelling middle class, and you have the wealthy trying to undermine and – through Harper – get rid of unions and undermine funding for the health care sector. There’s still a lot of individualism in Canada, where people think they individually can make it. We need to get this information out to people – what’s really happening.”

Intoning a litany of worsening societal inequality, a weakened social safety net and environmental destruction, Woodsworth heads into a thorny terrain few politicians dare enter without assurances of justice, outrage and blame: June’s Stanley Cup riots.

“Nobody tied the riot to young people feeling really afraid for their futures,” she said. “It was all just kids acting out – but why are kids acting out like that?

“I think young people are very afraid – where are they going to find a job, how are they going to afford housing, the environment is obviously falling apart. There’s a lot of reasons people go berserk like that. Those social reasons were examined in London, England – the Guardian did a great article about the many reasons why the youth in England rioted. But nobody did that kind ofsocial analysis of why the kids rioted after the Stanley Cup.”

Without dedicated journalists facilitating a public discussion on social ills, inequities and injustices, Woodsworth worries that the result will increasingly be seen in scenes of chaos and breakdown – sometimes politicized, others more unconsciously motivated.

“The corporations controlling the media have been very successful in alienating people from political discourse and engagement,” she says. “This is verydangerous – especially in times like this.”

But our time together is not entirely bleak. Even in the starkest subjects, Woodsworth jokes gently, pauses thoughtfully, draws the conversation again and again to beauty, possibilities, and hope. I ask her about a news clipping on her coffee table on how to improve job interview skills.

She chuckles, explaining someone gave it to her, but interview skills are likely not her main barrier to getting a post-council job. She brainstorms possibilities – from starting a national renters union, to being encouraged to run in federal or provincial politics (or again, in three years here). It’s possible, she says. No promises.

Her view to the future – not the loss of her seat – was summed up in her closing prayer to city council last week:

“I dream that Vancouver will become a great city,” she told her colleagues on council for the last time this term. “I call on all of us to remember our roots in the Coast Salish nations who governed here 125 years ago. They looked at the world as a whole or through a medicine wheel. The centre could only be seen through looking at a problem from all angles, listening to all voices, acknowledging different chiefs and acting for the best interests of everyone.

“Many the next council dream of nothing less.”

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