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British Columbia What the ‘school tax’ teaches us about the Vancouver Greens

A cyclist rides by a shuttered homes in the West Point Grey neighbourhood area of Vancouver on Oct. 29, 2015.

Ben Nelms

Last week, Vancouver’s new city council voted resoundingly to send a letter to the provincial government demanding it repeal the so-called school tax. A more accurate label for the new tax, which is not earmarked for schools but headed for general revenue, would have been a wealth or mansion tax. It hits property-rich homeowners with houses worth more than $3-million. The proceeds will be collected along with Vancouver property and regular school taxes in 2019.

Council’s motion is as symbolic as branding Vancouver a nuclear-free zone. There’s nothing council can do except add its voice to the howl coming from residents in Vancouver’s tony West Side neighbourhoods. Some were so incensed when the tax was announced they uncharacteristically hoisted signs and banners at a May protest wearing summer casual shoes nicer than most. Residents in David Eby’s wealthy Point Grey riding are so angry many people think the popular Attorney-General might lose his seat come the next election.

Bifurcated property taxes are new to Vancouver, so it is understandable that those hit by the tax feel they are unfair. Some are seniors with little or no income living in homes they bought years ago and feel affronted at being singled out with a school-tax surcharge on top of city property taxes that are going up by 4.5 per cent. They can, of course, defer paying their taxes, but most balk at the idea. However, the tax is popular among vast numbers of British Columbians who can no longer dream of buying a home at today’s inflated prices.

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Most of the city council votes broke down as you might expect. Members of the Non-Partisan Association showed their alignment with the provincial Liberals by voting yes. Mayor Kennedy Stewart voted true to his NDP roots and was joined by Christine Boyle and Jean Swanson who are further to the left. And on this occasion, the three Green Party members swung the vote and sided with the NPA against the tax.

Green Party councillor Adriane Carr had campaigned against the school surcharge, so her stand was expected. While Vancouverites are confident about where the civic Green Party stands on environmental questions, they are still trying to get the feel for their views on social and economic issues. Will the two newest Green councillors, Pete Fry and Michael Wiebe, be at odds with Ms. Carr, who tends to support the status quo thereby favouring existing property owners? Or will they veer left and take up the charge for renters and those less privileged Vancouverites? Ms. Carr and Mr. Wiebe did not respond to calls on the question.

But Mr. Fry, who was stunned by the backlash after he voted in favour of the repeal letter, said in retrospect he feels voting yes was a misstep. He believes there is nothing wrong with charging wealthy people more tax and acknowledges the windfalls made solely by virtue of property ownership.

Before the vote, he texted back and forth with his colleague Mr. Wiebe, who also had reservations about voting yes. Ultimately, they decided to side with Ms. Carr, the veteran Green councillor. It wasn’t worth a split, given that with her and all the NPA councillors on side, the vote was destined to win.

Mr. Fry says he voted yes to voice his objection to the province meddling in taxes collected by the city and proposed an amendment, which council accepted, to reflect that view. City requests to the province to change the Vancouver Charter are often rebuffed, he says, and he was upset by the provincial incursion onto city turf.

He now realizes that is not at all how the public saw it. His social media feed blew up with residents disappointed that he sided with the wealthy. Mr. Fry describes himself as the most left-leaning Green on council. “Why would I pander to the millionaires club?” He now calls it a rookie mistake.

For council as a whole, the motion was political gamesmanship, a reflection of political alignments along ideological lines. For the Greens it was a hint of far more challenging decisions to come on issues that don’t fall neatly into their environmental agenda. One of the most interesting things about 2019 will be watching them sort out where they stand.

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Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.

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