Skip to main content

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, seen here on July 4, 2019, acknowledges this moment is a real learning experience for everyone.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs

Three months ago, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart was consumed, among other things, with wrangling enough council votes to approve the next purpose-built rental project. This week, he declared a state of emergency to help combat the spread of COVID-19, a decision that could make the difference between life and death.

You sign on for that level of responsibility when you run for public office. But in most of our lifetimes, where peace has prevailed and advances in medical care have increased life expectancy year over year, many Canadian politicians serve out their mandates without being truly tested.

I talked to Mr. Stewart on the night of St. Patrick’s Day. He was at home, having co-ordinated along with Vancouver Coastal Health officer Dr. Patricia Daly the closing of all Vancouver bars and restaurants, which they feared would hasten the spread of COVID-19. Earlier, there had been a terrifying moment when he learned there was a massive party planned for Granville Street. There would be zero chance of social distancing within that mash of drunken revellers; the province was already seeing the fallout from a huge dental conference where several attendees were infected.

“So, I call Adrian Dix [B.C.’s Health Minister] and I tell him, I’m in trouble here, I need a provincial health order, and he gets it issued,” Mr. Stewart says. Initially it applied to downtown restaurants and bars only, but within hours was expanded citywide. Despite the publicity, about 20 venues ignored the order. A state of emergency was issued two days later. It gives the city and police power to enforce an order closing all bars and nightclubs indefinitely and demanding most restaurants move to a takeout and delivery model.

There were many, me included, who thought these steps, as well as the closing of non-essential city services such as pools, gyms, community centres and libraries, should have come a week earlier. It hit me about two weeks ago, the last time I went out to eat. It was a casual spot where you stand in a squishy line to place your order at the till and sit at tables packed inches from each other. I left feeling I’d run a COVID-19 gauntlet and decided not to eat out again until things normalize. I had already stopped going to the gym.

But I also recognize these are fine judgment calls being made at a time when the virus is spreading and advice from health officials changes hourly. Pull the cancel-everything trigger too soon, and you could precipitate an early depression. Wait too long and more people could die.

Mr. Stewart acknowledges this is a real learning experience for everyone. “I’ve been trying to draw on experienced people,” he says. He talks regularly to other big-city mayors and recently called David Miller, former mayor of Toronto, who steered that city through the 2003 SARS outbreak. He asked Mr. Miller for guidance on how to make these sorts of monumental decisions. The advice he’s taken to heart goes like this: Base all decisions on advice from experts, and make them quickly, knowing they will not be perfect.

His greatest fear now is for Vancouver’s most vulnerable people, seniors in care homes who are at risk and separated from their families. He also worries about the 10,000 or so Vancouverites who are either homeless or living in single-room-occupancy hotels, where social distancing is difficult if not impossible. People who use drugs are not going to stay home if it means they can’t get the drugs they need.

Mr. Stewart has asked the feds for help with safer housing and wants to provide drug users with a safe supply during this crisis. It’s not clear whether Ottawa will sanction the move; Mr. Stewart hopes so. Regardless, he says he is working with Vancouver Coastal Health’s Chief Medical Health Officer, Dr. Daly, to make it happen. No other level of government is going to clear the way for safe supply, he said. “Nobody is going to come and give it to me. I have to go off and get that done.”

This is a once-in-a-lifetime test of leadership and, on this issue, Mr. Stewart is choosing to act. Ottawa should respect that and back his decision, knowing that he and Dr. Daly best understand Vancouver’s unique challenges and are best suited to decide.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.