Frances Bula header image 1

I did a strange thing this Christmas — I went all out on the Christmas-card thing

December 19th, 2020 · No Comments

A column I wrote for the Globe’s Amplify newsletter

The Christmas-card ritual was a fixture in my mother’s life.

She had special books with rows and columns, so she could track the name of each person who had been sent a card, which of them had sent her one back the previous year and who perhaps needed to be struck from next year’s to-do list.

She wasn’t a huge Christmas traditionalist. She let us know every year how much she hated shopping for presents because she was bad at it. She ditched real trees when I was still in elementary school, acquiring one of the earliest plastic trees manufactured, a hideous stick-like contraption. In the years of experimental vegetarianism, she did not cook a turkey.

But the cards were sacrosanct.

In return, our homes in Regina, then North Vancouver, received cascades of mail every Christmas when I was a child, cards that became part of the decorations as they were hung along strings tacked to the walls. Sometimes we’d run out of wall.

I didn’t mean to abandon the tradition as an adult, but I was always, you know, sooooo busy with my urban Vancouver life. I had my own traditions: making my own gingerbread houses for anywhere up to 12 kids, tree-decorating parties, baking endless rounds of cookies that filled tins stacked all over the floor.

I tried many years to keep up the card tradition. I’d buy whole boxes, West Coast-themed when I could find them, as well as occasional $7-apiece craft-store cards. I’d mean to send them. But, oh dear, the time to write all those quick but meaningful notes. Finding addresses. The frigging post-code hunt. Stamps. Geo-locating mailboxes.

It’s all so different in this (use preferred cliché word here) year.

There’s so much time that I never knew I had, now that there are no coffees, lunches, dinners, rambling shopping expeditions, unrestricted gym visits, music festivals, trips to non-B.C. destinations.

I’ve undertaken a lot of unexpected activities as a result.

Done almost three-dozen jigsaw puzzles. Taken up South Asian cooking. Re-watched Grey’s Anatomy. Learned to program my car clock. Knit a few sweaters.

And then, suddenly, two weeks ago, as I kicked into the whole Christmas thing way earlier than usual, Christmas cards entered my brain’s orbit.

Oh, I thought. I’ll send off a few this year. As I started to get into a rhythm, the list expanded. I’m up to 81 names now.

Not all have gone out yet because it turns out it’s a lot of work to crank up the old Christmas-card machine.

I had to find my last extant address book, buried in the cubbyhole reserved for old daybooks. Then it turned out that many of the addresses I had were years out of date or not there at all.

Finding addresses became a major project requiring all my investigative-journalism skills, since I wanted to avoid asking people directly. I did internet searches, hunted through social-media channels for ancient dinner invitations, drove past houses to get street addresses, checked out entry panels for apartment numbers, looked on Google Maps. In extreme cases, I paid the $10 fee to search their names on the government’s land-titles site.

Then I needed to find just the right cards – not some cheesy dollar-store boxes. No, they had to be original, something that conveyed the essence of me and/or the West Coast. As well, because I have a lot of Jewish friends (a couple of stints on a kibbutz in Israel has left me a legacy of a wide network of them in the U.S.) and for the non-Christians and co-atheists, I needed a wide selection ranging from traditionally Christian to cards with nothing but embossed snowflakes or Christmas fishes (see above pic). So I’ve been discovering the city anew by checking out various shops – which, because they’re small and arty, usually have no one in them but me, so safe!

And, finally, the stamps. As with so much else in the pandemic, what should have been a relatively simple task turned out, again, to require cunning or patience. It appears many others have had the same impulse as me. So there are lineups at every post office, even in supposedly empty neighbourhoods. And the offices are selling out of stamps. Not just Christmas stamps. All stamps.

And why am I doing it? Why not just an email? Or phone? I ask myself that. Is it just that, since we’re reliving the 1950s anyway these days (all meals at home on a menu in rotation, evenings spent playing board and card games, travel restricted to camping locally), why not throw this in too?

Maybe, a little. But there’s something more.

I think of the pleasure of the person getting the card.

For once, not a bill or a flyer from the local real-estate agent or newsletter from a politician or a plea from a charity.

Instead, a direct communication in old-fashioned cursive that my friends can hold in their hands, something that represents a distinct effort to do more than send a quickie “Hey, how’s life in the pandemic?” email. But not anything too elaborate.

Just a little note with a beautiful piece of mini-art that sends the message, “I think of you still. You’re part of my life in this very strange time.”

What else we’re thinking about:

Once my Christmas-card rampage is over, I’ll be looking for more time-consuming activities to use up my many spare hours. So far, I’ve been cruising the internet looking for ever-more complicated South Asian, Thai or Korean recipes to make. An hour to toast and grind spices and then make a curry? No problem. That has led me to books like Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking. But I’m looking for more, so this is what’s on my Christmas list from 2020′s crop of interesting new cookbooks: Milk, Spice and Curry Leaves (Sri Lankan) by Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama or In Bibi’s Kitchen (East African) by Hawa Hassan.


→ No CommentsTags: Uncategorized

A “new generation of homeless people with brain injuries” means that just housing won’t be enough, say some mayors

October 4th, 2020 · No Comments

The issue of what to do about the growing prevalence and size of camps or clusters on the street of homeless people is one that is turning into a top issue for this provincial election. Many mayors are hoping the candidates will have some better answers that they’ve seen in the past. My Globe story on this.


Mayors of B.C.’s largest cities want provincial politicians to come up with new solutions to a growing problem of homelessness, addiction and mental health issues, saying the focus on providing housing alone is too narrow.

At least some, including Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog, say it’s time for the provincial government to consider radical steps such as institutional facilities for those who cannot live in a traditional setting.

The mayors of 13 B.C. cities plan to hold a news conference Wednesday to outline their demands for a new approach and to call on the leaders of B.C.’s campaigning political parties to make a commitment to help cities address the crisis. British Columbians go to the polls on Oct. 24.

The mayors say the NDP’s promises to ramp up the construction of social housing aren’t enough to tackle the problems. Hundreds of people are sleeping outside in major cities, occupying local parks in a growing number of tent encampments that have challenged cities to ensure the safety of both the people living within the camps and nearby residents.

Neighbourhood residents have complained about increased crime and the lack of provincial help for the homeless, a theme Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson has been highlighting in recent days as his party seeks to regain power from the NDP.

Some mayors in the just-formed caucus, started at the initiative of Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, say providing housing by itself doesn’t address the needs of a new generation of drug users who have overdosed on opioids but survived with serious brain injuries.

“We have a significant brain-injured population now that’s never going to function without supports. What the province is doing now is not enough because it doesn’t deal with those cases,” said Mr. Krog, a former long-standing NDP MLA. “If we have places to send people, then there will be progress.”

But he said he’s not talking about recreating 19th-century asylums.

“I’m not asking people to be strapped to their beds, drugged 24/7, and be presided over by Nurse Ratched,” said Mr. Krog, whose city has a homeless population of about 600, one of the highest per-capita in the province. “But people need routine. I’ve talked about smaller, community-based facilities or a therapeutic farm.”

Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley and Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart echoed the sense that homelessness, mental illness and addiction are swamping their cities, with new approaches needed for the very different groups caught up in those issues.


They say they can’t supplement the health system using their limited property tax dollars. It’s the province that has to provide the comprehensive remedies.

Mr. Hurley said he is concerned by the slow pace of change, which he wants to see addressed during the campaign. There have been lots of announcements about housing money, he said, but few actual buildings opened.

“We’re very frustrated at the slow speed,” said Mr. Hurley, who swept long-time mayor Derek Corrigan out of office in 2018 on a promise to do better on housing. He said Burnaby has pre-emptively rezoned six sites for social housing that could provide homes for 1,300 households, but the provincial money still hasn’t arrived.

Both he and Mr. Stewart in Coquitlam emphasized the need for better mental health services for those among the homeless or at-risk population. Mr. Hurley said they’re often only available during office hours, which is entirely the wrong approach. Mr. Stewart said people with mental health problems often end up with police as their only option during a crisis instead of a health team.

Like the others, he emphasized that just building housing, while useful for some people among the homeless population, is not going to be a complete solution for people with the kinds of challenges cities are now seeing.

“It’s not going to be solved by building a better cardboard box. We’re starting to see a whole new wave of people needing care because of brain injuries.”

Besides that key issue, the mayors plan to emphasize the need for provincial candidates to talk about how they’re going to keep transit systems healthy until the pandemic is over and what kinds of supports cities will get as their revenue shrivels because of COVID-19 effects, even while some costs have gone up.

→ No CommentsTags: Uncategorized

A Vancouver councillor was on the hot seat two weeks ago, but does anyone remember now?

October 4th, 2020 · No Comments

With the provincial election now sucking up all political oxygen in the room, Vancouver councillors are getting to take a breather. For one of them, that’s a welcome reprieve, I’m thinking. My story from the Before Election Call times

Vancouver voters could be facing an extra visit to the polls within the year – on top of the provincial election – after a report into a conflict of interest for one Vancouver councillor concluded that he should give up his seat.

The byelection that could result, which would likely cost the city more than $1-million, will be required if Green Party Councillor Michael Wiebe voluntarily resigns or is forced to quit after a special city-appointed investigator concluded he had violated several sections of Vancouver’s conflict-of-interest rules.

Municipal-law expert Raymond Young recommended in his report that Mr. Wiebe be disqualified from holding office and that it would be “appropriate” for him to resign because he voted on two motions at council in May related to allowing restaurants and bars to operate temporary patios, when he owns one affected establishment and is an investor in another.

Mr. Young noted that amendments that Mr. Wiebe proposed and were then passed “enabled Councillor Wiebe to wear two hats when dealing with city staff: that of the council member and that of the business owner.” His restaurant was among the first group of 14 given a temporary patio permit, which allowed for four tables on the road in front of his business.

But Mr. Wiebe is not planning to resign immediately, saying that the whole report was a “bit of a shock” because he thought the investigation was still going on and he would have time to provide more evidence in his defence.

“I’m sorry for this situation but we’re going to figure out what happened. It’s incomplete and I’m going to continue to work through the process,” said Mr. Wiebe, who both apologized for what has happened but also insisted that he acted in good faith when he participated in council decisions about temporary patios.

“I’ve been very open about my interests and I’ve stepped away in multiple situations,” said the first-term councillor, who owns the small restaurant lounge Eight ½ just off Main Street and is an investor in the Portside Pub in Gastown.

He has declared conflicts on numerous other votes at council since he was elected in 2018, ranging from decisions on the Hollywood Theatre, whose foundation board he sits on, to community safety, because his mother was on the board of one of the organizations involved, to debates involving changes to patio definitions and alcohol consumption in public spaces.

He also said that, when he debated and voted on the city’s new temporary-patio system, he was making the case on behalf of many Vancouver business owners, including several who are in direct competition with him.

City councillors, who have faced accusations or concerns about conflicts many times in B.C., are typically not considered to be in conflict if their interests are in common with electors of the city generally, as laid out in city legislation.


That’s why city councillors can vote on taxes, even though their own taxes will be affected, or rezonings that cover the neighbourhoods in which they live.

But Mr. Young’s report said there weren’t enough voters with an interest in common with Mr. Wiebe to make that a defence.

“There were over 3,000 business licences issued to restaurants and bars in 2019,” he wrote. But the temporary-patio program “benefited less than 10 per cent of restaurants and bars in the city.”

Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who ordered the investigation by Mr. Young after a complaint from retired lawyer Michael Redmond, is not commenting on the arguments in the case.

“I received the investigator’s report on Saturday, September 19, am reviewing it to determine my next steps, and cannot comment further to maintain the integrity of the process,” he said in an e-mailed statement.

The mayor could ask council to vote privately on whether to ask Mr. Wiebe to vacate his seat. If that doesn’t happen, any 10 Vancouver voters can petition the court to have the seat vacated.

Several cases of that kind have gone to the Supreme Court since 2001, when the Community Charter and Vancouver Charter were changed to include the provision that a council member could be disqualified immediately from serving if they were found to be in a conflict.

→ No CommentsTags: Uncategorized

The negotiations over who gets the next big transit project in the region is underway; North Shore gave itself a boost

October 4th, 2020 · No Comments

Greater Vancouver’s North Shore communities got a big boost to their pitch to be next in line for rapid transit in the region with the release of a provincial study outlining five feasible routes across Burrard Inlet for a light-rail line.

Now those three cities will need to prove they deserve to get billions of dollars for new transit by demonstrating the line can get the needed ridership, partly by supporting land-use plans that will add more population and jobs, acknowledged the B.C. MLA shepherding the transit-planning effort and the head of the TransLink mayors’ council.

“There’s a lot of competition for transportation all across the province and we’ve got to have our ducks in a line,” said North Vancouver-Lonsdale MLA Bowinn Ma, who pulled together a group of stakeholders in 2018 to come up with a more coherent transportation plan for the car-clogged section of the region. “The North Shore is going to have to demonstrate we’re ready to receive a rapid-transit project like this and prepare their communities.”

The three North Shore municipalities – City of North Vancouver, District of North Vancouver and District of West Vancouver – have a mixed record on supporting new transit and housing.

While the city has added a significant amount of density and supported improved transit, transforming into an extension of downtown Vancouver, the District of North Vancouver council has quashed various development projects. West Vancouver, although adding multifamily housing for the first time in decades, saw a wave of public opposition to a rapid-bus line planned for the street near that housing. TransLink had to scale back its plans for the line in 2019 after the council voted against it.

TransLink, which approved the construction of two new SkyTrain extensions as part of a 10-year list of priorities developed by regional mayors in 2014, is now pondering what the next priorities are as it looks at refreshing that list and developing a new long-range plan to 2050.

Everyone in the region is jostling for more. A SkyTrain extension to Maple Ridge, another one down King George Boulevard in Surrey south toward White Rock, a gondola in Burnaby to take students to Simon Fraser University, a rapid bus to Squamish or Chilliwack – those are just some of the demands the Lower Mainland’s transit agency is facing.

What gets to the top of the list will depend increasingly on what those regions are prepared to do to add population around transit, said Jonathan Coté, the chair of the mayors’ council and mayor of New Westminster.

“A good transportation plan starts with a good land-use plan and communities that are willing to make changes,” he said.

Mr. Coté said it’s clear the North Shore has experienced a dramatic increase in traffic and congestion the past few years and it has been identified as a rising priority for TransLink. He said the provincial study adds invaluable planning information for TransLink, which will be needed as it goes through a long process to decide what the next priorities are and where the best cost-benefit scenarios exist.

The provincial committee studying the possibilities, after going through multiple others to connect the North Shore to the existing rapid-transit network in the rest of the region, came up with five options judged workable by engineering experts.

Two involve a new bridge alongside the current Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing. Three options have tunnels – one from Brockton Oval at Stanley Park to central Lonsdale; another one under the park to West Vancouver’s Park Royal and then to central Lonsdale; and a third essentially under the current SeaBus route from downtown Vancouver to Lonsdale Quay.

A rail bridge paralleling Lions Gate Bridge was eliminated because it would have required too much Stanley Park land for approaches, said Ms. Ma. Another idea, running the rail line underneath the Ironworkers bridge, was ruled out in the final round. Gondolas were also nixed, because the distance is so great that the towers would have needed to be as high as the Wall Centre hotel.

→ No CommentsTags: Uncategorized

Could Ugly Broadway become a beautiful swan? City says yes

July 7th, 2020 · No Comments

There are going to be many changes along Broadway in the coming years, as the subway goes in, 99 buses no long roar along both sides of the street, density of some description is added (once the new city plan or Broadway plan is decided on), and more residents and businesses are added to the area.

It’s been a utilitarian traffic corridor, except for one brief stretch through western Kitsilano, for a long time. But it doesn’t have to be like that forever, as city engineers told me for a recent story.

Text below for those who don’t want to link

[

→ No CommentsTags: Uncategorized

Some of Canada’s transit systems crushed at getting riders. And that was their weakness in pandemic

April 27th, 2020 · No Comments

Some of you might not have seen my latest transit story because it ran in the Alberta pages of the Globe. But it’s relevant across the country.

I looked at the difference between Edmonton and Calgary and, it turned out, that explained some of the differences in other parts of the country. It explained by Vancouver’s TransLink, one of the most successful transit operations in the country, was the first to have to make massive layoffs. Toronto, even more successful, was second. Winnipeg, which has healthy ridership too, also had to lay off and Calgary is looking at it if things go on much longer.

Why? The answer is in my story, here and text pasted after the turn. [Read more →]

→ No CommentsTags: Uncategorized

As vulnerable as people in care homes, but no plan to help protect them yet: The homeless, sheltered, living in SROs

March 16th, 2020 · No Comments

People who care for the homeless and those living in the worst conditions (shelters, SROs) are frantic about the lack of resources and preparation for the vulnerable group they serve. My story here and in text below.  [Read more →]

→ No CommentsTags: Uncategorized

Why so many vacancy signs on Vancouver shopping streets? Some are small businesses waiting weeks or months for permits

March 9th, 2020 · No Comments

People love their neighbourhood small businesses. Politicians say they’re the lifeblood of the community.

But one of the most perplexing parts of covering city hall is hearing the constant stories about how this or that small business went through hell to get a minor commercial-renovation permit. Some just give up; others grit their teeth and spend tens of thousands in rent on their empty spaces. It’s been a problem since I started covering cities 25 years ago and no one seems to know how to change it.

In the meantime, here’s my Globe story on the bizarre mazes some have to run and what the consequences are. As the economy gets battered heavily this year, cities’ ability to foster small businesses instead of hobbling them will be key to maintaining a healthy city.

Full text below

[

→ No CommentsTags: Uncategorized

Budget angst hitting cities across the land as taxes go up to pay for things other governments skipping

December 5th, 2019 · No Comments

Budget and property-tax-increase time is never a fun period in the year.

But it’s feeling especially fraught this year, as there are big debates and objections and announcements about big new hikes in various cities. It seems to me that it’s all a product of the secret burden cities have been carrying for years, where they are being left to absorb the financial cost of many social issues that the provinces and federal government used to be responsible for. Housing, especially, but all kinds of other issues, including mental health, drug addiction, immigrations, transit support and more.

Vancouverites are setting their hair on fire over a proposed 9.3-per-cent increase, which would come on top of 4.5 per cent last year. My story here and various takes here, here, and here. (The CBC story says it’s the biggest in a decade but City Hall Granny here, aka me, has been covering budgets for 25 years and I don’t recall one that high in all that time.)

You’ll notice that in the last of these, a former city employee, is about how the tax hikes are related to how much the city is now spending to try to create affordable housing. Yes, people, been saying this for years, that, as much as many support the construction of new affordable housing, it is putting a huge load on cities, which have nothing but property taxes to pay for it.

Opinionators everywhere are weighing in on whether Vancouver property taxes are higher than other cities, lower than other cities, or what.

Toronto is about to go through the same, as conservative-leaning Mayor John Tory, after resisting the idea for years, has now come out proposing big tax increases to pay for more housing and transit.

Calgary is having its own struggles over property-tax increases after giving a big chunk of money for a stadium and now having to deal with the predictable backlash as taxes rise for basic services.

And, in Surrey, it’s kind of a reverse problem, where longtime zero-tax-increase advocate Mayor Doug McCallum and his remaining band of supporting councillors have passed a very tight budget, with only a 2.9-per-cent increase, which means no new police or firefighters and a restricted menu of community-service improvements. That is producing its own community backlash.



→ No CommentsTags: Uncategorized

Plan by Squamish Nation for unique, super-dense development on False Creek sets off wave of praise

November 12th, 2019 · No Comments

So, we kicked off last week with the story that the Squamish Nation has updated its plans for the land it owns around the south end of the Burrard Bridge, with a project that would have 6,000 units in 11 towers, one of them 56 storeys.

My story in the Globe and the follow-up story are here and here. Text below.

There’s been a huge wave of interest and response to the story, with calls coming in to Squamish Nation councillor Khelsilem from across Canada and even Britain.

For some people exasperated with city rules, the plan is being welcomed almost vengefully, like a giant middle finger to the city’s planning department.

Others are simply fascinated by the architectural design, which has echoes of First Nations themes, and the unusual approach.

I should note that not everyone is thrilled, like Vancouver Councillor Colleen Hardwick. Apparently there are also a lot of exchanges on various Facebook pages that express a lot less enthusiasm for the project than what is being heard more publicly.

As I noted in a series of tweets later in the week, there are many questions still to be answered. But it’s going to be a fascinating ride.

BTW, for the many of you asking, the other big pieces of Vancouver land under First Nations control will not have the same freedom as this piece of Squamish land. I triple-checked with the city on this and they said:

Hi Frances, here’s the info on this.

The three projects you had asked about (Jericho lands, Heather lands, Liquor Distribution branch site at Broadway/Renfrew) which are being led by MST Development Corporation (“MST DC”) on behalf of the MST partnership, are owned by corporations and are not on federal or reserve lands.  As such, the development of those lands will be subject to all municipal laws and by-laws in respect of use and development of land.  For developments of this scale, the normal process would be a high level policy statement, rezoning and then the development permit and building permit process.  There will be extensive public engagement in this process and public hearings in front of Vancouver City Council for the rezonings.  This is unlike the proposed Senakw project which is on Squamish Nation reserve land and as such Squamish Nation’s land use planning jurisdiction applies and not the City of Vancouver’s.


[

→ No CommentsTags: Uncategorized