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A portrait of Philip Owen from the early years

October 1st, 2021 · No Comments

Former mayor Philip Owen died today. Many, many memories of him. Here’s a very early profile I did of him at the Vancouver Sun in 1996.

It’s close to midnight and, on the third floor at Vancouver city hall, the lighted windows are going dark, one by one. The man walking through the council offices turning out the lights and shutting the windows is Philip Owen. The mayor. Owen has gone through the stack of city reports coming up at next week’s council meeting. On each report, no matter how mundane — a lane closure, a copper tubing contract — there are notes, underlinings, highlighting, question marks.

Later, with the list of addresses of every city site mentioned, he makes a point that week of driving by to take a look at each one: the lane that is going to be closed, the house that is going to be demolished, the downtown block that is going to be rezoned.

Owen is getting ready to do the mayor’s monthly talk show in his office — an hour during which the general public is free to call in and complain about dog poop in the parks, motorcycle noise in the West End, and the city’s stupid new garbage fee. As he waits around in his TV make-up for the program to start, I ask how he likes the television format. He answers with boyish anxiety: “Well, you’ll see how it is. But with you here tonight, maybe someone will call in and I’ll goof.”


He’s a different kind of mayor. In an era when politicians are expected to be visionaries, leading their constituents through the complexities of the 20th century, and to be impervious to media and personal attacks, Philip Owen is neither.

Instead, he’s someone who believes that, in taking care of details, you take care of the bigger picture. He’s proud of the fact that he doesn’t have any “grand visions,” which he sees as ego-driven and grandiose roads to ruin.

He’s a listener and conciliator more comfortable in caucus meetings letting other council members lead the way and uncomfortable when people start fighting. In public debates, he has a Ronald Reaganish tendency to simplify issues into the personal and immediate, leaving councillors like Jennifer Clarke, Gordon Price and George Puil to articulate long-term and abstract issues.

In private, he has a quiet, deadpan sense of humor and can do wicked imitations. In public debates and media interviews, he can seem hesitant, ponderous or given to unfortunate turns of phrase that would make any media adviser cringe. Like the time he talked about all the “black women of color” working at city hall, as he defended the city’s record on diverse hiring.

Outside council, that Reaganish quality translates into genuine enjoyment of the ceremonial side of being mayor. Where Gordon Campbell would turn down masses of be-the-mayor-and-smile events, Owen’s schedule, in an echo of the role his father Walter played as lieutenant-governor from 1973-78, is packed with social and community functions, everything from day care openings to the Jewish Community Centre’s annual sports awards to the Heart and Stroke Foundation breakfast.

And when it comes to his personal life, Ronald Reagan (or Brian Mulroney or Gary Hart) should only wish to have such an image. No angry children bearing testimony to a dysfunctional family, no financial improprieties, no astrology, no alcoholism, no bimbos.

Instead, in his dazzling white shirts and crisp suits, his healthy and amazingly young-looking face a testimony to 62 very pleasant years on earth, he’s like a throwback to mayors of the early part of the century: member of a prominent Vancouver family (father Walter was a founder of the Vancouver law firm Owen Bird; cousin is deputy attorney-general Stephen Owen); cheerfully accompanied at most of his functions by Brita, the woman he married in 1957, who maintains her own commitments to volunteer work; father of three children; grandfather of five; president or director of seven successful small businesses ranging from a fabric store in Vancouver to a muffler shop in Penticton; regular and involved churchgoer at St. John’s Shaughnessy Anglican; and long-time volunteer with several community groups, particularly the B.C. Paraplegic Foundation. Fun? Fixing up old cars, refurbishing old lamps and tinkering in general.

He gets warm private praise for his graciousness, considerateness and scrupulous honesty. He has also earned some of the most biting public assessments of his intelligence and political acumen. (Former political opponent Harry Rankin calls him Philip the Dim. Former political colleague Jonathan Baker describes him as “colorless,” “a protoplasm” giving the impression that “complex issues were beyond him.”)

But what about where he’s leading his council and the city? Is his quiet, often self-effacing style the sign of no leadership or of a different kind of leadership?

Both on and off the record, his staff, supporters and even disinterested observers of city hall say Owen’s leadership is a valuable kind of consensus-building, that he truly listens to people, that he allows his councillors to have a voice, and that his brand of methodical and cautious management is the kind of consolidating breather the city needs after the hyperactive, ambitious period it had under Gordon Campbell.

But among both critics and some of his supporters, there are those who say his lack of strong ideas and unwillingness or inability to talk people into following him when he does have strong ideas are a problem. Some say stronger councillors are taking on the leadership functions. Others say the bureaucracy is now in charge.


One of the anomalies of being mayor of Vancouver is that, in legal terms, it’s one of the least powerful positions in a Canadian system of municipal government that generally is already set up to create a weak mayor.

Other mayors from Salmon Arm to Toronto at least have the right to refuse to sign a bylaw, can suspend it for 30 days, and can both establish council committees and appoint the members. Vancouver’s mayor has none of those powers.

“Vancouver’s mayor is the weakest in the country,” says University of B.C. political science professor Paul Tennant. “We have a contradictory expectation of mayors. Even though they have absolutely no basis of power in the formal sense, we expect them now to be the equivalent of the premier or the prime minister.”

Added to that, the mayor’s office in Vancouver has never built a huge bureaucracy. Toronto’s mayor’s office has 16 people handling policy. Vancouver’s has one.

So when Montreal mayor Pierre Bourque abolishes neighborhood councils or Toronto mayor Barbara Hall decides to take $7 million from a city reserve fund to create shelters for the homeless, their strong actions are possible because they have a legal and administrative structure that supports mayors.

That means mayors in Vancouver accomplish whatever they do through classic political means: personal influence, strategic network-building and persuading.

Owen is no persuader.

“If I have a case to sell, if I went to Gordon (Campbell) and said, `Gordon, we have to do this. Here’s the argument,’ then you would turn him loose to persuade people,” one senior city administrator said. “Philip doesn’t have that ability.”

He’s not good at avoiding the cons and stressing the pros that it takes to win arguments.

“It’s kind of an endearing characteristic unless you want him to argue your point of view, in which case you’d rather have somebody’s who presents the case very strongly,” the same administrator said.

Part of that comes from the fact that he’s a listener who spends a long time learning before he will take strong positions on issues.

“Philip is not a terrifically quick study. He’s a learner, he works at the issues that he wants to understand,” says a senior staff member.

When he does get close to an issue, either because of his personal values and experience (not allowing a prostitution zone; not interfering in the free play of market forces by protecting small stores from superstores; focusing on serving the customers) or because of the time he’s spent on it (transit, the PNE), he’s a much stronger speaker.


Part of what casts Philip Owen‘s style and character into such high relief is the contrast with Gordon Campbell’s seven-year reign at city hall.

Some of that difference is historical circumstance. Vancouver was going through huge changes then: a housing shortage, megaprojects being developed, a sense that the city had to start coordinating with the region to solve pollution, transportation and sprawl problems.

But there is also a personal difference. Campbell knew what he wanted and would work ferociously to get it: a children’s advocate, a 30-year plan for the city, deals with downtown megaproject developers to get parks and theatres and a seawall for the city. He got what he wanted but “in the process, there were one or two bodies lying on the floor after,” says one veteran of the era. There are still stories circulating in both city hall and the development community about the way Campbell would ride roughshod over his staff if he thought what they’d done was inadequate or obstructive.

In contrast, Owen’s personal style generates a real affection at city hall.

“He’s sort of a dad figure,” is the way one mid-level staffer puts it.

Another describes it this way: “If someone complained about you to Gordon Campbell, he’d call you up, ream you out, and make you go over and paint the guy’s house. But when someone complains about you to Philip Owen, he’ll come and ask what your side of the story is.”

Around city hall, he makes a point of complimenting people on a job well done, will run out of a committee meeting to find chairs for audience members left standing, and routinely walks down to Wendy’s to buy dinner for councillor Sam Sullivan, whose wheelchair dependence makes it hard for him to sprint out for dinner between meetings the way other councillors do.

That’s no newfound quality either. In 1966, after Owen had been working for Eaton’s for 14 years and had risen to the position of store manager, he quit when he was told that he had to get rid of the “older two” of his seven supervisors.

He still gets angry when he remembers it: “One was 45, one was 48, they had kids in high school and university and I said, `I’m not going to do that.”’ (It was also the moment he decided it was time to get out and run his own businesses, so no one would be telling him when he was 45 and stuck partway up the corporate ladder that he was out of a job.)

There is an argument made that those personal qualities have a significant impact on city hall operations by creating good morale, staff that feels valued and secure enough to take on ambitious projects and carry them through, and a general increase in civility.

Owen is also someone who abhors the grand project and is focused on the day-to-day. You just know he’s the kind of guy who rotates the tires on his car when he should, pays his bills on time, and gets his gutters cleaned regularly.

That quality, translated to city politics, means the big issues he gets excited about when he’s interviewed (and that he pushes when he meets with staff — a mayor’s most direct way of influencing city activities) are things like: A regional emergency co-ordination centre. Going after the pawnshops that are acting as fencing operations. Replacing the sewer system at the rate of one per cent a year. The saltwater pumping station the city put in so it has an earthquake-proof firefighting system.

And, most important, “better city government,“ the plan that appears to be a meeting of minds between two people with a passion for efficient administration, Owen and city manager Ken Dobell, to re-engineer city operations so they’re less byzantine for both those inside and outside city hall. (Ideally, no more running to seven departments to find out if you can build a gas barbecue in your backyard.)

That kind of prudence and day-to-day focus means certain kinds of decisions. He agreed with his staff that the city wouldn’t get involved in the deal to put social housing in Woodward’s — too large a risk and no firm numbers nailed down. He disagreed with a staff recommendation not to allow a grocery store on industrial land, something staff said would endanger the city’s recently developed policy of trying to preserve its remaining 1,700 acres of industrial land. While Price and Puil argued that the city had to look at the long-term consequences, Owen took the view that this was a special case and one decision wouldn’t have a big impact.


On the other side are those who say Vancouver’s mayor does make a difference and that being pleasant, listening to people and working hard aren’t enough.

“He’s a very nice person who pays a lot of attention to detail,” says Libby Davies, who was his political opponent on council and ran against him for the mayor’s position in 1993. “But he’s in a completely reactive role and the bureaucracy is now in control. Campbell was clearly in charge politically. I don’t think (Owen) is in control of his agenda. I don’t think he has an agenda.”

A sign of the growing power of the bureaucracy is the way reports are coming to council, says Davies. In previous eras, staff made specific recommendations on specific projects that council could either accept, amend or reject.

Now, the reports that come to council on the better city government project for example, the most expensive and ambitious project of Owen’s term, are frequently reports to be received for information, or they simply ask council to continue its endorsement of the general directions staff are taking.

Even the city’s bureaucrats say staff are taking on more responsibility than they did under Campbell.

When there is a strong mayor at city hall, “the bureaucracy does less initiating because you’re just too busy” carrying out that mayor’s ideas, says one member of that group.

With a mayor who acts more like a board chair, like Owen, “staff end up bringing more of their own proposals to council.”

Besides listening to the bureaucrats, a quality that surely earns him some loyalty from that group, Owen is also more inclined to let the stronger councillors take the lead at caucus meetings: Puil for finance, Price for planning, and Clarke on many issues. One surprising factor is Craig Hemer, who appears to be simply one of the voices in the background Greek chorus in public, but is more influential in the backroom, say several sources, especially on keeping tight fiscal control and having good public processes.

Publicly, his supporters — Campbell, Puil, former executive assistant Janet Fraser, Clarke, Price, Sullivan and others — maintain that Owen’s methodical, mediating style is just what the city needs right now.

“I think he’s doing a great job, the city is ticking along well,” said Campbell.

If they do voice any criticisms, they’re of the mildest variety.

Puil’s assessment: Owen “was born to be a lieutenant governor, a master of protocol and being a very nice person.”

Campbell concedes that if Owen does have a fault, it’s that he’ll “listen and listen and listen some more.”

But privately, his councillors have been voicing concerns that he’s not seen as enough of a leader, that he’s a good soul who is too polite to sell himself, and simplistic about issues that others don’t feel are so simple.

When the Non Partisan Association was trying to decide which of its councillors should run as mayor in 1993, it polled the public. The results showed Puil’s name was familiar to a lot of the public — “who instantly recognized him in a negative way,” says one source. Fewer people recognized Owen, but those who did had favorable impressions. The NPA went with Owen because he was more palatable.

The trick in the next election now will be whether that combination — low but warm and fuzzy profile — works again.

In the meantime, the concern about Owen’s image has translated into a hypersensitivity about media.

When Vancouver Sun photographer Glen Baglo — who has successfully convinced Conrad Black to pose with a dead fish and Bob Bose to pose with cows — approached the mayor’s office for a photo to go with this story, his idea was to have Owen emerging with a briefcase from a manhole on a street with the city in the background.

No way, said Owen’s executive assistant, Muriel Honey. First, why did Baglo pick a street with the ugliest view of Vancouver? (The Fairview Slopes intersection he’d chosen had power lines visible on either side.) And secondly, she didn’t like the implication that Owen had ever been invisible to the public or underground.

“That’s not the kind of image we want to project.”


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