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Did a viral documentary help swing the Vancouver election?

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Ken Sim was officially inaugurated as Vancouver’s 41st mayor on Monday, and a viral documentary may have helped get him to that moment. His landslide victory over incumbent Kennedy Stewart surprised many, as polls released close to the October 15 election suggested the contest would be decided by paper-thin margins. 

Released on October 5, 2022, just 10 days before Vancouver’s municipal election, independent filmmaker Aaron Gunn’s Vancouver is Dying highlights the expanding urban decline of the city’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) neighbourhood over its 55-minute runtime. The film has been viewed over 2.2 million times on YouTube.

“I thought there were many issues plaguing Canadian society,” says Aaron Gunn, the documentary’s producer and director. “Over the past 20 years, crime has gotten worse, violent attacks have gotten worse, deaths from overdoses have gotten significantly worse. I just wanted to pull the curtain back as much as possible.” 

A significant share of Vancouver is Dying’s run time is devoted to criticizing then-mayor Kennedy Stewart’s approach to addiction, crime, and homelessness. While neither Gunn nor any subject in the documentary specifically endorsed a candidate in the mayoral race, Stewart’s tenure and policies were not cast in a favourable light in the film. 

Gunn is active in conservative politics at both the provincial and federal levels, having formerly worked for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and BC Proud. He says that he hopes his film did help inform how Vancouverites voted.

“It was viewed by over 100,000 people from Vancouver in the 10 days leading up to the election. So something happened, and whether you can tie that to the documentary or not, I guess we can’t be sure. But I’d like to think it played a role.” 

Sim won the election with roughly 85,732 votes. Vancouver is Dying had over 1 million views on YouTube within two weeks of release.

The documentary is part of Gunn’s Politics Explained series which covers topics like inflation and housing, but Vancouver is Dying has far surpassed any of them in the number of views.

While Vancouver is Dying has been called a polarizing documentary and been subjected to some criticism, Gunn says almost all his feedback has been positive. 

The entire province of British Columbia has been wracked by rising problems of crime and addiction in recent years. Violent offenders, often suffering from mental health problems, are routinely released within hours of being detained, a process blamed on strained resources and derisively labelled as “catch and release”. 

Meanwhile, the provincial NDP government, and now-former mayor Kennedy Stewart, have endorsed a policy of “safe supply”, entailing the provision of free drugs, or drug supplements, to addicts. During his mayoralty, Stewart curtailed the Vancouver Police Department’s powers and shrunk its budget on one occasion. 

One of Sim’s most prominent campaign promises was hiring 100 more police officers along with 100 more mental health nurses to help tackle the double-digit increases in violent assaults and theft in the city. 

Costing roughly $15,000 to produce, the Pacific Prosperity Network (PPN) contributed $5,000 to Vancouver is Dying’s production, as well as an additional $2,000 for sponsoring a screening event in downtown Vancouver. 

Founded in November 2021 as a political action committee, the PPN was explicitly created to aid the political campaigns of right-of-centre candidates in BC, especially within cities like Vancouver, where progressive politicians have dominated for over a decade. 

PPN founder Micah Haince says the organization was not directly involved with any candidates in Vancouver, but he is pleasantly surprised with the reach of Vancouver is Dying, as well as Sim’s victory. 

“I think that the result speaks for itself,” says Haince. “If we can put out real, hard-hitting content that then changes, or can move the needle, in terms of public opinion…there’s a ramification, or effect on culture and therefore politics.” 

Haince hopes that PPN will be able to sponsor similar content during future elections. The PPN’s stated goals include promoting public safety and pro-business policies, both of which were also part of Sim’s platform. 

However, Sim’s campaign has pushed back on the narrative that his candidacy was conservative, noting the slate of A Better City (ABC), Sim’s municipal party that also won a majority on city council, contained candidates from across the political spectrum. 

Some commentators have described Sim as a centrist, rather than a conservative. A businessman before entering politics, Sim appeared at a gathering of federal Liberals in the nearby city of Richmond two days before his inauguration. On the other hand, at least one of the businesses Sim founded also donated to right-of-centre provincial parties in BC as recently as 2017. 

ABC representatives said the concerns of Vancouver’s different communities, ranging from Chinatown residents to rugby organizations who felt unheard by city hall, drove the party’s victory. PPN’s most high-profile backer is billionaire Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, who donated $380,000 in the summer. 

In the past, Wilson has openly espoused politically conservative ideals, as well as environmental ones, having donated a substantially larger $100 million to the BC Parks Foundation to protect natural spaces. ABC has publicly stated that Wilson’s values do not align with the party. Nonetheless, Wilson has made yearly donations to ABC, is reportedly a friend of Sim, and made an appearance at ABC’s election night event. 

Stewart Prest, a political scientist at Quest University in Squamish, says Sim is right-of-centre on certain issues like public safety but that that is balanced by Sim’s socially progressive stances in other areas. 

Like Gunn, Prest is unsure about the exact impact of the documentary and the PPN on the Vancouver election. 

“I think it’s fair to say that they’re part of the expression of frustration with the previous council that was coming from a number of different directions,” says Prest. “But it’s really hard to say how much effect with any particular campaign contribution or statement. So it’s something, but hard to quantify.” 

Noting that the total views of Vancouver is Dying exceeds the population of Vancouver itself, Prest says properly assessing its impact would require geographic data of where the views were coming from. However, Prest believes the documentary contributed to the changing narrative of the municipal election, which became dominated by talk of public safety and addiction. 

“I think you would have a certain target audience and it would resonate with a motivated cross-section of voters, but we don’t necessarily see the actual votes cast for politicians who are directly responding to issues either,” says Prest.

Haince believes that Gunn, an independent filmmaker, went deeper into the issues of addiction and crime than any mainstream outlet and accessed more voters as a result. Gunn hopes filmmakers and activists will embrace longform journalism going forward, instead of short online clips and soundbites, so that voters can explore these types of issues with the proper nuance.

“There’s no replacement for longform journalism, whether it’s longform print or longform video,” says Gunn. “There are just some topics that you cannot do proper justice to in 30 seconds or a minute.” 

Dueling speeches by Freeland and Poilievre show a sliver of common ground (but not much)

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As Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre transitioned from criticizing the government’s mini-budget on Thursday to suggesting what he would do instead, he turned around to have a private conversation with his caucus.

“We’re going to inherit this mess, all of us. We’re going to have to fix the problem. We have a big job ahead of us, don’t we?” he said.

There were a few surprised laughs from his colleagues, some cheers, and a spasm of bewildered heckles from the government benches.

It’s rare that a member of Parliament will turn his back to the speaker and the opposite benches, and rarer still for an opposition leader to talk about assuming power with all the enthusiasm of a weary school janitor getting ready to tackle a messy lunchroom.

Poilievre’s speech in the House of Commons travelled the same terrain as the ones he delivered during the Conservative leadership race, taking aim at gatekeepers of all kinds and promising to restrain government spending, but it also illuminated some key areas of agreement and disagreement with his political adversaries.

Poilievre front-loaded the disagreements, painting a picture of small-government Conservatives and big-government Liberals.

“When we Conservatives learn that the costly coalition was going to table this fall economic statement, we had two demands first, no new taxes. Second, no new spending unless that spending is paid through savings made elsewhere,” said Poilievre.

Although Freeland’s speech warned that the finances will be tighter in a world seized by high inflation, global conflict, and an ambient buzz of uncertainty, she still touted government as the main buffer against these threats.

“Canada cannot avoid the global slowdown any more than we could have avoided COVID once it had begun infecting the world. But we will be ready. Indeed, we are ready. That’s because for the past seven years, our government has been reinforcing Canada’s social safety net,” said Freeland.

“We have improved many important programs and added some new ones too,” said Freeland.

The balance sheets in the fall economic statement back Freeland up.

Even a few years down the road, when budget surpluses are on the horizon, the government is projecting that program spending will continue to be higher than it has been in the last two decades.

At about 15 percent of GDP this year, program spending has reached levels not seen since 1993, said University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe, in an interview with The Hub. That number will taper off over the next five years but still remain about a percentage point higher than the average of the previous 20 years, according to Tombe’s calculations.

Anyone listening carefully to Poilievre’s words will notice that he hasn’t exactly called for cuts, but simply not to create programs without finding room in the budget first. He’s also promised to lead a government that does “a few important things well rather than many things poorly.”

And although Poilievre and Freeland both talked up their disagreements, the areas of consensus could be revealing.

Freeland has spoken recently about “friend-shoring,” which means bringing home vital manufacturing to Canada and its allies.

“We have the critical minerals and metals that are essential for everything, from cell phones to batteries, to appliances, to electric cars,” said Freeland, who promised to invest in these industries and bring skilled workers.

Poilievre seemed to agree with the premise but mocked the idea that the government could get it done.

“The minister said today, she’s going to pitch the world on our critical minerals. Problem is, she can’t get them out of the ground. She’s gonna tell everyone that they exist. Out there in that field, there’s some lithium and copper and nickel. But you have to wait seven years for us to give a permit for anyone to dig that mine,” said Poilievre.

A recent paper about a Canadian “supply rebuild,” co-authored by Edward Greenspon, the president and CEO of the Public Policy Forum, and Sean Speer, The Hub‘s editor-at-large, pointed out that these initiatives are naturally appealing to those on the moderate-right because they invariably involve an effort to slash red tape.

In the wake of the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both of which have snarled global supply chains, there has been a cross-ideological effort to lessen Western dependency on adversaries like China and Russia.

United States Treasury secretary Janet Yellen has referred to it as a “modern supply-side economics” and, in conversations with Freeland, has suggested that Canada could benefit from a concerted friend-shoring movement that pulls jobs away from China and toward U.S. allies.

Considering that inflation continues to confound many of the world’s largest economies, the idea of increasing costs further with friend-shoring efforts could be unappealing to many firms, wrote Michael Every, a global strategist at Rabobank, a large Dutch financial services company.

But in a note to clients, Every points out that the trend was already underway prior to the pandemic and could accelerate with governments putting their thumbs on the scale for national security reasons.

A Rabobank simulation of this accelerated friend-shoring movement finds that up to 28 million critical jobs could theoretically leave China, which would see China’s trade surplus decline from 3 percent to -0.6 percent of GDP.

While most of the manufacturing jobs will end up in countries like India and Bangladesh, Canada could lay claim to more than 100,000 high-tech jobs, according to the Rabobank estimates.