The Voice/District Labour Council dichotomy and how it affects New West politics

Despite having no formal political parties in New Westminster, there is a clear schism between two opposing groups in the city: the powerful New Westminster & District Labour Council and the upstart electors' group Voice New Westminster. Neither group defines itself as a "party" and yet the political discourse in this town is profoundly shaped by these two forces.

Despite having no formal political parties in New Westminster, there is a clear schism between two opposing groups in the city: the powerful New Westminster & District Labour Council and the upstart electors’ group Voice New Westminster. Neither group defines itself as a “party” and yet the political discourse in this town is profoundly shaped by these two forces.

As a newcomer to New Westminster I found it very difficult to understand what the implications of Voice and NWDLC endorsement were, but after three years of paying closer attention I think I’m starting to get it. I’m going to share my understanding of it with the hope that it may help others to get a handle on what these organizations stand for, and I’m counting on the more politically informed readers of Tenth to the Fraser (and perhaps even some candidates themselves) to jump in and correct me if I get it wrong or fill in the gaps if I miss something important. As I said, it’s complicated and made more so by the fact that neither group is a political party, and the processes by which both groups identify who they support are pretty opaque to those of us on the outside looking in. With the caveat that all this is (perhaps needlessly) complex, and therefore I am bound to miss some nuance or another, here is how I understand the Voice/NWDLC dichotomy.

The NWDLC side of this divide is pretty straightforward: it’s a group that represents trade unions at the local level. They do not field candidates, but they do set aside a pot of money to donate to candidates who share “progressive” values (which I understand is typically left-leaning: fair wages & unions, support for underprivileged groups, environmental sustainability, and promoting inclusiveness among all members of society). Any candidate can apply for funding regardless of personal union affiliation. To be endorsed, candidates must participate in an in-depth screening process during which they are grilled on their opinions on a variety of topics that matter to the NWDLC. Candidates who have been endorsed by the NWDLC say that they are not asked to make any promises in order to secure the endorsement (which includes both a formal endorsement shared with NWDLC members and campaign funding).

New Westminster candidates who have been endorsed by the NWDLC this election include:

COUNCIL

  • Jonathan X. Cote
  • Bill Harper
  • Jaimie McEvoy
  • Lorrie Williams

SCHOOL TRUSTEE

  • Jonina Campbell
  • Michael Ewen
  • James Janzen
  • David Phelan

My understanding is that Voice New Westminster arose to try and level the playing field for candidates who don’t qualify or don’t want to seek union endorsements. Some Voice candidates are right-wingers, some feel a union endorsement would limit their independence, and some are wary of the endorsement process itself. If I were to generalize the sentiment I hear from Voice candidates, it seems that most feel that accepting union donations implies a commitment to supporting union values, and they want to feel free to vote according to their conscience. Most also seem to distrust unions and especially organized labour.

Voice is an easily misunderstood group. Although members pool funds to campaign together and often stand in active opposition to NWDLC candidates, they insist they are not a political party. They pride themselves on their independence and diversity of opinions. Until very recently, I had never heard a satisfying answer describing what Voice actually stood for. They were against the NWDLC, yet had trouble describing what did unite them as an electors’ group. Last election, this led to them being dogged by criticism that Voice was a negative party. This time around, they have taken a more positive tack.

Unlike the NWDLC, which seems pretty straightforward in terms of the criteria used to evaluate candidates (progressive values, support for unions, some NDP ties), Voice has been harder to pin down. Voice council candidate John Ashdown sent me the following text that attempts to answer that question after a discussion we had at the Queens Park Residents’ Association All-Candidates Debate. It’s the best answer I’ve seen yet describing what Voice is and is not:

Voice New Westminster stands for putting the community’s interests ahead of special interests in public affairs. That is Voice’s core platform. Voice seeks broad consensus in decision-making through honest, open consultation that results in well-informed, balanced decisions that are fair to all community stakeholders and interests.

Voice is not a political party. Voice is a civic electors group, and as such our main purpose is to bring forward and support candidates who can be counted on to always put the community’s interest first above all other interests.

Voice does not fear differences of opinion or differing viewpoints. In fact, we embrace differences and believe they are essential to open discussion, and that they form the basis upon which good decision-making takes place.

Of course, I have to wonder is what is included in “special interests” – after all, communities are made of many special interests, and one of the most important roles of our politicians is to weigh the interests of minority groups against the interests of the mainstream. Still, I can see the value of an electors group that is not aligned with organized labour, and I think it’s good to have groups that represent both sides. I can also say that there will be candidates from both Voice and NWDLC on my ballot when I vote November 19.

Voice-endorsed candidates include:

COUNCIL

  • Gavin Palmer
  • Susan Wandell
  • John Ashdown
  • David Noshad

SCHOOL TRUSTEE

  • Casey Cook
  • Jim Goring
  • Lisa Graham
  • MaryAnn Mortensen
  • Brenda McEachern Keen
Finally, there are the true independents. Some of these are former Voice folk who have chosen to return as independent candidates. Some have no affiliation past or present with either the NWDLC or Voice.  Interestingly, none of the mayoral candidates are currently endorsed by either Voice or NWDLC. The list of independent candidates includes:
MAYOR
  • James Crosty
  • Vance McFadyen
  • Francois Nantel
  • Wayne Wright
COUNCIL
  • James Bell
  • Cal Donnelly
  • Vladimir Krosnogor
  • Gerry Liu
  • Betty McIntosh
  • Paul Mulangu
  • Bob Osterman
  • Chuck Puchmayr
  • Harp Sihota
SCHOOL TRUSTEE
  • James Bell
  • James Pepa
  • Glen Richmond
Well that’s how I understand the Voice/NWDLC influence in civic politics. As I mentioned, I’m still relatively new to the local political scene and I’m still trying to get a strong grasp on who these groups are and what they do. If you feel like I’ve misunderstood something or omitted something important that might help others understand the influence of these groups on local politics, please share your insight in the comments.

Briana Tomkinson

Briana Tomkinson is a Montreal-based writer and original founder of Tenth to the Fraser. She really likes to write letters by hand.

Briana Tomkinson is a really valued member of the Tenth to the Fraser community. Interested in joining our pool of writers? Please see these submission guidelines.

12 comments

  1. Thank you for your synopsis of Voice New Westminster. Just so you are aware, the quote you got from John Ashdown has been on the Voice New Westminster website for the last three years. To be fair, like you, I was not aware of Voice's values in 2008. I believe that this is understandable given that this was Voice's foray into municipal politics and it takes time to develop and broadcast an organizations vision and mission.

    To add clarity, Voice is comprised of members of all political stripes and political leanings. It is not a matter of importance nor a matter of concern what political affiliations our members have. We are NOT opposed to unions, in fact, we value unions. Many of Voice's members are also union members.

    As a civic elector's group, it is important to us that the candidates we put forward for elections put the well-being of the community first. In the case of the School Board, we expect that our representatives put the well-being of children first. Our mandate is to represent all segments and members of our community fairly and equitably WITHOUT PREJUDICE.

    When you speak of environmental sustainability, Voice candidates, myself among them have supported and continue to support sustainable policy and practices. For instance, many Voice members have been very involved in the issue of waste to energy initiative on the council side and school board candidates have been active in advocating for preservation of green space, safe routes to school, textile recycling and retrofitting school buildings and many other issues.

    With regard to representing those marginalized in our society, one of Voice's main tenets is that all individuals in society be represented. Our School Board candidates are advocating for early assessments for all our students. In the past, one of our candidates advocated and implemented free swim and skate lessons and the Loonie swim and started the literacy initiative in New Westminster. Another school board candidate endorsed greater availability and selection of aboriginal literature in our school libraries.

    On a personal level, as a school board candidate, I am interested in developing a district agenda based on inclusion and diversity. Specifically, I see the need for an agenda and a protocol on bullying issues. I hope we can have further dialogue on these worthwhile issues!

    1. Thank you for your comments MaryAnn! I think this illustrates the problem fairly well – it's so easy to misunderstand what Voice is about. John's comment below (that you as a group are not opposed to unions advocating for workers, but do question whether an amalgamated group of unions should be setting the municipal government agenda) is a good nuanced explanation. I had assumed more of an anti-union stance for two reasons:

      1. I have heard many Voice candidates speak out against the NWDLC
      2. Particularly on school board, I have understood that there have been ongoing battles between the group of Voice trustees and the group of NWDLC trustees.

      I hadn't thought to differentiate the political advocacy of the NWDLC from the work its unions do to advocate for fair treatment of workers.

      I'm glad to hear environmental sustainability is on the agenda for some Voice candidates. I mentioned it in relation to the DLC because I have heard the DLC candidates name it specifically as one of the criteria for endorsement as a DLC candidate. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think there is any specific criteria for Voice endorsement (certainly not the way the DLC screens candidates), so while some Voice candidates do support environmentally friendly policies (David Noshad, for example), I can't say that Voice as a group is pro-sustainability.

      Again I think this is one of the downsides to having a big-tent group that doesn't clearly define criteria for entry. It takes a little more scrutiny to determine what Voice candidates do and don't stand for. Although DLC candidates also have diverse opinions on some topics, they have all proven to support progressive thinking on key issues (or they would not have won the endorsement). So it's easier to understand whether you as a voter generally support DLC candidates or not, vs. whether you generally support Voice or not.

      There are several Voice candidates that I think are very strong this election, and I personally will be voting for some. I appreciate you, David, John and others sharing your perspectives on all this, and I hope this discussion will help some people who are confused to get a better understanding of the relationship between Voice candidates and the electors group, as well as Voice and the DLC and unions generally.

  2. Yeah, “Special Interest Groups” are a lot like pornography: no-one can say for sure what they are, but we know them when we see them.

    Of course the definition seems to change. Tell me which of the following constitute a “Special Interest Group” and which are just examples of the citizenry, and therefore worthy of having a “Voice:

    CUPE; an average working stiff who is a member of CUPE; a group of non-union workers; Cyclists; Seniors; Pedestrians; the Downtown BIA; 12th Street Businesses; the Quayside Community Board; 10th to the Fraser; NWEP, NEXT New West; The Arts Council, the Hyack Committee, NWSS students… I can argue both ways on all of those groups.

    1. Pat, you are off track in your comments relating to so many worthy groups as being special Interest groups. We are not talking about union front line workers (CUPE). All the groups you mention play a role in the city for improvement for all. We are talking about the amalgamation of many unions that are involved in dictating the direction our taxes under the name of the District Labour Council.
      I believe the DLC and it's four backed councillors + one candidate who claims he is not one, yet plays the same role as his four friends, is a "Special Interest" group. This group controls this City with a Majority Labour Vote. A definite conflict of Interest throughout. I beleive this group union leaders should be involved in negotiating for their membership, not dictating to us seniors and families as to how our taxes are spent. That is why I beleive in a Balanced representation on Council. That is why I am running for Council in this election. No more monopolies. Another special Interest Group you failed to mention is our development community and some individuals who donate thousands of dollars for campaigns … with the intent of garnering special treatment.

      1. Hi John. The point I was trying to make was that the definition of a special interest group changes depending on who you talk to. If you look at the debates in Vancouver, "Cyclists" are definitely considered a "special interest group". I think the Arts Council is a great organization and important to the City, and support them fully, but they definitely have a "special Interest" (the Arts), not supporeted by everyone, so I think they would fit the bill for many. The NWEP as well. But like I said, I can argue that all oft hem are NOT special interest groups, as they all want a better city for all.

        I guess my point is that the people of New Westminster are a complex amalagamation of special interests. Politics is the science and art of meeting as many of those interests as possible.

  3. I would like to echo what MaryAnn mentioned here…I didn't know about VOICE 3 years ago too.
    They never talked about any political issues with me. I don't know how they voted in the last federal or provincial election. They never asked me about it too.

    I presented my platform to them (about economic development, environmental integrity and social well-being of people) and they endorsed me as a council candidate. They never asked me to promise anything. They are a group of people who want change in a positive manner. They want to diversify their members and accept anyone who wants to serve our community ….and is for a positive change and NOT for negativity. Very nice people among them…

    Please investigate us and other groups …please don't accept anything without a good search…
    and please investigate about candidates financial resources and …

    Thanks!
    David Noshad
    Candidate for city council

    1. As you know, I really like your platform David. I also like many of the people involved with Voice. I am a little mystified how there can be no specific criteria for screening candidates – but I'm willing to keep an open mind!

  4. Thanks to Briana for being such a great reporter!
    we need to encourage people to investigate and know about the facts before they vote. Thanks Briana!
    David Noshad
    candidate for city council

  5. Hey Pat J, or should I say Ref!

    all the groups you mentioned have a stake in public education and our City and they and their issues matter. I used to work on a union so, no fear here. We seem to want many of the very same things in on our School Board and City council but our approaches differ.

  6. Some concerns I have with "slates", which may not be an issue in this election here and now, but which may become issues (in fact are already issues in other municipalities):
    1. slates start developing platforms, and councillors are expected to keep on-message (happening now in Vancouver)
    2. slates start to run enough candidates to fill all seats on School Board and Council (happening now in Burnaby and other muni's)
    3. voters start voting for the slates without knowing anything about the individual candidates (happening in Vancouver, Burnaby, and most other bigger centers)
    …(continued)…

    1. …(continued)…
      The result of all these developments is that slates start taking over the council. Thanks to the voting system we have (at-large block voting) the result is councils completely dominated by one slate (ex. Burnaby; one slate gets 50% of the vote and 100% of the seats. see also Vancouver with Vision dominating both Park Board and Council, out of proportion of popular vote). Another result is that it becomes quickly impossible to get elected if you are not running as part of a slate (ex. Burnaby: takes 12000 votes to get elected; most popular independent got 2000 in last election. Hopeless.). So while not all these factors are operating here, I can easily see where it is headed, and I don't like it! People associating with slates may not want or intend these developments, but it is almost impossible to stop. There's a solution – one that would allow slates and improve the connection between popular vote and election results – but this requires a change to Provincial Legislation and considerable lobbying by councils throughout the Province. Good luck with that in other words.

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