SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement and the Vancouver City Planning Commission hosted a panel discussion on the issue of “Social Inequality in the City.”
The conversation covered issues ranging from health, education, hunger, mental illness, justice, accessibility, and social mobility.
Mary Clare Zak, Managing Director of the City of Vancouver’s Social Policy and Project Division, presented a number of statistics on housing, population growth, diversity, education, income, and homelessness, and spoke to the city’s approach to foster continual improvement in health and wellbeing in Vancouver.
Zak commented on a city’s ability to make an impact at the municipal level: “Local governments are actually uniquely placed to provide leadership around health and well-being, because many of the social determinants of health are played out in your day-to-day life.”
Margot Young, a constitutional and social justice law professor from UBC, broke down the meanings of the terms ‘inequality’ and ‘city.’
In terms of inequality in the context of Vancouver, Young said, “We need to look at inequality with a very specific, absolute focus; a focus on the problem that inequality signals for us in Vancouver in particular, and that’s the problem, the distress of poverty [. . .] and the exclusion and marginalization that poverty puts and cements in place.”
The Aboriginal Front Door Society’s Community Coordinator, Bill Beauregarde, presented on the vital issue of the land Vancouver is located on, its significance to indigenous people, and its relationship to the housing crisis and poor living conditions on the reserves.
“In our culture, we share the land, we don’t own the land,” said Beauregarde. “That’s basically [it] — the sharing aspect of the land is not equal. Right now, Aboriginals do not have the share that they should have.”
Paul Taylor, Executive Director of Gordon Neighborhood House in the downtown West End, spoke about his personal experience growing up with a single mother on welfare, and commented on the unequal way food is accessed and experienced by those with lower incomes.
“When I see people in long lineups, accessing food — and in Vancouver it’s often cold and rainy — it’s dehumanizing and I see people missing out on the celebration of food.”
Viveca Ellis of Single Mothers’ Alliance BC spoke to the core issues faced by single mothers living in poverty, including the issue of access to civic engagement of all sorts.
“We advocate for a shift in focusing on the affordability of transit,” said Ellis. “We envision transit as a tool to mobilize people out of poverty — to access that job, that school, that affordable food three miles away, that social life in the greater community.”
Matt Hern, professor in SFU’s Urban Studies program, echoed Beauregarde’s sentiment of the inextricability of this issue of inequality and land and property in the context of Vancouver, identifying the root of the problem being that we are situated on indigenous land.
“Any concern with settler disparities or inequities, with the home crisis, with who gets to stay and who gets to leave, under what basis — all of that has to be historicized within the context of very recent and ongoing colonial rationalities.”
Director of Community Engagement, Am Johal, commented regarding the significance of a holding discourse on social inequality at SFU: “Since SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement started almost five years ago, we’ve committed to engaging in social questions through both dialogue and disruption on important public questions. [. . .] Being based in the Downtown Eastside neighborhood, we have a public responsibility to engage in these questions.”