Buried in the annals of the 12 July 2011 public hearing on rezoning 2699 Kingsway is the following story that needs to see the light of day. With the permission of the person who is this particular story, I proceed to tell this tale of immigrant voices in Norquay — voices that the current Council of the City of Vancouver so disrespects and ignores.
Statistics based on the 2006 census show the two largest groups in the Norquay community as Chinese at 48.1% and English at 25.9%. Vietnamese at 4.2% occupies a distant third place. The remaining 21.8% is comprised of various other ethnic groups.
Throughout more than five years of planning, the Chinese community of Norquay has been underrepresented, misrepresented, and simply not heard.
To their credit, city planners have usually provided publications and open house displays in both Chinese and English. Except for a few token and unsatisfactory information sessions, though, notably in May-June 2009, community meetings have taken place only in English. Likewise, at meetings of City Council about Norquay, where approval has been given to mass rezoning policy and to particular rezonings, English has served as the only language.
Throughout the many meetings of Norquay Working Group, four of the five Chinese participants found themselves not listened to.
I have met with “Patrick Mah” (a pseudonym) on several occasions. Our contact history goes back to his December 2008 email response to my Norquay web site.
On Thursday July 7 I sent out an email about the impending public hearing of 12 July 2011. Here is what Patrick emailed back the next day, and what I replied to him at mid-morning on the Saturday:
Patrick: Any plan to go door-to-door to call/alert neighbours near the rezoning out to oppose Tues hearing? I could help do the knocking and talking.
Joseph: That could be effective, and I would support anyone willing to do that, to the extent of quickly producing a leaflet handout with core information for someone to get copied.
Emails flew back and forth all afternoon. Patrick provided some Chinese-language content. While I prepared a half-page leaflet, Patrick dug into researching and understanding details on the 2699 Kingsway rezoning and its context. That evening he stopped by to pick up a copy of the leaflet, and we had a brief visit.
On Sunday evening around 10:00 pm Patrick emailed me a report of his afternoon spent talking to residents around the rezoning site. Here are extracts from his report:
Started at 3 and did not finish til 6, printed some extra — delivered flyers to both sides of Duke and Ward and one block on both side of Earles. Spend most of the time talking to residents, here are some findings that you should include in your presentation to represent residents’ concern :
… Owners [on Duke Street] felt powerless to fight against city hall …
Overall, I have encountered a mix of neighbourhood residents who oppose the rezoning and want to show up Tuesday. I told them to register ahead and speak out. Most could speak English fluently; there are Mandarin or Cantonese speaking Chinese, South Asian, Fujian, East Indian and Caucasian.
Another fact these resident have misconception was that they being on the East Side, pay less tax, therefore could be “shafted” by the City. I told them that they are equally Vancouver residents and pay almost the same amount of tax based on assessment, therefore they should be treated like those in the West Side. …
You should request a hold on all development until the community agree to the changes, and not having some planners imposed on us. …
I think you could make yourself more creditable and argumentive against rezoning Tuesday by representing the residents of Ward and Duke, in addition to the Community at large.
Hopefully those said would come do come Tuesday. Yes, I will send my NO views to council.
On Monday morning I commended Patrick for his effort and his report. I suggested that he turn the email into a presentation to Council, and offered to deliver it as his proxy speaker, since I sensed a reluctance to speak on his own behalf.
On Monday evening we had this exchange:
Patrick: Disappointment today — I followed up with the six households that express interest to speak but none committed to attend and few changed their minds. I gave them all the rezoning details and suggested arguments to read. Still lots of disapproval of rezoning, but all afraid to speak out.
Joseph: Thanks for the update, and for doing so much work on this issue. Consider including something about “all afraid to speak out” and something about your being a member of the Chinese community. These parts of what you see and experience need to be heard by Council.
Patrick: Yeah, not just Chinese — backing out includes East Indian. Why are they so afraid? They asked if I go, I told them I could not since I don’t live there, and told them my presentation would not be as strong as theirs.
The next day Patrick registered to speak, named me as proxy, and worked on writing up his thoughts for Council. I offered him this advice:
Whatever you write should be what you have to say. The most effective is to talk about your experiences with people who will not come to speak, why you think they won’t come, who they are, how many they are, etc. Because this is likely to be unique. Tell their stories for them. Even think about saying something about why you want me to read for you. Tell how much time and effort you have put into talking to others.
That evening I read out Patrick’s words to Council, and was granted the few extra minutes that were needed to speak his two pages. Late that evening, after I got home, I received this email from Patrick, who had watched the public hearing:
Actually the real reason having you reading is keeping myself off camera.
Look like whole bunch of speakers are … from the developers and architect, making up strange supporting ideas for the rezoning.
Patrick conveyed many resident concerns through what he wrote up for me to read to Council. Through augmented context, this Eye on Norquay report documents how difficult is it for immigrant voices to make themselves heard in the City of Vancouver.
In conclusion, two themes deserve highlight. The first is fear. Fear of confronting power that so obviously does not want to listen. Fear of government, based on experience with less democratic regimes. Fear of having to function through words that are not a mother tongue. Fear of being photographed and identified. Fear of entering an unfamiliar situation filled with strange rules and conventions. Fear of facing hostile questioning.
The second is desire for representation. The people that Patrick spoke with wanted him to represent them. Patrick wanted me to represent him. Fear seeks another person to serve as buffer. A few weeks later, during the Shannon Mews public hearing, Council threw up yet another barrier by disallowing proxy speakers.
The irony is that Norquay speakers to Council have more than once been dismissed as “minority” voices. Meanwhile, planners who refuse to undertake legitimate surveys, remain quick to assert with no evidence that there is a majority out there somewhere that is not speaking.
This has been a story about people who are not speaking. And why their voices are silent.