The Real Deal: Experience, Passion, City Councillor Heather Deal
Heather Deal bursts into Kitsilano Coffee on Fourth wearing an Obama for President T-shirt. She has slipped away from the David Suzuki Foundation, a few blocks to the west, where she works part time as a marine strategist. Her friendly, freckled face has the healthy glow of the avid bike rider, which Deal says she is, even when required to carry large "cubes" of city paperwork councilors refer to as "The Package" in the bike basket. (The weight of city policy proposals can make it hard to steer, she says.) The Package comes once a week when council is in session. She wears a Gregor08 button pinned to the collar of her denim jacket below a large round Heather Deal for City Council button that states: "The Real Deal." So, who is "The Real Deal?"
"I'm experienced in city government, passionate about public service, and I love Vancouver," Deal says.
Deal operates out of a small, strong-looking package of a body. "I'm less than five feet tall and I get a little claustrophobic when I can't see above people," she says. Her fans say she has a large personality that puts her a head above other candidates and that she possesses a reservoir of energy large enough to power her through long days jammed with responsibility. As well as consulting at Suzuki, she does her city council business, attends innumerable public functions, reads and enjoys "The Package," which is the container city council staff deliver to councilors made up of city reports and motions. Her workload means she often doesn't get a chance to look at her email until 11 p.m. She finds her inbox packed with notes from constituents. She tries to answer everyone and rarely gets to sleep before midnight. She campaigns for other candidates and relaxes by hiking and camping, "if possible in the desert."
She rode into office on Larry Campbell's progressive 2002 victory. When Sam Sullivan became mayor a few years later, getting progressive motions voted into policy action became difficult to impossible, she says. According to her, the NPA routinely voted against any motions made by a Vision Vancouver or COPE representative, including a proposal she made for a position for a Mental Health Advocate to oversee civic mental health services that she considered nonpartisan and hopes to have a chance to revive in a post-Sullivan government.
"We know from the police and from mental health services that mental health is a primary reason that people become homeless," Deal tells me as we sit in the café's outdoor space drinking coffee. "It's common for someone who is mentally ill to start self-medicating and become dual diagnosed with drug addiction. Although the primary funding responsibility for health does not lie with the city, we need to have expertise in the city that can help us identify what we need to ask for, coordinate our different departments to be as effective in addressing the issues we have on the streets, as possible, and frankly being knowledgeable about a very complex field of study. The only response given by the NPA was that we already had police, we already have someone who knows drug policy, we already have someone who knows about housing. We made a few attempts to change their mind. They didn't respond." Deal shakes her head. "I was quite angry."
Deal was born into politics. The middle of three daughters of a university professor father who she describes as "genuinely, originally absent-minded" and "wonderfully playful" and a mother who oversaw the offices of the Democratic party in Kalamazoo, Michigan for nearly twenty years, her career was perhaps fated. She grew up mimeographing information sheets about candidates and carrying placards on election days. "My mother gave me a sense of obligation and my father gave me a sense of fun," she says. "It was a pretty good balance."
Her parents divorced when she was 12 and, she says, both her parents are now on their third marriages. "My mom just got married again and she's 75. Her husband is 91. After her second husband, Wendall, we thought we had to make sure Mom doesn't get lonely." Deal laughs. "We were wrong. She's having a great life. She's an amazing person. She never stops. She's a bit of a taskmaster. We were raised with very strong opinions around the house about right and wrong. It was never an option to not engage."
She attended Oberlin College on fulll scholarship. "It was an intense, small. hot bed of academia, music and politics. I still make regular payments as donations to Oberlin I'm so grateful for the experience they made possible for me at that time."
After accepting a "one year position" in Vancouver, she never left. She earned her masters degree in microbiology from UBC in 1988 and became a Canadian citizen in 1991. She spent a decade conducting medical research, and then turned her career path toward the environment. Three years of developing science and environmental programs for UBC Continuing Studies led to a position with the Province of BC where she developed training programs for people restoring fish habitat in rivers throughout the province. In 2002, she took her position with the David Suzuki Foundation.
Getting elected to the parks commission for the first time ranks as the "most dramatic moment" in her life. She recalls the party at Library Square. "It was overwhelming, the energy in the room. I was very emotional. It's a huge honour to be elected and to know you've been chosen to make decisions about this amazing city. And just the excitement. We had come from never having a progressive majority, to having a sweeping victory. That was 2002. I came in at the top of the polls by a significant margin and ended up being sworn in as chair of the parks board two weeks later."
She served as a Vancouver Parks Board Commissioner from 2002-2005 and was elected to the Vancouver City Council in 2005.
After loving the council under Larry Campbell, Deal describes feeling the pain of a city council ruled by Sullivan, where, she says debate was limited and engagement with the press was highly managed. "According to others this has been the most bickering council that ever was," she says. "Sam is a conservative and his way of managing opposition is to ignore it. He gave very limited access to media and demonstrated a refusal to engage in debate with ideas that didn't come from his party. They (NPA) used a variety of tricks to get around debate, like a thing called 'moving to receive for information.' What that means is that the issue is simply not debated, no one expresses a public opinion on it, and the staff can't answer questions on it. Then you can't bring it up again in your term, because its been labeled 'redundant.' It kills the issue."
"You look at the federal conservatives, the provincial liberals, and Sam Sullivan and Peter Ladner's City Hall and you see a shut down of democracy. The strategy is: control information, limit debate and minimize media exposure. It has been frustrating to say the least. The city elects eleven councilors to serve and the taxpayers pay our salaries. And we've been silenced."
Deal expects this to all change in November. "There's light at the end of the tunnel," she says with a smile. "Finally."
Photo above of Heather Deal by Linda Solomon