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Activism bred in the bone: Ellen Woodsworth COPEs with the election campaign

Wanna know Councillor Ellen Woodsworth's fundamental political position? People matter.

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“I respect Ellen Woodsworth,” said the Sequel 138's developer, Marc Williams, who has gained infamy in  activist circles for referring to the area as a “dead zone” and releasing ironic press releases when faced with protest. “She works hard. She is honest. She holds strong beliefs, and she speaks from the heart. I like that in a politician, especially when we may disagree about an issue.”

“I respect Ellen as a person, but we simply cannot afford 'all social housing, all the time.' It is impossible. Their policy is simply unaffordable.”

Woodsworth cites her politically active family as the formative influence in her life. Her great-uncle was renowned socialist churchman J.S. Woodsworth, a founding leader in the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation – the New Democratic Party's predecessor.

“Especially when times are tough now – the environment and our social systems are being unraveled -- I think of him. When things are hard politically you have to stand with your principles and stay steady.”

She also names her aunt, feminist parliamentarian Grace MacInnes, as an inspiration. And while she grew up steeped in activism – “It's bred in the bone,” she jokes -- it was acts of mutual aid that most impacted her. She was raised on stories of her grandfather organizing farmers to deliver food to unemployed homeless people during the Great Depression. 

“As the story goes,” she recalls, “my mother was talking to him about the unemployed living on the street. He came up with truckloads of food.”
It is in such economic crises that movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring flourish historically, and Woodsworth is eager to express her support when most other city politicians are discussing how to get rid of the Occupy Vancouver encampment.

“It's very important that people talk about the growing unequal distribution of wealth in Canada,” she says. “The divide is increasing and the social safety net is decreasing.”

Not only is she unconcerned with removing the tent city protest, she has spoken at its General Assembly and even offered a workshop. There's no time limit on dissent, she explains.

“You have to protest from nine-to-five and go home? The Arab Spring was not something that just shut down and went home overnight.”

But while she's hopeful about social change efforts – from global justice movements to neighbourhood councils – Woodsworth has also seen political turmoil first-hand. Shortly after COPE's 2002 landslide victory, the party splintered apart as then-mayor Larry Campbell and three councillors broke away, eventually forming Vision Vancouver.

“It was a really a tragic situation of an organization fighting over core principles,” she recalls. “Splitting the party was an overarching betrayal.”

But today, Woodsworth is one of COPE's leading advocates of electoral cooperation with Vision, agreeing to run only three council candidates – a decision which caused upset in COPE's more radical ranks, accusing her of defeatism, but which she says is vital to fighting the right-leaning Non-Partisan Association (NPA).

“We have so much more in common with Vision than with NPA, who believe that private markets are the only way,” she said. “People have to be strategic. Any time we split that vote, we lose.”

“There are huge things we agree on. We support the green agenda, fighting for real affordable housing, the rent bank, lists of landlords, supporting tenant advocacy groups. When we disagree, we speak out on the council floor.”

Her day of electioneering only partway through, Woodsworth rises from the parking lot curb, laughs about the bizarre interview location, and heads for lunch at a nearby homeless shelter.

“You know what?” she asks. “I think people matter. As city councillor I meet them where they are.”

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