The following is a transcript from our Vancouver Just Recovery episode. We’ve done our best to ensure its accuracy but apologize for any typos or errors. Thanks to our Patrons for making these transcripts possible.

 Tessa Vikander: [00:00:28] Hi everyone. My name’s Tessa Vikander.

Today on the Cambie Report, we have Kimberley Wong and Matthew Norris, the co-chairs of Vancouver Just Recovery, a nonpartisan coalition of community groups advocating for equity in the rebuilding and recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.

If you’ve been following the news even loosely, you’ll know that the COVID-19 crisis is impacting minority groups the hardest.

This financial recession is different from previous recessions because this one’s affecting women more than it is men. For example, women make up 48% of the workforce, but represented 52% of job losses.

At the same time, we’re also seeing an increase in anti-Asian racism. The Vancouver Police Department said on May 1st that it had already received reports of 20 anti-Asian hate crimes for this year, whereas there were only 12 reported in all of last year. In April alone, there were 11 hate crimes that involved anti-Asian aspects, and we know that lots of incidents go unreported.

Kimberley and Matthew, welcome.

Kimberley Wong: [00:01:28] Thank you.

Matthew Norris: [00:01:29] Hi

Tessa Vikander: [00:01:30] So co-chair Kimberley Wong is also a community organizer who works with multiple arts and nonprofit organizations in Vancouver. She’s a queer Chinese-Canadian femme whose work mirrors the intersections of her identity. Kimberly currently sits as the chair of the City of Vancouver’s Chinatown legacy stewardship group.

Hey, Kimberley, where are you joining us from today?

Kimberley Wong: [00:01:52] Hey, I’m sitting in my home in Hastings Sunrise right now.

Tessa Vikander: [00:01:56] And when you look outside your window, what do you see?

Kimberley Wong: [00:01:59] I see a beautiful overcast day.

Tessa Vikander: [00:02:03] Welcome. Co-chair Matthew Norris is also the vice president of the Urban Native Youth Association. A PhD student in UBC’s Department of Political Science and a member of the Lac La Ronge First Nation.

Hi Matthew,

Matthew Norris: [00:02:17] Hi.

Tessa Vikander: [00:02:18] Where are you sitting right now at you?

Matthew Norris: [00:02:20] I am in my living room, which has been turned into an office of sorts, with my dog and the couch and the sun is starting to come out on our deck.

Tessa Vikander: [00:02:32] Nice. What’s your dog’s name?

Matthew Norris: [00:02:34] Hi. His name is Alfie.

 Tessa Vikander: [00:02:36] Hi, Alfie.

Matthew Norris: [00:02:37] He did perk up a little.

Tessa Vikander: [00:02:38] So both of you are doing this Vancouver Just Recovery work as volunteers. Just before we launch into a bit more about the coalition, Kimberley, can you help us understand a bit how COVID-19 is affecting racial minorities, especially around the job market?

Kimberley Wong: [00:02:55] Yeah, sure. So, I mean, I am from the Cantonese diaspora, so I can’t in particular speak for all racialized minorities, but I can speak to specifically how racialized women are disproportionately affected by this pandemic. And more so in particular, women in the Filipinx diaspora who have always provided this frontline work and are further marginalized by this.

I also think it opens up conversations about the gaps in which we think about racism as something that is systemic, and it’s something that may start with slanted comments and grow into a dehumanizing sentiment for an entire racial group, which of course impacts the job market.

Tessa Vikander: [00:03:33] Hmm. That’s a really great point. Thank you for that.

Matthew, do you want to add to what Kimberley was saying about how racial minorities are affected by COVID-19?

Matthew Norris: [00:03:44] So coming from my experience with Urban Native Youth Association, we see that, you know, it’s in regards to the recovery and response efforts to COVID, but also, yeah and on, in, issues in general as well. We see these minority communities having less access to political voice to inform what a response looks like.

So often communities fall through the gaps in funding or in programs or in what services they have access to. And so we’re hoping by organizing this coalition to give some voice and to give some opportunity to raise some of the concerns that that may have not been addressed to date.

Tessa Vikander: [00:04:25] And so how did this coalition come to be?

Matthew Norris: [00:04:28] So the coalition came out of some communities and organizations and individuals discussing some of the impacts that the COVID pandemic has had. The COVID-19 epidemic has made clear a lot of the failings of the status quo by showing the disproportionate impacts that many of Vancouver’s vulnerable communities are facing.

So we’ve witnessed the lack of protection for renters, the lack of protections for homelessness, especially as you, people were instructed to socially isolate. We’ve seen numerous vulnerabilities in our welfare system.

And the lack of community connections and relationships that resulted in the panic buying that we saw with toilet paper and cleaning supplies, that had a significant effect on those not in the financial situation to be able to do that.

But we’ve also seen issues around the precarity of our housing market where it seems that the majority of people living in Vancouver are spending more than 30% of their income on housing and are one, two, three months away from failing to meet their rent or their mortgage deadlines.

We’ve also seen issues pertaining to health come up. We’ve seen gaps in the status quo pertaining to environmental concerns and protections.

And we’ve also started, started to see things that we’ve already known, but being emphasized around the safety of women in the workforce. The protections required to ensure the prevention of domestic violence. The COVID epidemic has shown us the gaps and the protections for laborers and workforces.

So kind of all of these things brought a bunch of cross policy and cross organizational people together to say like, well how can we organize on bringing these gaps to the forefront. And how do we inform a recovery effort that addresses some of these gaps in the status quo to make a progressive future that effectively fixes what has been a problem for so long.

Tessa Vikander: [00:06:40] Right. And of course, unless the people who are directly impacted are properly consulted with, you know, these recovery measures, then they’re not going to properly address these gaps in the system.

So if I understand correctly, then the work that you’re doing is to help bring these voices up to the places where policy decisions are being made?

Matthew Norris: [00:07:01] Yeah, precisely. I know we had a difficult time, I’m speaking from the UNYA perspective again, and I’ve heard from advocates of the Downtown Eastside as well that in the rollouts of recovery measures, a lot of these frontline community organizations had difficulty getting information or providing input. And so often efficiencies might not have been present where they could have been.

And so seeing the effects of the response efforts, we’re trying to organize so that these gaps don’t inform the recovery and the rebuilding efforts as well.

Tessa Vikander: [00:07:38] Right. And so are you primarily then coordinating between these community groups and the City of Vancouver?

Matthew Norris: [00:07:45] So initially, we focused on the joint statement, had a very municipal focus. And so certainly that’s been the intention is, to engage in conversations with the City. But due to the City’s relationship with the province as well, that some of the asks in the joint statement were provincially focused.

But currently the coalition is made up of organizations and community organizations and individuals based in Vancouver. So it certainly has a municipal focus.

Tessa Vikander: [00:08:17] Kimberley, can you tell me how many groups the coalition is representing, and some examples of groups that are involved?

Kimberley Wong: [00:08:25] Yeah, of course. So, we have a mix of organizations and individuals who have signed on to the, endorsed the joint statement. But we have hundreds of folks from across different sectors in the city. Folks from the BC Health Coalition to Out On Screen, which is a queer and trans cultural organization, to folks in Chinatown doing a lot of important work providing essential services to Chinatown seniors who have barriers with regards to language access, as well as monetary access.

So we’re seeing a lot of folks from across the board who are, you know, who have been advocating for a lot of the things that we’re talking about in the joint statement for a long time, who are now finally seeing this pandemic as an opportunity to organize around changing the system to work for those most affected by these gaps now and always, so that we can all recover from the chaos and increased marginalization that this has brought and forge forward together.

Tessa Vikander: [00:09:25] Yeah, absolutely. I’m just looking at your joint statement here and I want to read two sentences that really jumped out to me at the end.

“Threats to the City of Vancouver’s essential services, programs and public priorities present a significant risk to Vancouver’s vulnerable communities in an already unaffordable city.

“This danger could get even worse if there is pressure for Council to pass an austerity budget in 2021. Any recovery strategies should offer every resident the same opportunities to rebuild their lives and thrive in a safe, inclusive, just and caring society.”

 I want to get into the issue of an austerity budget. We’ve heard some talk of perhaps lowering property taxes. This jumps out to you as something that could have a significant impact on marginalized communities. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

Matthew Norris: [00:10:13] I’d be happy to jump in here, Kimberley. If that’s okay?

Kimberley Wong: [00:10:16] Of course.

Matthew Norris: [00:10:18] So one of the things we considered was like, what’s the alternative? We’re trying to mobilize around a recovery and rebuilding effort that is, you know, human rights-centric, that is climate change-centric, that is social justice-centric, in an effort to address the gaps of the status quo, specifically in terms of vulnerable communities.

When we look at what the alternative is, there seems to be two what we think is dangerous alternatives that are circling in the discourse. In the short term, due to the inability of the City to run a deficit and the lack of fiscal powers that they have on hand, there is a significant risk that we will see a proposed austerity budget.

I think other municipalities have already come forward with it. Plans to either reduce property tax increases or to have no increases across the board for the next budgetary cycle. This is worrying. We’ve seen there’s some analyses floating around there that show that these kinds of austerity budgets support those that have the most means to already recover from the impacts of COVID. And that an austerity budget that reduces the revenues that cities are able to leverage requires that there be cutbacks on social programming, on services, on infrastructure. And these are all services and programs that vulnerable community members need the most.

What does an austerity budget mean? It means, it could mean less affordable housing initiatives. It could mean less access to libraries and public facilities. It could mean slower movement or no movement on climate change initiatives. And so that’s worrying.

I think it relies a lot on this kind of idea of trickle-down economics, which are widely criticized and critiqued for not being effective at protecting the best interests of vulnerable communities who have the least financial abilities to recover, but also who’ve been disproportionately impacted by COVID as well.

Tessa Vikander: [00:12:39] Kimberley, do you have anything to add as to why this coalition is needed?

Kimberley Wong: [00:12:43] Yeah, certainly. So I think about, you know, what’s next? What’s happening right now? Because our governments, our federal, provincial and municipal governments are all currently planning their recovery strategies to avoid the impacts on the economy and to support those who have been financially impacted by this epidemic and the measures taken to respond to it.

And it’s, I think, important to differentiate between short term recovery and long-term rebuilding. And I think of short term recovery as in needing to help those hurting now. So for example, the joint statement that we’ve been talking about that we issued last week called for increased levels of financial relief to municipalities to raise the money necessary to replenish to the reserve spent on COVID-19 initiatives. And it’s a critical need for without these tools, cities would be unable to reopen the services and programming that a lot of the vulnerable communities that we’re talking about rely on and it will severely restrict the city’s ability to make headway on addressing issues of social justice and concerns that existed pre-COVID-19 on things like housing affordability, on climate, on public transportation.

And then the long-term, I think we need to ensure that too, these are able to respond to these sorts of crises in the future. Like as a start, allow things like allowing municipalities to run deficits and like implementing congestion taxes and lots more.

I think also we have to think about the things that we want to hang on to that have been day-lighted by this. Things like safe supply and increases in income assistance and disability or an increased commitment to the permanent social housing from the province.

And there’s lots of things to ramp up on to continue to increase city-level actions on climate, on reconciliation, on support for the alternate culture sector. And then things like, you know, people with disabilities have been fighting for a wider sidewalks for decades. And I think there’s space to finally do that, to reallocate street space away from cars, to create more space for wheelchairs, pedestrians and bikes.

And of course, bigger picture lessons as well, of the important role of the public sector. And to help the health and safety of the most vulnerable among us.

Tessa Vikander: [00:15:03] Right. So the work that you’re doing, Matthew and Kimberley, it sounds like it’s really, this coalition is attempting to bring together so many different groups from different areas in the city. How are you doing that? How like strategically and logistically, what does that look like?

Kimberley Wong: [00:15:21] I think Matthew and I both occupy kind of lateral but very different spaces. I think I can speak for my own networks. I occupy a lot of different community organizing spaces in the queer and trans community, as well as in the Chinatown community. Which I think has been a stronghold of a lot of incredible community organizing the city for decades.

But we’re uniquely positioned to be able to speak to different communities that are being affected by this pandemic, through those lenses of our identity. Matthew, do you have anything to add to that?

Matthew Norris: [00:15:52] Yeah. And one of kind of the foundations of the organizing of the committee was to ensure that we’re not overburdening organizations and community leaders who are already facing significantly high workloads. So part of the philosophy around organizing was taken from some of the other informal coalitions that I’m part of in terms of indigenous rights.

And it’s kind of transitioning those to the informal coalition for the Vancouver Just Recovery. Some of those principles came around a consensus based decision making, but mainly it’s been around this idea of quick mobilization of network and relationship building.

Kimberley Wong: [00:16:38] If I can just add…

Tessa Vikander: [00:16:39] Yeah

Kimberley Wong: [00:16:40] I think that organizing in a time where we can’t physically come together has proven difficult for many folks, but I am constantly in awe of the organizers of folks like the COVID-19 Coming Together group. Who are mobilizing community care through Facebook groups, through Zoom, through Slack, through calls and, you know, especially just in grocery care package drop-offs, things like that.

So it’s more evident than ever now that community care is something that has always needed to recover from things like this. And that has always been there in communities. So supporting those folks and supporting those initiatives is more important to now than ever.

Tessa Vikander: [00:17:24] Right. Can you, Kimberley, tell me how you’re rolling the coalition, like who’s making the decisions? What’s that process like? Are you meeting online and real life?

Kimberley Wong: [00:17:34] Yeah. So right now we’re having biweekly Zoom calls with a couple of our core members, so folks who represent larger organizations, to try and keep the numbers down. So we are a consensus-based coalition, which means that all the decisions that we make, all of the statements that we put out in the future, are written together, are approved by all members that have signed on to endorse as well.

Tessa Vikander: [00:18:00] So Kimberley, what are the next steps for coalition?

Kimberley Wong: [00:18:04] So some of the next steps, I think we want to organize around specific outcomes and some of those specific topics and outcomes that I can speak about, are things like an expanded municipal financial power and more tools to respond to the current and future crises of this nature, a progressive economic investment and no budget cuts.

So with things like healthcare and services, transportation, public infrastructure, public services, and energy and climate transitions, we want to make sure that we don’t backpedal on the gains that we’ve made in the past couple of years with progressive policies and with some of the folks that sit on City Council who have been able to advocate for those things.

And also of course forge towards a new normal, but to respond to some of the weaknesses and shortcomings of the status quo with things like housing affordability, climate change, homelessness, the opioid crisis, implementing a living wage across the board and public transportation.

Tessa Vikander: [00:19:03] I think you bring up a really great point there, which is particularly trying to find a new normal, because I know one of the things that, you know, we’re frequently seeing on social media is, people saying, you know, I can’t wait for my life to get back to normal or when things are back to normal.

And of course, we hear also, you know, dissenting voices to those ideas saying: no, the normal that we had was not okay. We need a new normal.

Kimberley Wong: [00:19:26] Exactly. Yeah. And then we’re seeing a lot of the communities that are a part of the coalition speak to this exactly. Folks who are from the disability community have been saying we need these things. They’re essential services, you know, for our lives forever. And so us having to, for example, work from home and find ways to connect that don’t require us to come together as physical people, to make extra leads as her folks who are immunocompromised. You know, finding ways to do this in ways that center those marginalized voices is really important and has come up more than ever now.

Matthew Norris: [00:20:06] I had one quick point to make.

Tessa Vikander: Please

Matthew Norris: So I think your point around “recovery to normal” is a really good point. I think it’s dangerous to talk about, like, let’s just get back to the way things were. I think COVID has highlighted the discrepancies and the shortcomings of normal, of the status quo.

It’s highlighted all the people who fall through the gaps of our societal supports. And I think we have an opportunity, coming out of COVID to recover and to rebuild, to address those gaps. We’re necessarily going to have some kind of financial investments or recovery efforts or a stimulus package, which is going to be aimed at helping people impacted by COVID, which is a lot.

And it stretches across different communities. But if we don’t take a social justice lens on what these recovery plans and strategies are going to look like, then we risk not only, you know, creating more obstacles and more impacts on vulnerable communities as their voices aren’t included in the planning process.

But we’re facing the risk of re-entrenching the status quo. If we’re doing something innovative and if we’re doing something bold, let’s build on the positive feelings of community and togetherness that COVID has like really brought out in the Vancouver community and let’s do something that is new, that is exciting, that addresses a lot of the concerns that we have now seen to the 10th degree. And let’s make a new normal. And I think that’s one of the principals behind this coalition.

Tessa Vikander: [00:21:59] Thanks for that.

And so to build on that, I think that therefore one of the things that we’re hoping is that, not to say that there’s a silver lining from this COVID-19 crisis, but like if we can work to find positive things that may come out of this crisis, one could be that folks who are not affected by, were not immunocompromised, who do not have physical disabilities, that they may be sensitized to these issues of the importance of being able to work from home or attend conferences online and that sort of thing. Is that what you’re getting at?

Kimberley Wong: [00:22:31] Exactly that.

Tessa Vikander: [00:22:33] Wonderful.

Jumping back a little bit to the nuts and bolts of how this coalition is working, you’ve put out this statement and I’m just wondering, like, do you have meetings with council representatives coming up, with city staff or is that something that you’re looking to do?

Like what are, what are your strategies for pushing ahead?

Matthew Norris: [00:22:51] I think we would welcome any meetings with city staff or City Council.  We have been fortunate enough to have the joint statement endorsed by, I believe last time I checked it may be different now, four City Councilors.

So the joint statement that was released was sent to all of City Council and the Mayor’s Office. It was also sent to the relevant provincial and federal ministers whose mandates land in this area. But certainly I think the coalition is interested in sitting down with decision makers to express the concerns and the principles and values that the coalition is representing.

In terms of next steps, the coalition has a number of areas and of concern and interest that we’ll be meeting about shortly. And I think the plan is to continue to organize amongst ourselves to push the envelope on these issues. So we’ll likely see additional calls to action coming forth.

 Tessa Vikander: [00:23:58] And then Matthew to jump back to a question that I asked earlier, it was that it sounds like the coalition is really bringing together a very broad range of groups, so many different groups, and I was just wondering how it is logistically that you’re doing that? I know Kimberley was mentioning that part of it for her is that like her own identities and involvement in the other work that she does means that she’s connected to certain groups that she’s able to therefore help bring forward into this. Can you tell me, how this is going for you?

Matthew Norris: [00:24:28] So it originated in a small group, but it’s already grown large and rather quickly. And that’s kind of one of the values that the original organizers kind of instilled into the process was that we wanted to make this as open as possible.

So if any organization out there is interested in and shares the values of the joint statement is interested in participating and organizing and connecting with other organizations or communities different than their own, then I encourage them to look at our website, sign up. We’ll add you to upcoming meetings lists, and join the conversation about what a just recovery should look like in Vancouver.

But part of the ask too, is that we’re not trying to create additional work. There’s the understanding that a lot of these organizations are already strapped, with their workloads. And so that kind of gets at the informal nature of the coalition, that the memberships and the endorsements on certain press releases or statements, will adapt as we go. So organizations are able to endorse, on the fly, as statements or letters or values or what have you, are drafted, agreed upon and sent out.

Tessa Vikander: [00:25:50] And speaking of extra work, how are each of you managing right now with this, you know, doing this extra volunteer coalition work on top of all that you already do? Matthew, do you want to go first?

Matthew Norris: [00:26:04] That’s a lot, I think we coined a new term, in one of the meetings, about being Zoomed out. I think on one hand with people working from home, it is somewhat easier to mobilize and get in touch with people, to jump on a video conference and to discuss ideas.

But on the other hand, we’re constantly on video conference now and it is taxing. And I think there is this new phenomenon of people being Zoomed out and, and being exhausted. So it’s something to consider, I think.

The work is good though. And as long as the work is good, you find the energy and you’re invigorated to have these discussions. I also appreciate the ability to meet new organizations that my professional work or my academic work doesn’t often allow me to interact with these people.

So there are strengths to it as well.

Tessa Vikander: [00:27:04] Hmm. And Matthew, do you have any like self-care practices that help keep you, you know, being able to do this work?

Matthew Norris: [00:27:12] My dog has been a lifesaver. The ability to go out and walk the dog three times a day forces you to take a break and to just get outside and enjoy the weather. That’s thankfully been pretty good.

Tessa Vikander: [00:27:26] Awesome. I really want a dog too, for that exact reason. Well, and because… yes.

Matthew Norris: It’s the best.

Tessa Vikander: Kimberley, how are you managing with this extra workload?

Kimberley Wong: [00:27:40] To kind of add on to Matthew, I was always exhausted. So this is nothing new, but it’s, I think, what he said, if the work is good, the people are good, and you care about what you’re doing, it’s worthwhile.

So far as self-care practices, there’s this thing called the magic bag that has changed my life. It’s like having a little warm cat sit on your shoulders and that’s been helping a lot.

Tessa Vikander: [00:28:06] And what’s the magic bag?

Kimberley Wong: [00:28:08] It’s this little bag filled with beans that you put it in the microwave and it warms up and you put it on your shoulders and it’s really nice.

Tessa Vikander: [00:28:16] Is there anything else that we haven’t discussed in this interview that you’d like to talk about?

Matthew Norris: [00:28:21] There’s some positive takeaways from this all. And I think it’s important that we recognize like the positive outcomes of the COVID outbreak and social isolation and all that. And I think it is just recognizing that we’re able to mobilize and organize and come together as a society.

And I’m talking about like outside of the coalition and to respect, you know, social isolating directives, to recognize and adhere to the advice of health professionals. And I think that’s inspiring. And I think that gives me hope that as a society, we’re able to mobilize and address other issues of societal concern, like climate change, like over-consumption, like housing affordability, which is good.

I think there was a lot of skepticism before this that we would be able to mobilize, you know, as a society around a single issue. And so this has filled me, at least, with some hope and optimism that these kinds of like big ticket asks that require collective action are actually possible.

And so that kind of motivated, at least my participation in what is the Just Recovery coalition, but I think it can extend to other issues as well.

Tessa Vikander: [00:29:47] Right. So, for example, the fact that we are able to, you know, come together and maybe meet with friends in a park and have some like restraint and not hug them and ask each other, you know, like, are you comfortable with how much space we have with each other? So I agree with you so much Matthew because I’ve seen also people bringing up kind of hard conversations or hard questions or addressing things about comfort levels with each other in ways that I wasn’t seeing around anything else.

Matthew Norris: [00:30:17] Yeah, exactly. And I think, and like I was even more skeptical, like we, you hear discussions a lot around are we living in a post-truth society where facts have limited usefulness and all this stuff and that was getting me real down previously. But I think this kind of challenges all that, I think.

We are responsible and we are, for the most part, considerate of our neighbours and our communities. And I think that that is inspiring.

 Tessa Vikander: [00:30:52] Yeah. I feel you. I’m feeling my heart really full right now, just talking about that and like naming that. Kimberley, do you have anything you want to add to that?

Kimberley Wong: [00:31:00] No, I will stick by Matthew’s words as well.

 Tessa Vikander: [00:31:04] All right. Well, Kimberley and Matthew, thank you so much for joining us today on the Cambie Report.

Do you have any parting words for ideas of fun things that people could do in the next few days? It’s a random challenge.

 Kimberley Wong: [00:31:18] For folks who live with roommates or partners, my roommate and I bought a big bucket of clay and we’re making your own Scrabble board. So double the activities, double the fun.

Tessa Vikander: [00:31:30] Awesome. So clay work, that’s awesome.

Matthew Norris: [00:31:33] That was fantastic. I am jealous of that.

We’ve been revitalizing our garden. Our little tiny garden on our teeny tiny, like, I don’t even know how big it is, it’s not big, I can barely fit a chair out there, but on our tiny little deck. We’re trying to revitalize our garden, just to have some flowers and some greenery, to try and restrict the need to go outside.

And we’re, others are, who may not be as fortunate to have outside space, do need that for mental health and such. But, our little garden is also a little bit of a distraction. And good for our mental health anyways.

Tessa Vikander: [00:32:15] Absolutely. Wonderful. Well, thanks so much, both of you for those suggestions and small offers, and again, for all of your work on this coalition.

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