City Hall

With one year to go, Lisa Helps still has plans for Victoria

The mayor is not running again next October. We sat down with her to discuss her time in office so far, what the next election holds, and what comes after

By Emily Fagan
October 23, 2021
City Hall

With one year to go, Lisa Helps still has plans for Victoria

The mayor is not running again next October. We sat down with her to discuss her time in office so far, what the next election holds, and what comes after

By Emily Fagan
Oct 23, 2021
Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily
City Hall

With one year to go, Lisa Helps still has plans for Victoria

The mayor is not running again next October. We sat down with her to discuss her time in office so far, what the next election holds, and what comes after

By Emily Fagan
October 23, 2021
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With one year to go, Lisa Helps still has plans for Victoria
Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

This article is based on an interview by Jackie Lamport in the Capital Daily podcast.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps announced that as her second term in office comes to a close, she will not seek reelection in the upcoming 2022 municipal election. 

Since first elected in 2014, Helps has seen the city reshaped with ambitious sustainability measures, a new Johnson Street Bridge, and a network of bike lanes.

Helps has not yet said what her plans for the future are after she steps down. However, she hinted that two current city councillors, Marianne Alto and Stephen Andrew, are considering entering the 2022 mayoral race.

The eight years Helps spent in office saw her at the centre of several controversies sparking national attention on the city, particularly the removal of a John A. Macdonald statue from the front of City Hall and the Johnson St. bridge replacement.

Ahead of her departure, Helps sat down to reflect on her years in office with Capital Daily podcast host Jackie Lamport. The pair discussed Helps’s advice for her potential successors, the many accomplishments and controversies of her two terms in office, and her thoughts on the legacy she will leave for Victoria.

Why are you planning to not run for reelection again?

Even before I ran in 2018, right before the last municipal election, I made a commitment to myself and to the public that I would run for one more term. Eight years at the pace and velocity at which we've been working is a lot, and I am a person that can only go 150%. The thought of doing that for four more years—for 12 years in total—feels like a bit too much.

But also, I think it's really healthy in any organization to have turnover. And eight years as mayor and CEO of the city of Victoria, that's a lot.

I think that eight years is a good amount of time for anyone to be in a leadership position like this, and then there's room for new ideas and fresh blood and to just kind of see what happens.

Do you have anybody in mind that you'd like to see run?

Well, I know that there are a couple of my councillors who are considering it. Coun. Alto, I think, is considering a run, as is Coun. Andrew. I think it'll be an interesting election if they both decide to run, because that means there would be, by default, two vacancies on council automatically. 

If I had to pick today, I would put my weight behind Councillor Alto only because she's been at the council table for 10 years, has a depth of experience, and really knows a lot about how City Hall works. She's got strong connections in the community. 

So if the election were today, that's what I would say. But we don't even know who's actually going to put their name forward and how that's going to shake down come next year.

What advice would you give for anybody who wants to run? What would you say about your experience?

What I would say is be prepared to dedicate your heart, soul, mind, body—your whole life to this job. It's not for the faint of heart, that's for sure. I mean, you can do it in a bit of a half-assed way, but that's not going to take the city in the direction that it needs to go. We've done a lot this past term getting ready for the future, but there's still a lot more work to do. 

I would say [the next mayor] has got to be somebody who's got that ability to carry out some big projects and some big ideas. Also, one of the things that I've learned that's absolutely invaluable is the ability to collaborate and to work across [different perspectives] and to work with people you might not have ever thought you'd find yourself sitting across the table from. In this position, you need to be willing to sit down and work with just about everyone who comes along.

In the past seven years of you as mayor, what are some of the things that you are most proud of accomplishing?

I think [there are] a couple of things... Just as an example, when I started as mayor, I got all these meeting requests from the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Victoria Business Association, the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, Urban Development Institute and I started having these one-on-one meetings. Then I realized they were also all having one-on-one meetings with each other—I was like, “Oh my god, that's a lot of meetings.” So I eventually just invited everyone to lunch, and we stopped all our one-on-one-on-one meetings and have been meeting all together. 

It's been extremely effective, it allows us to stay connected with what's happening in each other's organizations to effectively lobby the provincial and federal governments. So one of the things, in short, that I feel proud of is that we've kind of changed the way that the city does business. We're, I think, seen as a valued partner in many ways to many organizations, with real human human relationships. The pandemic is another example [of this], we are in lockstep with BC Housing and Island Health.

[I’m proud of] really just all of the things we've done to set the table for the future. Whether it's Zero Waste Victoria, or our climate leadership plan, or Victoria 3.0 which is our 20 year economic plan... there’s all of these things that are in place now and operationalized at the staff level. But it’s been a lot of heavy lifting over the last seven years to get those get those across the table.

What were your original priorities going into office? What did you want your time to be consumed with?

One of the reasons I ran for mayor in the first place was because I felt even as a councillor that City Hall was a place that said “no” first. If you came with an idea or something you wanted to work together on with the city, it was like, “no” or “maybe,” not like, “Yes, awesome! How can we do that together?” That is really what I wanted to achieve. 

I think there's always more to do and there are truly some people who would say City Hall doesn't like my ideas at all. But things like increasing our strategic plan grants, our My Great Neighborhood grants. We've got just about an advisory committee right now for everything we're working on. So we've really drawn people in and broken down a little bit of the barrier between what is a city hall and what is a community. 

What would you qualify as your first major issue?

My first major issue was the day I was sworn in, which was not swearing an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

You had a lot of instances where you made stances that were quite controversial, including not swearing an oath to the Queen, the removal of the John A. Macdonald statue and even more recently, cancelling Canada Day celebrations. It's a lot of very progressive, controversial, or conversation-starting symbolic moments. 

What do you think that did to your run? How did that impact how you dealt with the community?

Let's just focus on the statue, because I would say that was probably the most difficult of those three. Although they are all related and they are, I think, symbolic moments for sure, the statue was really about relationships.

And every time [members of the Songhees Nation] came into City Hall to have dinner in my office, they would need to walk past that statue every month, and that was painful. At a certain point they said to us, “If you're really serious about this work we're doing together about decolonizing, about reconciliation, then just please, please move that statue so when we come here to speak with you, we don't have to have a reminder of the fact that this man helped to set up a school system which traumatized and alienated our children and our families.”

That request was a year in the making. We decided to move the statue in August of 2018, which was two and a half months before the last municipal election. What I couldn't have done was say to the Songhees and Esquimalt, “Oh well, just wait and let's see if I get reelected and we'll move the statue then,” because that is not how you do reconciliation, that is how you do politics. And that's one of the reasons I don't like politics. 

It was controversial to move the statue [but] it started a national conversation. You know, one of the things that I thought was so interesting is like, people said, “You're erasing history,” but you'd never, ever seen John A. Macdonald's name in the news as much as you did in those weeks following the removal of the statue. 

It was necessary. I don't know now, after what happened in Kamloops and other places this summer, if there's even one statue of John A. Macdonald standing anywhere in the country—the only difference is we did it three years earlier and for a related but different reason. 

It can be very difficult in politics. How did that impact you?

The Queen one was hard, because it was literally my first day in office. Like, okay, I'm getting hate mail from Toronto! So that one was difficult, because I wasn't prepared for it; I was literally in office for a day and sparking a national controversy. 

It was difficult, but also it gave me an opportunity that I hadn't anticipated, which is I got invited onto various radio shows across the country with questions beginning like, “How could you do this? Victoria's a little bit of old England!” and it actually gave me an opportunity to pivot and tell what I thought Victoria's new and emerging emerging story was. I found it quite satisfying to use the opportunity to tell the story of what Victoria is becoming, not what it has been.

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One major issue that you came into was the Johnson Street Bridge project, which dominated a lot of your first term. It did end up going over budget by about $40 million and it was also a couple of years late. 

In hindsight, do you think that there's anything that could have been done better to avoid that or are there any disappointments there?

Absolutely, that's another reason that I ran. I was on council when we approved the Johnson Street Bridge, and I voted against the approval of the contracts because it was a bad contract. I was relatively a lay person, I'd never signed a big construction contract for $92 million as a councillor, but you can just look at that and you see something is going to go off the rails here. If you've only got a bridge that is 30% designed and a 4% contingency budget, there's very little wiggle room. 

When I became mayor, I inherited that project. We put in place all of the things that should have been in place when that project began. All of our other infrastructure projects have gone really well. So everything that wasn't in place on the Johnson Street Bridge project is in place now… [with] our fire hall on Johnson Street, that's a $40 million project. 

Is there any possibility that there's anything moving behind the scenes with the Crystal Pool and Wellness Centre that we haven't really heard about because of all of these new plans in place?

No, council made a very deliberate decision to essentially park Crystal Pool and Wellness Center to the next term. So that'll pick up again in 2023.

We recently adopted a corporate energy and emissions management plan, and Crystal Pool is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions of any of the city's buildings. If we are going to meet our climate targets by 2030, we will need a new pool by that time—otherwise, we're not going to meet our climate goals. I think that that puts a bit of a different light on the importance of the Crystal Pool project, for me anyway. 

One of the things that we are doing instead that we committed to last term but didn't do is getting plans underway for a new central library; that has been a long-standing priority as well. In a sense, I think we had to choose one big project to get underway, in addition to the fire hall. Staff are working right now on a feasibility study for either a new or renovated central library; that's been 40 years in the making.

In your 2018 platform, there was a point about increasing well-paying jobs and taking care of vulnerable residents. You had mentioned that 50% of Victorians at that time made $27,000 per year or less, and you said young people had a hard time finding and living in any affordable places in the area. 

What do you think that you have done to make things more affordable or to increase well-paying jobs?

I think since both Making Victoria: Unleashing Potential, which was our first economic action plan, and now Victoria 3.0, which is our recovery, reinvention and resilience plan, I think there are probably more well-paying tech jobs and other jobs. 

This is anecdotal, we should probably do some analysis of it, but a couple of things are indicators of well-paying jobs. When I took office, the downtown retail vacancy rate was over 10%. Pre pandemic, we worked really hard with small businesses and our business hub to get that down to 3.8% downtown retail vacancy. Obviously retail aren't necessarily those high-paying jobs, although some can be, but what that shows is that there are people working downtown who are patronizing the bars and restaurants. There's been an absolute increase in construction over the past three to four years, and construction jobs are well-paying jobs. We're working on a really exciting project now with the South Island Prosperity Partnership called COAST, which is the Center for Ocean Applied Sustainable Technologies. There's massive potential in the ocean and marine industry in terms of innovating and decarbonizing that entire industry, so that will produce more well paying jobs.

More well-paying jobs, I think we can put a checkmark beside; making life and housing more affordable, I think we could probably give ourselves about a D. That is really just [due to] a number of things. 

One, it's only recently that we've been able to really tap into and unlock all of the money that's coming from the federal and provincial governments for housing. That began in 2016, with the Regional Housing First program, but buildings of 200 people or 150 people—essentially from idea to move-in—take about five years. So that's the kind of thing where we'd see the impacts in the future. 

But also, housing supply is not the only thing that increases affordability. That's why we're working on lots of below market rental projects with nonprofits and BC Housing and the Capital Regional Housing Corporation. That's a piece of it, but also, there is just simply not enough rental housing for all the people who live here and who want to live here, and so I think this is where I feel a bit frustrated in my role. 

I'm also optimistic that this fall in the provincial legislature, the province will make some big moves. We've really been pushing them to basically take away some of the constraints from local governments and some of the hoops that everyone has to jump through to just get housing built more quickly, and that will start to help.

Do you think that you made Victoria a better place to live?

That is what people tell me. Over and over again, people stop me on the street and in the grocery store, or send an email and say, “My life is better and Victoria has become a better place to live.”

Obviously, I don't think that I did it. But I think over the past seven years council, staff, and the community working together has made Victoria a better place to live. That's the general feedback that I get.

What do you think that your legacy is going to be?

I really dislike that question, because I think ‘legacy’ places way too much focus on individualism. What I hope we've achieved is a city that's ready for the future. We won't know that until the future, until 20 years from now, when hopefully we've met our emissions targets, we have a circular economy, when almost all of the cars in the city are electric powered, when kids are biking to and from school on the safe bike network. 

I think what I hope we've done and will continue to do this next year is really set the table for the future.

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With one year to go, Lisa Helps still has plans for Victoria