October 6, 2021

Mayor Phillip Owen: A Life of Vancouver Civic Service

Who was the Mayor who stood up to the Liberal Provincial Government when photo radar was yanked province wide, hoping to still be able to have it operating in his city? Who came in after Mayor Gordon Campbell, was a  successful storefront businessman, who had worked in New York City?

Who came through the Parks Board, used to grab the Council package and then drive to all the areas listed in the report to see for himself what the issues were? (This was way before the internet was practical).

 

Phillip Owen became Mayor of Vancouver in 1993 after being a Park Board Commissioner in 1978 and a Councillor in 1986. After serving seven years as a Councillor, he was elected as Vancouver’s 36th Mayor in November 1993, and was re-elected again in 1996 and in 1999. At that time  Council and the Mayor served three year terms.

Mayor Owen was a “drip dry” mayor. He always looked dapper, and seemed to be fresh and engaged no matter what the time of the day or meeting. He also knew his City staff by name, and would come and talk to staff in the different departments. By being a Park Board Commissioner and then a City of Vancouver Councillor, he had a good grasp of how the city ran. As a businessman (he used to own Elle, a fabric store in downtown Vancouver)  he knew about budgets, timelines, and how to get things done.

Mayor Owen was elected in the NPA party. But people forget that the NPA had some very  progressive policies in the 1990’s. They championed “Greenways” a citywide program for a 100 kilometer network of green streets that went border to border where walking and cycling were prioritized. They built bikeways. And they ran a competition for a new downtown library, and built the design put forward by Moshe Safdie.

Mayor Owen also worshipped in the Downtown Eastside and was instrumental in setting up The Four Pillar Approach to drug addiction. At the time it was very contentious when Mayor Owen advocated for prevention, treatment, enforcement and harm reduction which led to the opening of the first legal safe injection site, Insite in 2003.

But most importantly Mayor Owen was everywhere. There was a city car in those days, but he drove himself to appointments and engagements. He went to everything. He also went on a local  cable television show weekly where citizens could phone  in and he would answer their questions. That was technology at the time, but he has been the only Vancouver mayor to make that kind of weekly commitment.

I remember at the City’s first  Heritage Fair at the Seaforth Armouries in 2002  Mayor Owen kindly agreed  to wear the City’s Chain of Office to an event. That Chain was made in 1912 by Birks, is 14 karat gold and weighs over a kilogram. While it has handtooled links depicting Vancouver’s maritime and lumber industries, it is hefty and cumbersome. Mayor Owen is wearing the chain of office in the photo above, holding his two grandchildren after his swearing-in ceremony in 1993.

Mayor Owen also allowed the City of Vancouver mace to leave city hall to come to the Seaforth Armouries for an appraisal at the Heritage Fair. The mace is the symbol of City Council’s authority and is placed in Council Chambers during Council meetings.

Presented in 1936, it is a replica of the City of London England mace, and is one of two pieces of civic regalia hallmarked during the very short reign of Edward the VIII. It came for its appraisal wrapped in blankets with three security officers attending.

It was a unique chance for citizens to see these two pieces of civic regalia up close, and learn their history. From my research, the mace has never left City Hall before, and in 1941 an article in the Vancouver Sun describes how a Commerce and Industry Fair was told the mace could not come to be part of that exhibit. The appraiser who looked at the mace had also appraised the City of London’s mace, and provided a colourful commentary on how the mace was originally used and handled.

 

 

Other people will remember how Mayor Owen came out to community functions of throughout Vancouver.  The Mountainview neighbourhood centred around 28th and Fraser Street received a CBC acknowledgement as the most improved neighbourhood in the Metro area. There was plans for a big celebration on the 700 block of East 28th Avenue; unfortunately the date was two days after the September 11th 2001 tragedy in New York City.

Both the community and the Mayor quickly changed the focus of the event, with CBC broadcasting from the street. Instead of a celebration it became a community remembrance event where people brought notes of condolences  to be appended to a book. That book was then available for city staff and citizens to sign at Vancouver’s City Hall, and Mayor Owen personally arranged for the book to be hand delivered to New York City’s City Hall.

Mayor Owen was a Vancouverite, a businessman and cared deeply about this city.

This video  below  has Phillip Owen discussing a bit of the background around developing the supervised injection site policy.

The editors of  Viewpoint Vancouver send condolences to  Mr. Owen’s family and friends.

He will be missed.

images: VancouverSun

 

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Comments

  1. Excellent tribute to a great mayor. Mayor Owen did a lot for Vancouver, including the greenways (as mentioned), but also many bikeways were approved under his leadership.

  2. I got to know Phillip Owen when he was mayor of our city. I had been appointed by Council to the Vancouver City Planning Commission, and was also serving on the City’s Urban Design Panel at the time. We crossed paths regularly at City Hall, and over time I had several occasions to meet with the mayor about various civic matters. He was always a perfect gentleman, and, more importantly, a good listener. He genuinely cared about our city and its residents, and gave of his time generously to all and sundry. The Mayor’s Office at City Hall was much more accessible to Vancouver citizens back then, not like today. At least that was my experience.

    I well remember one particular occasion when I visited the Mayor’s Office with my two young kids: a kind of civics lesson, which the mayor was happy to accommodate. Phillip made my kids feel very welcome and took a genuine interest in their youthful curiosity about his job and the gilded trappings of his impressive office. I recall that he gave each of them an ‘official’ pen engraved with the Mayor’s name. My kids were thrilled. He had that human touch with people.

    Phillip Owen also let the professional planning staff do their jobs at City Hall, without (much) political interference. Again, very different than more recent incumbents of the Mayor’s Office. He was a surprisingly progressive, open-minded politician, given his background and party affiliation.

    Vancouver was fortunate to have Phillip Owen as its mayor and civic leader during a time of great growth and change in our city.

    My condolences to his family.

  3. My favourite Phillip Owen quote I first heard a short time ago.

    When someone button-holed him, maybe with that characteristic pointed, jabbing finger, then let fly their opinion of what kind of person he was, he would look at them and say, “What you think of me is none of my business.”

    He set the standard for a “decent, caring” politician who worked hard– and picked up litter as he walked around town.

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