British Columbia has been referred to as “the wild west of politics” for our relaxed regulations regarding campaign donations. Two main issues for residents of Coquitlam surround developer donations to Coquitlam council, and the controversial Burke Mountain expansion. Digging into political donations to Coquitlam councillors, I came across a troubling trend: the majority of donations to council candidates during the 2014 municipal election campaign came from developers.
One developer, Wesbild Holdings Ltd, stood out, for donating to every councillor’s campaign. Burke Mountain LP also donated to every councillor’s campaign, except Bonita Zarillo’s, and every councillor who received donations from Burke Mountain LP voted in favour of the Burke Mountain expansion.
From Wesbild Holdings Ltd and Burke Mountain LP combined, every councillor received a total donation of $2500, with the exception of Councillor Zarillo, who received a donation of $1500, and Mayor Stewart, who received $9000.
After more investigation, I discovered, on Election BC’s Website, that Wesbild Holdings and Burke Mountain LP both list Hassan Khosrowshahi as a Director. With a net worth of $1.16 billion, Khosrowshahi, the founder of Future Shop, is one of the richest people in Canada. In addition to Wesbild and Burke Mountain LP, he is also affiliated with a number of other companies, including Persis, Sweet Apple, Predator Ridge, Inwest, and Deep End, all of which have made political donations in BC. Over the years, Khosrowshahi has overseen the donation of $777,356 to municipal and provincial politics in BC, through the companies he’s affiliated with, and is one of the BC Liberal Party’s biggest donors.
In 2002, Wesbild purchased 400 acres of Burke Mountain land from the province, then under the government of Gordon Campbell and the BC Liberals. In 2014, Wesbild purchased another 370 acres (14 parcels of land) from the province, under Christy Clark and the BC Liberals, for just $85 million, though the land was valued at $128 million by an independent appraiser. This is not the only land the BC Liberals appear to have sold at a discount; The Breaker has pointed out that BC’s auditor general is currently investigating $858 million worth of property sold. At the very least, these coincidences between donations and political decision making, create bad optics, breeding distrust in government, a major motivation for the new legislation on campaign finance reform.
Back in November 2017, Coquitlam council decided to send a letter to Andrew Weaver, leader of the BC Green Party, to express their disappointment in what they perceived to be him going back on his word regarding the implementation of campaign finance reform (see Andrew Weaver’s letter to council from July 18, 2017). Once again, Bonita Zarillo stood out from the rest of council by being the only councillor to oppose sending Andrew Weaver this letter, since the BC Greens and the BC NDP did exactly what they had campaigned on, concerning finance reform. At the time, Mayor Richard Stewart, and a number of councillors, also spoke out publicly against the changes to campaign financing, arguing that the changes would prevent lower income and marginalized folks from entering politics. From my experience, running in the provincial election as a marginalized person with a limited income, and with no influential corporate and union donations, the changes introduced by the BC government may not be perfect, but they’re on the right track, and we will see politicians who are more accountable to their constituents, and candidates who compete on a more level playing field.
I look forward to seeing our upcoming election in Coquitlam provide more opportunity for candidates, whether they are wealthy and/or connected to corporations and unions, or not. I also hope to see British Columbia more fairly represented under a proportional representation system, following the fall referendum.