Persistence and Progressive Politics
Throughout his political and legal career, Tim Louis’ accomplishments as a public servant and disability advocate are significant. Some examples: He founded the Vancouver HandyDART system; a custom transit service for people with physical or cognitive disabilities who are unable to use public transit without assistance. He created the HandyDART operating company, the Pacific Transit Co-operative, as a user-run co-operative. He was a founding board member of the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities, and co-founded the Public Interest Advocacy Centre – a law centre that takes on precedent-setting legal cases.
A prodigy of the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) political party, Louis continues to give credence to his mentor, Harry Rankin, and to represent and bring forward a progressive viewpoint to politics and to public service.
Louis was born in Victoria, British Columbia in 1958, and grew up in Tsawassen-Boundary Bay on the mainland. He completed high school in South Delta, and entered the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the late ’70’s. He happens to have been born with a physical condition that requires him to use a power wheelchair; a situation that doesn’t personally faze him a bit, or even seem to enter his consciousness unless prompted.
“I don’t even know the name of it myself,” he says about his condition.
Of being a public man in a wheelchair, Louis responds, “it did politicize me to a degree, but it has never been an issue [for me]. As for how it impacts on others, I don’t know – you would have to ask them!”
Louis became politically active during his undergraduate years at UBC, and a choice encounter with his future mentor while advocating for the disabled would shape his life’s direction.
“In the late 1970’s I was organizing around the need for more public transportation for people with disabilities. At that time there was a very rudimentary system funded by the City of Vancouver, so we would go down there [to City Hall] and lobby and demonstrate.”
While there, Louis met city councillor and COPE (Coalition of Progressive Electors) party founder Harry Rankin: the man who would be his mentor.
“Harry Rankin was a lawyer, on City Council, and a very progressive fellow. He inspired me to go into politics. He inspired and motivated me and shaped my political consciousness. I became more political, applied to and got into [UBC] Law School.”
When Louis graduated with a degree in law, Rankin hired him as an articling student.
“It was a fabulous year of articling. I did a lot of criminal work, a lot of advocacy work, a lot of poverty law, and in ’84 I set my own firm up. No money, no line of credit, no assets, no clients, and I waited for the phone to ring. I borrowed three things: a typewriter from the B.C. Federation of Labour; a broken filing cabinet from a non-profit society; and a broken table. Slowly but surely the firm grew.”
At his mentor’s urgings – and sensing that it was “a good place to get started [in politics]” – Louis ran for Vancouver Park Board in 1982. He lost. Inspired by Harry Rankin’s personal example of tenacity and focus – and taking heart that Rankin himself had run 13 times for Council before being elected- he ran again in ’84. He lost again.
“Two years later in ’86 I ran again, and lost again. And in ’88 I ran again and lost again. Finally in 1990 I got elected. By then they turned into three year terms, and in 1993 I got re-elected to the Park Board. So I served six years with the Park Board.”
Louis recalls that his proudest moment on the job came when they were able to bring an end to ‘perks’ for Park Board commissioners and re-divert monies into children’s programs and services.
Feeling that he had accomplished “pretty much all that he could” with the Park Board, he put his mind to serving on Vancouver City Council, as his mentor Harry Rankin had done before him. As Louis puts it, “council, had a lot more impact on people’s lives, and it also afforded a greater opportunity to give profile to progressive issues.”
Louis ran for City Council in 1996- and lost. He ran again in ’99 and was elected. He ran again in 2002 and was re-elected. He ran again in 2005 and lost this time round.
Louis, who now devotes more time to his legal practice, recalls that his proudest accomplishments on City Council have been: “Helping to put an end to the public transit strike in the summer of 2001; opening up City Hall to public scrutiny; and putting a progressive perspective forward on the issues that came before Council.”
Would he run again for elected office? Louis responds: “Never say never!”
Louis’ advice for success in getting elected to public office: “Persistence and consistency and principles.”
Louis’ advice for those who want to enter into politics for change: “Become active around issues. Take a position on those issues, and be consistent.”