Politics are D.O.A., Keithley talks elections, housing, homelessness and Harmony for All

It’s a two-election year, at least in Ontario, provincial and municipal, and it’s time for people to be considering if they are going to step up to get their name on the ballot. Will it be the usual names people will have the option to vote for, or will there be new faces at the all-candidates meetings?

Joe Keithley has persevered in music for over 40 years as the leader of legendary Canadian punk band D.O.A. He successfully stepped into municipal politics in 2018 as a city councillor in Burnaby, British Columbia, and has proven that the will to keep trying can succeed in elections, even if you might be an outsider.

“it’s kind of like the title of the album Bloody but Unbowed,” he said. “People in this world are already trying to put you down. They don’t like what you do if you are too loud, too forthright in your thoughts, you will always meet resistance. Being in politics is quite different, but also very similar to being in D.O.A., the history, my experience, that may have made me tough enough for this.”

Keithley laughed. “That’s one way of putting it.”

He ran four times for the Green Party at the provincial level and was almost nominated as the New Democrat candidate once.

“I got beat by about five votes,” he said. “When I ran in 2018, that was the second time I ran for civic office because I did it once before in ’97. So officially, six different times my name was on the ballet.”

One of Keithley’s positive contributions to Burnaby politics is Harmony for All, a program that helps get musical instruments and lessons to kids who may not be able to afford them.

“In the school system, there is not much emphasis on that anymore,” he said. “Music is undervalued even though it’s one of the greatest things in the world.”

Burnaby is a big multicultural hub, and Keithley pointed out that probably over 100 different languages are spoken there.

“So, I think what music can do, especially for kids when you move to a strange country, is make you friends when you are in school,” he said. “I think part of it is that it crosses the cultural barriers because when you think about music in this world – we are obviously in a horrible time. The war in Ukraine, environmental degradation, racial prejudice, the list goes on and on – but the one thing everybody in the world understands and likes is music. It is the language about harmony, so to speak, so that’s where I got the title.”

The program started in December 2019, and it collected about 200 donated instruments, but then COVID hit.

“I tried to work it into the school system unsuccessfully because obviously, they didn’t want people coming into the schools with COVID restrictions,” said Keithley.

Even starting lessons in a virtual manner was not successful at that time.

“Schools were overtaxed with what they had to do during COVID,” he said. “They didn’t have the resources, the facilities – they were constantly being criticized, the hardworking bunch of people and teachers of this country.”

Another donation drive happened last Christmas, and the city collected another 250 instruments. 

“So in April, you apply to a music program,” said Keithley. “It’s free. You get the instrument as a loaner, and then you get the lessons for free because in reality, unless you’ve got some super nice instrument, the lessons cost more than the instrument.”

He pointed out that guitar lessons are about $35 for half-hour.

“Finally, after some resistance from my fellow council members, we approved in the budget last fall … $72,000 to facilitate this, and I imagine it will be there next year,” said Keithley. Then he laughed and added the qualifying statement, “assuming I’m re-elected.”

The Burnaby School District will introduce harmony For All in the fall.

“There was a lot of enthusiasm from the music teachers,” he said. “About two years ago I met all the music teachers and explained the program and they thought it was a great idea. They know they are under-resourced, and it’s a tough go.”

Harmony For All comes from Keithley’s high school days. Long before he took on the moniker Joey Shithead, he was in the school band.

“We used to get soaked and rained upon and march around in the mud playing some horrible songs,” he said. “I had lots of experience with music in school, and I was a drummer in those days. I didn’t learn guitar until I was 18.”

Burnaby, British Columbia, Councilor Joe Keithley, talks about universal issues such as housing, homelessness, the opioid crisis. (Contributed Photo)

From talk of his halcyon days, the topic of conversation moved on to issues that are frustrating all levels of government across Canada, affordable housing and homelessness. These are problems that affect the small municipality of North Perth, Ontario, home of Wood-stein.ca and about 15,500 people or Burnaby, a city of about 250,000 in the Greater Vancouver area, where Keithley sits of the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Housing.

He offered a quick background to the issue of homelessness in Burnaby, stating that current mayor Mike Hurley defeated long-time mayor Derek Corrigan who was known to say that Burnaby didn’t have any homeless people. They were all from surrounding cities, so the city didn’t need to waste resources trying to help them, and they should go back to the towns where they came from.

“This is clearly a ridiculous argument, and people picked up on that,” said Keithley. “A lot of people thought that was terrible.”

A significant cause of the homeless issue in Burnaby is demovictions. A few areas of the city got upzoned, so suddenly, an old apartment building, a three-story walk-up, was on property worth millions of dollars more because it was zoned for large tower buildings.

“There is stuff being built in Burnaby that is 60 or 70 stories tall,” he said. “It’s a growing place, and I’m not saying all of that is great, but we need mixed forms of housing.”

That exasperated the homeless problem in Burnaby. Keithley said people who have been long-time residents of the smaller apartment buildings and had reasonable rents ended up seeing their rent more than double to upwards of $2000 per month.

“You are talking about seniors, people with disabilities, new Canadians – people without a lot of money,” said Keithley. “By the building getting knocked down and then the city not taking care of them, or the developers for that matter, for many people, what’s your next move?”

He talked about people who end up caught in a downward spiral. They might sleep in their car if they are lucky enough to have one, then they run out of money, gas, insurance, and sleep under a bridge or in a parking lot.

“So, what we did not long after the last election that was effective was rental tenant protection,” said Keithley. “In any of the buildings that will be knocked down for these new developments – the developers have to pay for a replacement unit of a similar size that will be brand new near that area. People moving from area to area is not a great thing either because they’ve got their family, their friends.”

The tenant protection package made it, so the developers had to pay a top-up in the rent differential of a temporary replacement unit until that new place is ready and tenants move back in at the same rent they used to have.

“You are talking a tower that might have 350 units, and the land it is on had a two-story walk-up with, let’s say, 60 units,” said Keithley. “Those 60 people or families have the first right of refusal to move into the new place, so that is what is happening, so they are protected.”

He admitted it’s more challenging to help the under-housed people or people made homeless before introducing the tenant protection package, even if they became homeless because of demovictions.

“What we have built is transitional housing,” said Keithley. “It is aimed at single mothers who are in a tough spot in our society – you don’t have income, and you are raising kids.”

He also said the city had built a homeless shelter and the British Columbia government put up another 50-room homeless shelter.

“When we first started, the very first winter, because you get elected in October, we opened up some city buildings and made them like overnight warming centres – you’d have a mat you could lie down on, food and coffee,” said Keithley. “It worked pretty well, but it was a little bit tough. Some of the neighbourhoods weren’t that crazy about it as you could probably imagine.”

He pointed out that some cities in the United States have developed innovative plans to tackle homelessness.

“Seattle and Portland are close cousins of ours, so to speak – they have a huge homeless population because the weather is a lot better out here than it is out east,” said Keithley. “If you are stuck outside, you will not die from the cold, but you might not be that well.”

Portland has partnered with surrounding jurisdictions and community groups in an attempt to offer people experiencing homelessness housing options, security, a kitchen, washroom, and protection from the weather and opportunity.

“The big thing is you are trying to transition people,” he said. “Not everybody is going to be able to transition, and not everybody is going to be able to get off the street, but a lot of people, if you give them a break, there is a reasonable chance, they might do something good with their lives again.”

When struggling people get seen as “public nuisance,” Keithley said, “that’s a terrible thing because they are all human beings, and we are all one people on this earth.”

People ending up on the street coupled with the whole explosion of Fentanyl has been a crisis for the entire Greater Vancouver area.

“It’s cheaper to get dope, especially here in Vancouver,” he said. “You get more people gravitating, and we’re the hub. The kids come down from the north, from the interior and live on the street. Often, it’s not a great way they are living.”

Keithley said he believes a transitional place is needed to help the homeless where you have six or seven steps.

“First off, you get off the street,” he said. “Second, we see if we can help you with your drug problem, which we must treat as a medical problem. It doesn’t work, making it a criminal problem, and that is a proven fact.”

He cited Portugal as a positive example of decriminalization of personal possession of all drugs as part of a more comprehensive health-led approach to the drug crisis.

“They had a horrible, horrible heavy drug problem back in the 90s and early 2000s,” said Keithley. “You know what, you legalize drugs, and you put the money into helping people. You have way fewer things broken into, and people have a chance.”

He posited that people coming out the other end of a transition process with homes and jobs would feel like they have their lives back.

“It would take a lot of will on the provincial government, and it’s easier not to do anything than to go at it, but it’s kind of where we are at, and I think a lot of other large jurisdictions are too,” said Keithley. “Our (British Columbia) government is a little bit compassionate but put it this way; it’s like D.O.A. said, there is more talk and less action. You know what I mean. Nice words but not a lot being done that should be done.”

He ended the conversation with some talk about recent D.O.A. action and upcoming tours.

“We did put out an album called Treason which had Donald Trump, Kim Jung-Un and Vladimir Putin on the cover, and that came out about a month before COVID hit, so we never really got out and promoted it,” said Keithley. “This year, we are out touring, we have 35 shows in the U.S. and Canada, and the theme is, well, it’s one year past it, but it’s the 40th anniversary of Hardcore ’81, so we’ll be playing the album. We will be in Ontario and Quebec from June 15 to 26. We have 13 shows out there.”

D.O.A. will be performing Hardcore ’81 in London, Ontario at the Palasad Socialbowl on June 25.

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