Vancouver city council voted unanimously Tuesday to save its women’s equity, anti-racism and reconciliation initiatives on the chopping block to help offset the precipitous drop in revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a surprise move, council backed COPE Clr Jean Swanson’s motion asking city staff “to find ways to preserve work and funding for equity and diversity issues,” arguing that these services are aimed at the people – women, marginalized people, racialized people – who are hardest hit by the pandemic and by the economic fallout and most in need.

Swanson challenged why the cuts were greatest for the programs targeting diversity and critical social issues. Of the eight initiatives previously approved in council’s 2020 budget, six were recommended by city staff to be cut or delayed, a 68 per cent drop in funds – from $2 million to a mere $650,00 – for the people who are bearing the brunt of the impacts in these unprecedented times.

Saved by the vote were the Gender Equity Framework, programs to increase engagement with indigenous engagement, community development to create low-barrier employment, computer access in low-income neighbourhoods, the Mayor’s Overdose Task Force, sexual harassment and violence prevention programs, and Access Without Fear, a program to ensure undocumented residents receive city services.

Swanson was so surprised by the unanimous vote, she described it after the meeting as “worthy of entry in Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not.”

Adding to her surprise, city manager Sadhu Johnston went one step more and advocated lifting the freeze on the hiring of the new Equity Manager position. Responding to questions about the growing number of racist incidents directed at residents with Chinese background. “Recognizing the racism in the city, the freeze should be released given the dynamic in the city.”

The city is facing an estimated $111 million deficit resulting from lost revenues and increased cost pressures related to COVID-19.