The Hongcouver

Vancouver condo king Bob Rennie on race, real estate and ‘David f***ing Suzuki’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 June, 2014, 12:09pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:49am

Canada’s pre-eminent public scientist and environmentalist has had a new title bestowed upon him, to add to his PhD and Order of Canada: “David f***ing Suzuki”.

It comes courtesy of Bob Rennie, Vancouver’s “condo king” and the city’s most successful real estate marketer. The epithet was contained in what Rennie called his “private notes” for a recent speech to the city’s Urban Development Institute, although the obscenity was not actually spoken when Rennie discussed Suzuki in his address.

The speech was delivered on May 15, but the South China Morning Post only recently obtained a copy of Rennie’s notes with the eye-catching “f***ing” notation. Rennie, who is routinely ranked among the most powerful figures in Vancouver, told me he wasn’t happy about the notes being made public - but he wasn’t backing down from his criticism of Suzuki either.

Rennie’s targeting of the co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation came in light of comments the environmentalist made last year to the French newspaper, L’Express. Suzuki said Canada was “full”, and lambasted Ottawa’s immigration policies for “plundering” poorer nations of future leaders in the name of promoting Canadian economic growth.

In his speech, Rennie said “sensational” headlines about Chinese immigration and real estate prices in Vancouver were “bordering on racism”. He said Canada needed to be wary not to repeat policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, which effectively barred Chinese immigration for almost 25 years.

“Fortunately Mr Suzuki, we all have friends whose lives are better because they moved here…let’s be very careful that we don’t repeat patterns of the past,” he said.

Rennie also used his speech to relate an anecdote about how his firm inadvertently sent out Chinese-language marketing material to the tony neighbourhood of Point Grey, and in the process “sparked racist responses, touched nerves of ignorance and brought out stereotypical reactions that fuel the David Suzukis of the world”.

He didn’t quite call Suzuki a racist, but he came quite close. Rennie told me on Tuesday that he had never met Suzuki, but “I don’t like to hear comments that become elitist, that have a potential to be racist. I don’t know whether David is racist”. Either way, Rennie said he could not give Suzuki a pass.

“People like David Suzuki have very, very important voices in Canada that carry well beyond our borders,” Rennie said. “When David speaks, he speaks for all of us, because he has that power. And when David says ‘we’re full’, I am appalled, and I am allowed to be.”

Vancouver’s status as the world’s most popular destination for millionaire migrants and its housing's ranking as the second most unaffordable in the world - according to Demographia's* study of 378 cities around the world in nine major markets - make for a combustible conversation, and  Rennie isn’t alone in raising concerns about the potential for racism. But as a guiding voice to the city’s political and business elite, his opinions carry immense weight.

The founder of Rennie Marketing Systems said the topic of immigration as it related to housing density and affordability is a “worthwhile discussion”. “[But] the problem is that we all go for the low-hanging fruit, and the sensational comments. That’s why I always break out all our sales, I take out the top 20 per cent that have nothing to do with local incomes. They are for rich guys and foreign money, and when you look at the remaining inventory of 80 per cent, it actually fits in with local income,” Rennie said.

“You know and I know that we’re not the most expensive place to live in the world. Yet we all dine out on that statement, because if you relate all sales just to income, it is the most expensive, and then we blame it on foreign money. I try and dissect it out so that we have rational discussions about it. But it’s not what everybody wants. They want sensation.”

In his comments to L’Express, Suzuki – whose foundation did not respond to requests for comment - praised Canada for its large intake of refugees. But Rennie wasn’t buying it. “So let’s just bring in who he wants? Wonderful. Wonderful. Not allowed, I’m sorry,” he said. “My worry is that people are never exclusionary just in one part of their lives. It’s rampant. Nobody is prejudiced in one part of their life.”

[*Update: this story has been updated to include a link to the latest Demographia study and to describe its scope]

The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70.