If it were not for an Expo 86 advertisement in a British magazine, Adel Gamar’s life trajectory could have gone in a dramatically different direction.
In 1986, his family left Libya, then under the rule of Muammar Gaddafi, following the U.S. bombing in Tripoli. They temporarily settled in London, where Gamar’s father spotted the ad and decided Metro Vancouver would be his family’s permanent home.
Within a year, they had taken up residence in Coquitlam.
“We were [in London] for about six months in limbo trying to figure out where to go,” said Gamar, who was 10 years old at the time. “Had he not read that paper that day, I really don’t know where I’d be.”
Now, Gamar is hoping to lead the city he calls home as he vies for the mayor’s chair in the Oct. 20 civic election, running on a platform of improving housing affordability and being more collaborative with residents in shaping city policy.
He brings an impressive resume to the race.
The 42-year-old father of five has a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard, where he also taught at the Kennedy School of Government and was a policy fellow at Harvard Law School. He spent many years working overseas, first teaching at a technology school in Dubai before taking on a role at the College of the North Atlantic in Qatar and advising UNESCO as an education specialist.
He moved back to Coquitlam in 2015, when he co-founded the Gamar Leadership Group, which consults with corporations, non-profits and government agencies on leadership development.
But there is one area that is lacking in Gamar’s curriculum vitae as he vies for the top job on Coquitlam council: He has never held elected office and his only political experience came when he ran unsuccessfully for the NDP nomination in Port Moody-Coquitlam, which he lost to Rick Glumac.
Gamar spins his political inexperience as a positive, telling The Tri-City News he will bring fresh ideas to the role.
“People think that to run for mayor requires you to work first as a city councillor as a way to build your resume as opposed to saying, ‘Do you have the skill set?’” he said.
Housing affordability is one area where Gamar believes Mayor Richard Stewart has failed residents. While many new units have been built in the last few years, they are predominantly one- and two-bedroom condos, which is not big enough for residents with growing families, he said.
Noting that more than 90,000 people are expected to move to Coquitlam over the next few decades, more housing is going to have to be built, particularly three- and four-bedroom units. But new development should be concentrated around rapid transit, like in the City Centre, he said, noting older neighbourhoods like Austin Heights cannot handle the increased population and traffic.
“We need to build,” he said, “but it needs to be done in a way that is responsible and responsive to the needs of the city.”
The municipality must also do a better job of advocating for affordable housing at the regional and provincial levels, he said, and more can be done to leverage developers for important amenities, like daycare spaces.
Many of the affordability initiatives must be conducted collaboratively at Metro Vancouver, he said, so that developers can’t play cities off one another by threatening to build their projects in other parts of the region.
Gamar stressed a need for collaboration with residents and said he wants to improve communication between the citizens and city hall. That means facilitating town halls and meetings where people feel comfortable sharing their ideas and participating in shaping policy, a skill he said he has acquired through his consulting career.
“[The public hearing process] is very intimidating,” he said. “That says to me the process is not the best course for getting public buy-in.”
With his professional and academic work, Gamar said he has learned how other cities have made strides in addressing the housing affordability problem. In Boston, for example, he said the mayor’s office has been successful at increasing housing stock while getting buy-in from the community, which has been resistant to densification initiatives.
An ability to see a broader perspective and to look beyond the region for solutions is something Gamar said is currently lacking in the Coquitlam mayor’s office.
“If you have somebody who has only lived here, has only been exposed to here and been in a bubble, a political bubble for so long, perhaps they are out of innovative ideas,” he said. “They’re out of steam. Perhaps they were not aware of what is working out there, and I have that experience.”