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Canada 'Messenger from the people’: Surrey mayor vows to shake up the status quo

Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum poses for a photograph at City Hall in Surrey, B.C., on April 12, 2019.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Doug McCallum is a mayor in a hurry. The leader of B.C.'s second-most populous city, now six months into his second run in the job, is moving quickly on a contentious agenda that includes replacing the RCMP as the city’s police force and upending a regional transit plan.

On policing in particular, the criticism over the pace and process of his plan has been withering. But during a rare interview, in his office in a City Hall that wasn’t built when he was last mayor, Mr. McCallum said he is not at all bothered by the pushback.

The 74-year-old mayor, who ran the city from 1996 to 2005, is simply following the wishes of the voters who elected him last October, he said. His election ended a decade of dominance by the Surrey First coalition, which was reduced to a single member on council. The other seven members elected last year ran as members of Mr. McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition.

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“I am a messenger from the people,” Mr. McCallum said, relaxing in an armchair. "The people of Surrey want me to do what they want to happen and what I said I would do. I focus only on that.”

Mr. McCallum said changing the status quo is always difficult. “So you have to be patient, and you have to also continue to be forceful," he said. “Once you do break through that status quo a little bit, what happens is people begin to accept it and say, ‘This is a great change. We like it.' "

The mayor faces opposition in the city, from mayors in nearby municipalities and from the NDP government in Victoria, but says he is revved up to take them on.

“I have more energy now than I had 15, 20 years ago," he said, reflecting on the fact that he is often asked about his age. "I jump out of bed, I literally jump out at 6, 6:30 in the morning and often put in 10, 12 hours, even longer sometimes.”

But it’s not his work ethic that has stirred up his critics but the agenda that he is following.

For example, his plans to replace the RCMP as Surrey’s policing agency with a newly created force by July, 2020, is either unachievable or reckless, his critics say.

His Safe Surrey Coalition also scrapped a planned-and paid-for $1.6-billion light-rail system and voted to replace it with a more-expensive SkyTrain to nearby Langley. But the funds available won’t permit Skytrain to offer the same route coverage. Behind closed doors, staff members with TransLink, the regional transportation organization, are trying to figure out how much SkyTrain they can build with available funds.

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Other mayors in the region are unhappy with his sudden upending of a carefully crafted 10-year transit plan, and the city’s board of trade sees his overall agenda as a disruptive force.

It appears likely that aspects of the McCallum agenda will come up in the federal election campaign this fall as parties compete for seats in a city where seats swing easily, making this a key electoral battleground.

Mr. McCallum, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal, has a message for national party leaders seeking Surrey votes.

“People don’t want any more promises. What they want to see is action,” he said. “No excuses. No ‘We’re going to study it, we’re going to look at it.' ”

The Surrey Board of Trade opposes his policing plan as a waste of resources, and some council colleagues are concerned about the lack of public consultation.

Premier John Horgan has denounced Mr. McCallum’s view that the election was the last word on the issue.

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“During a municipal election, there are a range of issues and to point to one or two and say, ‘This is my mandate,' I think does a disservice to the broader public who maybe didn’t participate in the election,” the Premier recently told a media scrum.

The former head of the RCMP in Surrey says the city is rushing its replacement efforts without a clear plan. The current commander says Mr. McCallum’s assertion that the new force will be operational by July, 2020, is “very ambitious.”

Former Surrey Mountie Jack Hundial, who ran as part of the Safe Surrey Coalition and is now a councillor, is more blunt. His views are informed by 13 years as an officer in Surrey − which included taking Mr. McCallum on a ride-along several years ago.

“From the information I have, I don’t think it is a realistic time frame," Mr. Hundial said of the mayor’s push to have a newly created force on the road next summer.

Former mayor Dianne Watts says Mr. McCallum’s commitment to public consultation is lacking. She said that the public needs access to a confidential report, which will soon be sent to the province, on the workings of the proposed new force

“To have a report done in secret that council members haven’t even seen yet and to send it to the province and say, ‘OK, it’s going to be approved and now we’re going to consult with you?’ What’s the point? There is no point.”

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On Friday, the city announced that it will hold the first in a series of pubic consultation meetings this week in the town centre of Cloverdale, seeking input on priorities for shaping the new department. However, no new detailed information on the planned force has been released.

In a recent address on the state of the city, Mr. McCallum said the sweeping change to policing is an act of “political courage,” and a “political minefield.”

Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum says there should be public input on how to proceed with transitioning into a municipal Surrey police force and end the city's contract with the RCMP. He is seen posing with a Surrey Police car outside city hall.

Ian Bailey/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

But he pointed out that Surrey is Canada’s largest city without its own police department. Surrey has a population of more than 500,000 and is growing by about 1,000 new residents a month, many drawn by relatively affordable housing. It is expected to pass Vancouver and become B.C.'s most populous city within about 20 years.

“Without our own police department, without our own local police board, accountability ultimately lies in Ottawa. By establishing Surrey Police, the accountability will stay in our city.”

Although Mr. McCallum clearly has his critics, Vancouver’s mayor, a relative rookie at municipal politics, is a fan of his approach.

“He’s really leading," said Kennedy Stewart, a former NDP MP first elected mayor of Vancouver last October, in an interview.

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The pair talk often. “I am very happy to take any advice he has as a veteran of [municipal politics].”

Mr. Stewart made a snap decision to support Mr. McCallum’s SkyTrain agenda to engage with a leader he saw as a possible ally. “Between the two of us, we cover a lot of the political spectrum so it can make us a pretty powerful duo," the Vancouver mayor said.

While Mr. Stewart has his colleague’s ear, the Surrey Board of Trade’s chief executive officer, who is critical of Mr. McCallum’s policing and transit plans, says she has yet to have a substantive conversation with him.

Anita Huberman says she hasn’t had the access to the mayor that she once enjoyed with Ms. Watts and Mr. McCallum’s immediate predecessor, Linda Hepner.

Although now identified with Surrey, Mr. McCallum was born in Vancouver. His father was a log broker, shipping logs from the north to the Lower Mainland.

Over the years, Mr. McCallum’s parents moved the family from Grand Forks to East Vancouver, to the city’s prosperous west side. They had a summer home in Surrey’s Crescent Beach.

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The beachside community in the southern end of Surrey an impression on the younger Mr. McCallum. He and his wife eventually settled there in the 1980s.

Mr. McCallum, who worked in the packaging industry, was elected to city council in 1993 and voted in as mayor in 1996.

When The Globe and Mail reported on his mayoralty in 1997, he was threatening to use city trucks to tow away RCMP cars using photo radar in his municipality, tried to lure the Molson Indy from Vancouver, and vowed to shut down a major highway if the province offloaded its maintenance costs to Surrey. He was also musing about the city creating its own transit service.

He was ousted as mayor in 2005, defeated by Ms. Watts after the pair had a professional falling out.

He attempted a comeback in 2014, but came second with 27 per cent of the vote to 49 per cent for Ms. Hepner. She was representing Surrey First, the slate that created by Ms. Watts.

When he tried again in 2018, Mr. McCallum boiled down his pitch. “We could say our campaign in five words," he said rhetorically during the interview − Surrey police, SkyTrain, Smart Development.

Ms. Watts says he got a break because the Surrey First vote was split between an official mayoral candidate Tom Gill, and former party member Bruce Hayne, who also ran as mayor

Pollster Greg Lyle of Innovative Research Group, who polled for Surrey First and Mr. McCallum at various times, says surveys indicated Surrey voters wanted change on such issues as crime and transit to a degree greater than in other Vancouver-area municipalities.

“He was speaking to big issues people were interested in with simple, concrete steps,” Mr. Lyle said. “People wanted change and Mr. McCallum offered the change they were looking for.”

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