Debates over gang violence and transit are dominating the tumultuous election campaign in British Columbia’s second-largest city, with some candidates promising to dump the RCMP as Surrey’s police force and dramatically rewrite its long-settled transit plan to build light-rail lines.
This fall’s campaign in Surrey will also be complicated by a confusing array of new parties and candidates in a region where, unlike most Canadian cities, elections are dominated by partisan slates in municipalities that don’t have traditional wards.
The fractured political landscape in Surrey is the result of both new campaign-finance rules in the province that are weakening traditional parties and a wave of anger in a huge suburb over violence and murders, traffic jams and controversial planning decisions that have happened under the decade-plus reign of the Surrey First party started by former mayor Dianne Watts.
“I think that finance reform has produced tremendous political confusion. Our goal is to end the one-party slate that’s existed in Surrey for the last 10 years,” said Stuart Parker, a long-time political activist who has been involved with both the Greens and the NDP. “And there’s a level of interest [from voters] that I’m just not used to."
Mr. Parker has helped start a party called Proudly Surrey, which he says has no ambitions to dominate city council (it’s not running enough candidates to do that, nor a mayoral candidate) but that could offer voters a choice of a “strong left-wing party.”
Proudly Surrey and other new parties could stand a chance in an unusual election that has been overshadowed by implosions across the political spectrum.
The once-dominant Surrey First, with councillor Tom Gill as the party’s mayoral candidate, has split up. Two councillors – Bruce Hayne and Barbara Steele – have gone off to form the Surrey Integrity Now party, with Mr. Hayne as the mayoral candidate. Councillor and former policeman Dave Woods recently joined them, after a disagreement with Mr. Gill over his support for a handgun ban.
Surrey’s mayor from the early 2000s, 73-year-old Doug McCallum, has come roaring back to life, saying that both of those groups need to go. He is forming another party with candidates to be announced.
And a man who has spent years trying to organize a left-wing party in Surrey, Doug Elford, announced in mid-August he was abandoning that project. He is now running with Mr. McCallum, while people from his former party, Surrey Community Alliance, are struggling to figure out if they can raise enough money to be contenders.
Mr. McCallum is offering voters the simplest solutions to Surrey’s problems.
He says he’d move to get rid of the RCMP the day he took office and start the process of creating a municipal police force. That’s his main solution to Surrey’s gang and crime problem, which has resulted in some high-profile murders, such as that of an innocent soccer coach in one neighbourhood and of two young South Asian teens in another.
“We’re the last major city in Canada that still has RCMP,” Mr. McCallum says.
He has also said he would scrap the current plans to build a streetcar-type transit line in Surrey, one to which Ottawa has committed funding. Mr. McCallum said he would ask federal politicians to switch the almost $2-billion promised to a SkyTrain line to Langley instead.
That would appease some residents who have started to object to losing road space to streetcar tracks, as well as others who claim that streetcars lead to more accidents and congestion.
And Mr. McCallum has said he would put a “pause” on the type of development Surrey is doing now, which has resulted in new subdivisions being approved that don’t have the services future residents need: parks, transit, schools.
In the face of that kind of populist messaging, the city’s now-divided centrist parties are trying to sell more nuanced messages that are still somehow different from each other.
Mr. Hayne, the breakway from Surrey First, is dubious about seeing a new police force as the solution. “A municipal police force won’t solve everything. Look at Abbotsford,” he says, pointing to another Fraser Valley community with a high murder rate.
And he doesn’t see how Surrey can pull out of its light-rail project at this point, though he now wishes the city had decided to build the line to Langley first.
Mr. Gill, running to keep Surrey First in power with the help of money the party saved from fundraising prior to the new rules, has the tough job of trying to present arguments in favour of the status quo, while saying he will also bring in change.
He’s suggested having a referendum on the RCMP issue, while talking about the huge costs in switching over. He defends the light-rail line, saying it’s a line that will truly serve Surrey, rather than just feeding passengers onto a SkyTrain to Vancouver.
And he’s promising his council slate, about to be announced this week, will be one of the most diverse and representative of Surrey ever.
“I’ve been working at superspeed trying to figure out what that needs to look like.”