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Roguish career of outspoken B.C. politician

Ed McKitka with his wife following his election as mayor in Nov. 1975. Credit: Surrey Leader fonds, City of Surrey Archives

Ed McKitka served two years as mayor of the Vancouver suburb of Surrey. That was one year less than his sentence after being convicted of breach of trust and other offences.

The roguish career of Mr. McKitka, who has died, stands out even in British Columbia, which has a reputation for wayward politicians.

A husky figure with a pugnacious disposition, Mr. McKitka was a rough-hewn character eager to do battle. He claimed to have gone into politics after punching a municipal contractor in the mouth outside his home.

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"Hell, I'm the liveliest mayor in the whole province," he once told Chris Gainor of the Vancouver Sun. "I'm the most controversial. I don't know why. I guess it's because I speak my mind."

One of the mayor's first acts was to demand the removal of artworks he found to be pornographic. He was widely mocked for his crusade, including in the pages of The New Yorker magazine. Ridicule was a kinder fate than what was to come.

He lost the mayoralty, then regained a seat on council by being elected as an alderman, only to be banished from office for five years following his criminal conviction. He served time in prison.

Then, while on parole, he was convicted of sexually assaulting three teenaged girls in his employ by touching their buttocks, for which he was fined $600.

Mr. McKitka embraced controversy, perhaps finding in debate the opportunity to express the resentments that seemed to fuel many of his antics.

After losing the mayor's chair on election night, he presided over his final meeting of municipal council by wistfully recounting his 10-year political career, summing up with a defiant, "Pretty good for a truck driver!"

Adolf Mikitka, later known as Edward Adolph McKitka, was born on March 15, 1934, in the village of Vilna, 150 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. His biography, as he once told the Vancouver Province newspaper, is of a hard-working man who made the most of his opportunities.

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His carpenter father moved the family to Victoria when the boy was five. They eventually transferred to B.C's Lower Mainland, where Mr. McKitka said they were insulted as "bohunks" until the family name was anglicized and "now they don't know who we are." He dropped out of school after Grade 10. In reciting his background, he provided a glimpse at how he regarded his own success.

"I had to go to work, feed the kids – my brothers and sisters," he said. "I went to work in a loggin' camp, driving 'Cats, drivin' logging trucks. Fifteen at the time – from the old hard-knock school.

In 1965, the political novice challenged incumbent Roland Harvey for the Surrey reeve's post. Mr. Harvey was re-elected with 5,747 votes, while Mr. McKitka finished a distant third with 1,762.

An attempt to gain a seat on council failed the following year when Mr. McKitka finished eighth of 15 candidates vying for five seats. He at last gained a spot on council in November, 1967, joining Bill Vander Zalm, who would go on to become Surrey mayor and later Social Credit premier of British Columbia.

The sprawling district of Surrey, which stretches from the Fraser River to the border with the United States, underwent a dramatic and uneasy transformation in those years. The population in 1971 was 96,600; by 1991, it was 245,173. Rich farmland was turned over for housing developments and fortunes were made – and sometimes lost – on land deals.

Not long after arriving on council, Mr. McKitka became the subject of investigations into whether he was using public office to further his private contracting business.

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A provincial inquiry looked at his relationship with developer Walter Link, who had rented a Cadillac convertible for the councillor's use. He was cleared of wrongdoing, yet both men would face future criminal charges over their dealings.

"I got into trouble," Mr. McKitka said a few years later, "and I've stayed in trouble ever since."

His outspoken style gained him a following, which fuelled his ambitions. Mr. McKitka unsuccessfully contested the Social Credit (Socred) nomination in the provincial constituency of Langley in 1972. Three years later, he ran to succeed Mr. Vander Zalm as mayor of Surrey, defeating fellow alderman Rita Johnston by 6,003 votes to 5,955. (Ms. Johnston, who was also a Socred, later went into provincial politics, in turn succeeding Mr. Vander Zalm as premier of B.C.) The 48-vote margin launched as controversial a mayoralty as the province had ever seen.

The new mayor crusaded against what he saw as smut poisoning the community. He ordered a mural removed from the municipal hall because it included a 10-inch (25.4-centimetre) drawing of a nude woman in the midst of a wall-sized mural. He also said a collection of First Nations art that included fertility symbols would not be exhibited.

"I'm not going to have those large overgrown penises in our art gallery," the mayor said. "Why, some of them were 18 inches by two feet."

Mr. McKitka pledged to hunt down offensive artworks on display in municipal buildings. His ambition was to set up an art committee "of open-minded people who agree with me." For this, he was mocked by The New Yorker magazine, among others. In any case, the committee was never formed.

A year later, Mr. McKitka called reporters into his office where he had on display three sex-education books for children that he deemed pornographic. He said he would rip the business licence off the wall of any establishment in Surrey he found selling the titles. The mayor described the illustrated books as sickening and urged Canadians to instead read scripture. He brandished a Bible to emphasize his point.

A reporter then asked whether he found certain scripture passages to be obscene, citing the story of Lot's incest with his daughters. Mr. McKitka replied: "I shall have to read that. No comment."

The mayor also campaigned against residential developments with small homes, especially those built as part of a federal program to provide low-cost housing. His criticisms of the program outraged those homeowners, as well as several politicians in neighbouring municipalities.

The mayor of Port Coquitlam referred to Mr. McKitka as "the Idi Amin of Surrey," while a Burnaby alderman called him "the south end of a northbound horse." Surrey alderman Bill Vogel said he was "the most irresponsible and incompetent mayor I've ever seen."

In the 1977 election, the mayor faced a formidable challenger in Mr. Vogel, an Air Canada pilot. Late in the campaign, a desperate Mr. McKitka issued a brochure proposing to build new sports facilities in five Surrey neighbourhoods. The extravagant promise failed to secure his re-election, as Mr. Vogel won by 502 votes.

On election night, an angry Mr. McKitka demanded a recount. He accused his opponent of stuffing ballot boxes and blamed his defeat on interference by Mr. Vander Zalm, by then a cabinet minister who had endorsed his chief rival.

Two days after election night, during a break in the proceedings at Surrey council, Mr. McKitka stunned reporter Brian Morton of the Vancouver Sun by cracking a whip in front of his face. Months later, Mr. Morton sought out Mr. McKitka at an amusement park in Washington state, where he was working with his daughters. Seeing the reporter, Mr. McKitka bowled into him from behind before brandishing a stick with a protruding nail at Sun photographer Dan Scott.

"I want to be left alone by these knotheads," Mr. McKitka said afterward.

Surrey voters returned Mr. McKitka to council as an alderman in November, 1979, even though he faced criminal charges stemming from his time as mayor after a two-year investigation by the RCMP's commercial crime squad.

A B.C. Supreme Court jury heard wiretap evidence from 36 telephone calls, as well as secretly bugged conversations in the mayor's office.

In one bizarre call, Mr. McKitka warns an alderman not to oppose the rezoning of a farm as a racetrack. He said some 200 horses would be paraded to the parking lot of the alderman's meat store and one would be shot every five minutes until he acquiesced. As well, the mayor threatened to dispatch bylaw inspectors to the meat store.

Other recordings included the mayor tipping off developers about confidential planning proposals. Among those who benefited from the information was Walter Link, who had earlier provided the politician the use of a Cadillac convertible. As well, the mayor was heard misleading a local farmer about the value of his property so that he could obtain it himself.

After a four-week trial, during which Mr. McKitka was the only defence witness, the jury convicted the former mayor of demanding kickbacks and abusing the trust of his office. He was convicted of four counts of breach of trust, two counts of unlawfully demanding a benefit, and one count of threatening a Surrey alderman. He was sentenced to three years in jail.

He was released on parole in February, 1983, after serving one-third of his sentence.

In 1984, he was found guilty on three counts of sexual assault. Three teenage girls accused him of fondling them by grabbing their buttocks while they were in his employ at a concession stand at the Cloverdale Rodeo. The judge believed their testimony that the disgraced politician had made sexual advances, offered drinks of Grand Marnier, and called one of them a "mouthy little bitch." He was fined $600.

Despite the ignominy, he twice attempted a political comeback by trying to win a provincial Socred nomination in 1986 and 1990.

Before his death, his name was last in the news in 1995 when he was fined $23,000 for dumping glass, plastic and tin cans on protected farm land.

On Feb. 4, Mr. McKitka was driving eastbound on the Trans-Canada Highway in Chilliwack when his 1994 Jeep Cherokee veered to the right onto a grass shoulder and down an embankment through blackberry bushes before coming to a rest in a stream.

The news of his death was not announced for three weeks, by which time the RCMP determined the accident was the result of his sudden death. A coroner's report is pending. Mr. McKitka was 79.

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