Surrey lawyer and Liberal supporter Justin Thind was clearly pleased in 2015 to witness British Columbia’s fastest growing city unanimously ride a “red wave” to a majority government led by his namesake Justin Trudeau.
“It came out of nowhere,” said Thind.
But this time around, Thind concedes there are no certainties for Trudeau’s Liberals, who must fend off both New Democrats and Conservatives looking to collectively regain their five lost seats from the last federal election.
“Surrey, along with other suburbs of Vancouver, is what many call battleground ridings. Depending on how the election goes, it could be determinative,” said Hamish Telford, associate professor of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley.
Surrey is an ethnically diverse, economically complex city where housing costs have soared 79 % over the last five years, making affordability — and with it, transportation — among the key issues across all parties.
“It really comes down to: ‘How am I living? What’s in my pocket?’” said Amandeep Singh, Thind’s law partner and NDP supporter. “Affordability is just the overwhelming issue. Wages have been stuck and housing prices have gone up,” said Amandeep.
Surrey is an eclectic, fast-changing, fast-growing population set out across an expansive geographic territory. This, said Telford, makes it harder for parties to track voters, making outcomes more difficult to predict.
Where, according to the 2016 census, 58% of the 517,887 residents are visible minorities, topics such as immigration, social values, social cohesion and public safety are also top of mind in Surrey.
A Singh-sational Surrey outcome?
Trudeau commanded the message of inclusion and tolerance in 2015 and subsequently raised immigration allotments, but a recent racist blackface scandal has diminished his social currency, both Thind and Amandeep agree. But more important in shifting Surrey minds, they say, is the emergence of NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who could spoil the Liberal party in Surrey; Singh clearly identifies with the city’s South Asian population — the largest in Western Canada.
Telford said while he is not sure about whether or not the blackface scandal will hinder Trudeau, he is more sure about Singh helping himself on election day, October 21.
“Jagmeet Singh is a compelling figure who might resonate with many. If the Liberals had work cut out to hold on to the ridings, then they’ll have even more to do,” said Telford.
“As a turban-wearing Sikh, a lot of people will identify with him. He’s a compelling figure and good campaigner, and he could be a factor in parts of Surrey,” said Telford.
However, he said, “I don’t think anyone will vote for Jagmeet just because he’s a Sikh. But if you weigh up the policies you may ask ‘who understands me and who can relate to me?’” said Telford.
Meanwhile, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has eyes on three previous Tory-held ridings along the city’s edges where conservatism is more entrenched in its wealthier, mostly white European neighbourhoods, said Telford. Being a city on the border, residents are keenly observant of free trade agreements and immigration enforcement — matters of focus for the Conservatives.
“The major issues are going to be what’s going to carry you across the finish line. There will be pandering and pigeonholing, but in a tight riding it will be about staying on point,” said Thind.
But one issue that does not appear to play as prominently as others is the environment. Telford says new immigrants tend to focus on individual economic prosperity and tend not to tie such prosperity to environmental policy.
“As a country or community becomes more affluent and economically secure, they politically begin to express concern for social values, such as the environment or social justice. Before then, economic issues drive their concerns,” said Telford.
Historically, the Green Party fares poorly in Surrey ridings.
“South of the Fraser, the environment is an issue for young people but it’s still not an issue for the general population,” said Thind.
To that end, Jagmeet Singh, who is “treated like a rockstar” among Surrey youth, could have the upper hand on the issue locally, said Amandeep.
SkyTrain funding past Fleetwood undetermined
Fleetwood-Port Kells is one of the more ethnically mixed ridings, situated in the northeast sector of Surrey, bordering the Fraser River. It is home to two major regional parks and where the growing city confronts protected farmland situated on a flood plain in need of climate change mitigation work.
In 2015, Liberal candidate Ken Hardie broke Conservative Nina Grewal’s streak of four consecutive election victories with 47% of the popular vote to Grewal’s 29%. Visible minorities comprise 69% of the fast-changing riding. New Democrats have typically received a quarter to one third of the vote but that could change given the dramatic rise in housing costs, according to NDP candidate Annie Ohana.
“What we’re seeing is people are trying to find a place to get ahead in life. South of the Fraser is booming; Surrey is one of the fastest growing populations. School-wise we’re bursting through the seams,” said Ohana, a high school teacher.
“In seeing the families I deal with, a lot of times it’s about paying the bills. Being a working class family, it’s trying to survive day-to-day; trying to make a life in a new country,” said Ohana.
The Liberals have failed to deliver any significant new housing projects in Surrey, as the Trudeau-branded National Housing Strategy “largely maintains current funding levels for current activities and slightly reduces targeted funding for households in core housing need,” according to the Parliamentary Budget Office.
As Hardie explained, “It just takes time” to have federal, provincial and local partners come together.
Hardie is a former TransLink spokesperson who has eyes on extending SkyTrain through his riding and then to Langley. The Liberals have already committed to funding 40% of the first phase of the extension to Fleetwood. However, the Liberals have made no specific commitment to help fund the $1.5 billion phase two extension to Langley. Nor has any other party.
Public transportation is key to affordability, according to Simon Fraser University urban planning instructor Andy Yan.
“What looks like a deal in living in Surrey but requires long commute times really isn’t much of a deal. That’s where, in theory, development of a good transit system can help ameliorate things,” said Yan.
Only about one-third of Surrey workers commute across a bridge to north of the Fraser River, whereas 44% commute within the municipality.
“The plurality of workers in Surrey are mostly within Surrey. So your system of transportation must be more integrated within the city than the region,” said Yan.
To that end, the SkyTrain extension has been controversial, as it promotes regional connections as opposed to a once-planned inner city light rail loop that was scuttled by Surrey’s incoming council in late 2018.
Anti-gang policies top of mind in Surrey’s ‘heart’
Surrey Board of Trade executive director Anita Huberman told the Newton Business Improvement Association earlier this month that “SkyTrain is great as a regional transportation solution.” However, she said, “Our transportation investments need to be different. We need to connect our town centres.”
Surrey-Newton is Surrey’s predominantly South Asian — mostly Sikh — riding with 61% of the population. Visible minorities comprise 76% of the riding — the third most of any riding in B.C. Its roughly 114,000 people are landlocked by other ridings, thus forming much of the city’s suburban core — much of it traffic-congested. Liberal Sukh Dhaliwal, a long-time politician, won with 56% of the vote in 2015; however, it was the NDP that held the realigned riding in 2011 when Jinny Sims won Newton-North Delta with 33%. During four elections since 2004, and before Dhaliwal, the riding’s greatest victor won with just 36% as it appeared to be a toss up between the three major parties.
Newton also holds a lot of industrial land, Huberman said. As such, Canadian policy toward trade with the United States is important.
“We are a border city. We must trade. We must cut down those barriers,” said Huberman.
Yan said Surrey is more sensitive to trade to the U.S. than Vancouver is. “You have fairly sizable parts of the trucking industry along Surrey,” he said. “South Asians are a key part of that economy. The flow of goods has a greater level of connection in Surrey.”
Another key concern raised by Newton businesses is crime. Hardie said federal funding for anti-gang programs has helped.
“We are one of the few ground zeroes when it comes to the drugs and guns and gangs issue. We have more than our share of violence, and although the stats go down, it only takes one incident to really bring it back top of mind,” he said.
Top of mind, of late, has been the unsolved 2018 daytime murder of Paul Bennett, a hockey coach who was gunned down on his driveway in a case of mistaken identity.
Last month, Trudeau made a short stop in Surrey for a rally in which he re-announced a ban on assault rifles and the consent to municipalities to ban handguns.
The NDP has pledged an annual $22.5 million Youth Gang Prevention Fund, a matter Jagmeet Singh raised while visiting Surrey in late September.
Conservatives have pledged just as much anti-gang funding but also to end automatic bail for gangsters and revoke their parole rights. It also plans to pre-identify gangs under the Criminal Code, making prosecutions easier.
No party has considered re-establishing a dedicated police force for the ports.
Liberal hold in Surrey Centre would be ground-breaking
The Surrey Centre riding is home to much street-level criminal activity as it encapsulates the emerging condo-laden downtown core of Surrey and holds all four of its SkyTrain stations to Vancouver. It has an industrial zone and commercial port along the Fraser River to the north and detached homes south of downtown. On the whole, the riding is ethnically diverse, but groups are largely segregated within their respective neighbourhoods — South Asians living south of downtown with Europeans to the north and a growing Chinese population at the centre. Liberal Randeep Sarai won his first election in 2015 with 45% of the vote, ending a 15-year back-and-forth tilt between the Conservatives and New Democrats. The riding was redistributed in 2015 but largely reflects the old Surrey North, which had gone to Jasbir Sandhu of the NDP in 2011. In 2008, Conservative Chuck Cadman won.
“It has never been won by the same party back-to-back,” since 1997, said Thind.
Housing affordability an issue from top to bottom
“Community safety is a big issue in Surrey,” said Conservative candidate for South Surrey-White Rock Kerry-Lynne Findlay, a lawyer and former federal cabinet minister who ran unsuccessfully in 2015. “Obviously, there is a lot of concern about gangs and gang violence.”
However, she concedes it’s not as much of a factor in the ocean-side riding that is Surrey’s most wealthy and predominantly European (68%), encompassing the small municipality of White Rock, neighbouring the Peace Arch border, a busy truck crossing. It is, to date, Scheer’s only stop in Surrey.
Conservative Russ Hiebert had won four consecutive elections since 2004 but retired for the 2015 election, leaving the door open for newcomer Dianne Watts, who utilized her name recognition as long-time Surrey mayor to stave off the anti-Conservative wave by winning 44%, compared with Liberal candidate Judith Higginbotham’s 41%. However, when Watts left Ottawa in 2017 to pursue the BC Liberal leadership, a byelection was held on December 11, 2017, pitting two new star candidates against one another. This time, 20-year BC Liberal South Surrey MLA Gordie Hogg won for the federal Liberals over Findlay 47% to 42%. The NDP only got 5% of the vote, reflecting a nationwide meltdown of support.
Findlay says affordability is the main issue in the riding. Her party’s goal is to reduce taxes by cutting government spending.
Real estate prices have soared in South Surrey, leaving a sour taste among even homeowners whose adult children struggle to enter the market. Findlay says Metro Vancouver is a desirable place to live, which boosts home prices. Immigration is another factor, she said.
“They’ve brought their money from elsewhere into the country and let’s face it, in other countries you don’t have the same tax structure.
“So you’ve got a lot more money in your pocket, a lot more savings, when you come back to Canada, which allows you to buy a big ticket item like a house,” said Findlay.
As former Minister of National Revenue, Findlay said tax avoidance in real estate was “on the radar.” However, it has been the Liberals who have invested in more audits, resulting in $481.5 million in B.C. assessments since April 2015.
Findlay says, knowing what she knows now, there is even more room for better tax compliance measures in real estate. Her party has promised a national inquiry into money laundering, which has buoyed B.C. home prices, according to a 2019 report to B.C.’s government. To tackle foreign speculation, the NDP is promising a 15% foreign homebuyer’s tax and the Liberals have promised a 1% annual vacancy and speculation tax on applicable residential properties owned by non-resident, non-Canadians.
Findlay said Surrey’s proximity to the border has meant its residents are keenly interested in immigration policy. She cited a recent court case of human smuggler Michael Shun Lok Kong, who routinely helped Chinese nationals sneak across the unfenced border.
“We see it in high volume in Ontario and Manitoba, but it’s happening here. And this is upsetting people. Some of the most upset are our new Canadians. They say: ‘We waited in line,’” said Findlay.
“We believe in robust immigration,” she said. “When you have an orderly system the overall support for immigration goes up. We believe our approach…brings the whole population on board with welcoming and integrating new Canadians.”
Small ‘c’ conservatives a likely factor further east
More conservative views on immigration and society are likely to be found in the Cloverdale-Langley City riding that contains the eastern part of Surrey and the City of Langley.
“As you get closer to Langley, it will be harder for progressives to win,” said Thind.
The riding was newly formed in 2015 from three of the region’s previous ones. It is a predominantly European riding (64%), with South Asians comprising only 14% of the area. Liberal John Aldag, like colleague Sarai, won his first election with 46% of the vote. Aldag didn’t have to run against Conservative warhorse Mark Warawa, who dominated the Langley riding since 2004 and won Langley-Aldergrove in 2015 before passing away this year.
Aldag was a member of the Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying. He supports physician-assisted death and said the committee was too conservative in its outcome, which has been ruled in Quebec as too restrictive.
Aldag’s main competitor is Conservative candidate Tamara Jansen, who takes a pro-life stance and opposes medical assistance for death. At the 2018 March for Life event in Victoria, she likened hospices using such policies to death camps.