Surrey residents will have their say on a binding referendum on Surrey’s controversial policing transition after Elections BC has approved an initiative petition application that has been launched by the widow of a Surrey murder victim.
Darlene Bennett, whose husband Paul Bennett was shot dead in front of their home in Cloverdale in 2018 in what police believe was a case of mistaken identity, must collect the signatures of at least 10 per cent of registered voters in all of B.C.’s 87 electoral districts, and submit them by Nov. 15.
After the petition will be issued on Aug. 16 Bennett will have 90 days to collect the necessary signatures. Anyone opposed to the initiative who intends to advertise or canvass for signatures against it must register with Elections BC and has until July 19 to do so.
Her campaign is catching fire. By press time Tuesday more than 60 canvassers had signed on and 60 more have also offered to volunteer in some capacity or another. People wanting to help can find out how at https://www.surreypolicevote.ca
One day after the website was launched it had more than 2,000 subscribers and at press time Tuesday had received roughly $3,000 in donations.
“It’s been very positive,” Bennett said of the initial feedback. “They want to help me out, which I am so grateful for.”
Campaign manager Brock Stephenson said they are “overwhelmed by how many people are interested in canvassing. We’ve got interest from as far away as Vancouver Island – we’re getting some interest from across the province. There’s quite a few people throughout the Lower Mainland that are interested.
“The people that are interested are extremely interested.”
Bennett said she’s “very excited, hopeful with Elections BC passing the citizens initiative for a binding referendum in Surrey on the policing issue,” Bennett said. “I hope this gives the residents of Surrey a voice. I hope they will be heard and I hope everyone is able to make an informed decision.”
“I think the residents of Surrey deserve this. This is their public safety, they’re paying for it, they deserve to have a voice, and they deserve to be heard,” Bennett said.
Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum, who campaigned on replacing the Surrey RCMP with a city-made police force, said this latest development “will not slow down the building of our independent Surrey Police.
“Transitioning to an independent police service was the number one election issue for residents in 2018, and shortly after this council was sworn in, it unanimously voted in support of the Surrey Police Transition,” McCallum said. “The province has said before that it is not interested in a referendum, and this will not change, as they have been supportive of the transition since day one.
“The idea of a provincial referendum on a municipal matter is extremely dangerous for every city’s democratic process,” McCallum added. “Our residents are clearly in support of this transition, and we are pressing forward everyday, moving closer to fully operating the Surrey Police Service.”
According to an Elections BC statement issued June, the purpose of the draft bill “is to have the provincial government conduct a regional binding referendum in the City of Surrey on the question of whether the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) should be retained as the police service or whether a proposed Surrey Police Service should replace the RCMP.”
“If held,” Elections BC explained, “the referendum would be comprised of a single question regarding whether to retain the RCMP as Surrey’s police service or create a new Surrey Police Service, as proposed. The referendum would be binding under Section 4 of the BC Referendum Act.”
Surrey city Councillor Brenda Locke, who has unsuccessfully tried to get a referendum vote before council, is elated.
“It will be binding,” Locke said of Bennett’s referendum campaign. “Don’t get me wrong, it will be difficult, it will be hard. But I do think there is motivation outside of Surrey.”
Meantime, Locke plans to pursue her referendum-related motions despite the mayor having found them to be out of order.
“My lawyer’s opinion is just so clean and so clear how in the heck we ever got the opinion from our lawyer, at least the way the mayor described it, I don’t know. So I definitely will be bringing it up at the next (council) meeting.”
Councillor Jack Hundial called Elections BC’s decision a “great step forward in having the taxpayers getting a say.
“With the engagement process approved at the last council meeting, the true test will now be to see if the mayor and his team will actually stand by allowing citizens to have a voice,” he said.
Councillor Doug Elford, of the Safe Surrey Coalition, said of Bennett’s campaign and Election BC’s decision, “this is just a part of a process that the government’s going through.
“To be honest I think it’s going to be more symbolic than anything else,” he said, considering her timeline and the number of signatures she must collect. “To me, I’d really like to see a referendum on the ward system myself, that is my preference, and I think that is more important than trying to turn back something that I believe is already way down the road. We’re hiring constables now and I just don’t see this turning around.”
In February Hundial and Locke took their fight against Surrey’s policing transition province-wide, sending out a letter to more than 1,000 elected officials in local governments calling for a feasibility study and warning them that this unprecedented transition will come with financial consequences for all B.C. cities that are policed by the RCMP.
“There’s a lot of local governments that are not happy with this,” Locke said.
Meantime, Bennett’s is the second initiative petition application to be approved this year and the 14th since the Recall and Initiative Act came into force in 1995. She is being helped by Bill Tieleman, who helped former Social Credit premier Bill Vander Zalm conduct a referendum campaign that defeated the Harmonized Sales Tax in 2011.
“I’m very excited to be involved in this campaign because I think it is what is democracy at its best – it’s local citizens, in this case in Surrey and also in other parts of the province, saying that they want to have a say, they want to have a voice in who polices them in Surrey,” Tieleman said. “This is a very expensive decision, a very controversial decision, and it’s only right that the voters of Surrey have the final say, not politicians, not bureaucrats.”
Tieleman said they will be focusing particularly on Surrey’s nine provincial ridings because “this is a Surrey issue, it’s not a provincial issue. And that’s one of the flaws in the Initiative Act, it doesn’t allow for a regional referendum in a regional initiative.”
However, he noted, the BC Referendum Act allows cabinet to designate a regional referendum and it could decide “at any point in time” that Surrey deserves to have a referendum.
“I think what we’re attempting to show here is that there is strong support in Surrey for a actual referendum on the policing issue and we believe and hope that when citizens come out and show their support for this initiative that the government will have to listen.”
It’s been a busy but also difficult week for Bennett. Her late husband Paul, a hockey coach and operating-room nurse, was killed on June 23. Police have yet to identify a suspect in this the third anniversary of his murder.
“It’s a hard week to get through,” she said.
Stephenson, her campaign manager, said he hopes to set up booths to collect petition signatures at banquet halls, outside grocery stores, and at gurdwaras and churches, “things like that.”
“Where we can rent a room and socially distance,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure out where the public health measures for Fraser Health and the province will be by at the middle of August. I assume things will relax but we won’t know if they’ll tighten up again as we move further into the fall.”
Stephenson said the goal is to get the required 10 per cent in Surrey’s nine ridings “as quickly as possible” and have the first booth set up on day one, Aug. 16, but the location hasn’t been chosen yet.
“We’ll absolutely do our best to be in every neighbourhood of Surrey over the three month campaign.”
Ivan Scott, organizer of the Keep the RCMP in Surrey campaign, said his group thanks Bennett and her group for “running with this ball.
“We support her 100 per cent in her endeavour. Accordingly, we are urging all KTRIS supporters to help Darlene in ensuring that her initiative succeeds,” Scott said. “She is looking for at least 600 canvassers who if they each only bring in 55 signatures, Darlene will have the 33,000 signatures required for qualification. If she manages to get 40 or 50 or 60,000 signatures in the 90 day collection period, what message do you think that will send to the provincial government?