In journalism lingo, a story that’s not a simple one-off but rather continues to develop – often with twists and turns – is known in the business as a story with “legs.”
Five stories with “legs” in 2021 in Surrey were – and continue to be into the new year – the 84th Avenue connector at the southern end of Bear Creek Park, the unprecedented-in-scope policing transition to the Surrey Police Service from the Surrey RCMP, reaction to a meaty Surrey property tax hike, Mother Nature showing us little people who’s really boss and, further to that, the COVID-19 pandemic.
On top of what has already become an annual norm for this province – numerous wildfires burning out of control in the summer months – Surrey and the rest of B.C. was also hit with a record-breaking, brutal heat wave in the summer, causing a run on air conditioners at local stores. Canada’s all-time heat record was broken in Lytton in late June, with the mercury climbing to 46 degrees Celsius. In the wake of extreme heat that killed 595 people in the province, with 67 deaths in Surrey, a rally for government action against climate change was staged in Bear Creek Park in September.
And then came the floods. While Surrey wasn’t hit nearly as bad, to say that the Fraser Valley, Hope, Princeton and Merritt were clobbered by “atmospheric streams” of rain – that caused unprecedented flooding – would be an understatement. In South Surrey, the fish hatchery on the Little Campbell River saw spawning Coho salmon spill onto local streets while landslides hit waterfront railway tracks. Unfortunately, some people began hoarding gas and groceries as a result of the Lower Mainland’s supply chain “crisis.”
In keeping with the thematically brutal weather, the year closed out with unseasonably low temperatures for these parts.
Bear Creek Park and the 84th Avenue connector:
In March, the Safe Surrey Coalition majority on council, led by Mayor Doug McCallum, voted to resurrect and fast-track plans to connect 84th Avenue to King George Boulevard at 140 Street at the southern end of Bear Creek Park. Previous councils shelved the $13 million project because of public opposition to it. The old battle was rejoined, with community groups and environmentalists concerned about how the construction of the road will impact natural habitat. The result was protest rallies staged on site and at city hall. Deb Jack and Sebastian Sajda, of Friends of Bear Creek Park, pressed their case to council that just because the city can build a road, it doesn’t mean that it should.
In late July Sajda, Annie Kaps and the Force of Nature Society filed a petition in B.C. Supreme Court against the City of Surrey asking the court to declare as parkland properties to be impacted by the 84 Avenue project. In September, a B.C. Supreme Court judge granted an interlocutory injunction on the project until arguments for and against the petition could be heard on Oct. 14-15.
At the beginning of October, Coun. Mandeep Nagra found himself having to respond to tough questions over a bowling alley his family bought on a stretch of 84 Avenue in West Newton that will eventually be part of the road expansion ultimately connecting Scott Road with Fraser Highway. Nagra maintained he is not in a conflict of interest because his family didn’t know the bowling alley was for sale until months after he voted for the 84 Avenue project.
In October, the Court of Appeal for British Columbia upheld the injunction after the City of Surrey filed an appeal against it. The city’s bid was dismissed one week before the petition was to be heard. At this time of writing, the petitioners were still waiting for a judge’s ruling on it.
In January, Surrey city council unanimously decided to borrow $150.6 million for three major community projects with some councillors expressing trepidation about the city taking on so much debt. Council authorized borrowing, through the Municipal Finance Authority of British Columbia, $40 million to construct a sports complex in the city centre, $20.6 million to build a sports and ice complex in Cloverdale and $90 million to construct a community centre in Newton.
Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum promised that the tax increase would be no more than 2.9 per cent, but when residents got their bill in June many were almost prepared to break out the pitchforks after seeing increases of up to 27.79 per cent. Some businesses were hit with increases from 17 to 86 per cent in property taxes.
In September the city found itself bracing for a “significant impact” on its next budget resulting from salary hikes for Mounties under their first collective agreement. Kam Grewal, Surrey’s general manager of finance, told council, “We’re talking a total aggregate value of close to $25 million if we include 2022, so I think that is quite significant.”
The City of Surrey in December drew substantial criticism for not having a draft budget for 2022 ready for public scrutiny. The city’s proposed budget for 2021 was set out for public viewing by Nov. 16, 2020. On Christmas Eve, the Safe Surrey Coalition majority of five on council gave final approval to its 2022-2026 financial plan containing a 2.9 per cent property tax increase that, according to city hall, will mean taxpayers will pay on average $63 more. The plan was opposed by the other four councillors, maintaining the public had not been afforded enough time to review it.
Surrey’s policing transition:
In February, Surrey Police Board member Bob Rolls, who was on the governance committee, resigned to move to Vancouver Island and has yet to be replaced.
In March, the National Police Federation, which does the collective bargaining for nearly 20,000 Mounties, came out swinging against the Surrey policing transition, claiming it will destabilize policing across the Lower Mainland. In April the SPS’s hiring process came under fire concerning an inspector who was hired shortly after coming off a 90-day driving prohibition for being impaired while behind the wheel. Tempers flared as council locked horns over the transition during a debate on Coun. Brenda Locke’s motion calling for it to go to a referendum.
In May, the Surrey Police Service unveiled its crest, emblazoned with the words respect, integrity and honour. Also that month Cloverdale resident Darlene Bennett, whose husband Paul was murdered in 2018 in a case of what police believe was mistaken identity, filed a petition with Elections BC seeking a binding referendum vote on whether the Surrey Police Service should replace the Surrey RCMP. Opponents of the transition took issue with the SPS for not using polygraph tests to screen its job applicants.
In June, Elections BC gave Bennett’s application the go-ahead, requiring the campaign to submit a required number of petition signatures by Nov. 15. A first group of 46 SPS officers were sworn in with some fanfare in July. Also in that month Coun. Brenda Locke threw her hat in the ring to compete against McCallum for the mayor’s chair in the 2022 civic election, and marked the occasion by vowing to slam the brakes on the policing transition if she is elected with a healthy backing on council.
In August, the Surrey Police Service announced its first group of 50 officers would be patrolling city streets alongside the RCMP by Nov. 30. Locke also asked council to have policing costs recorded “line-by-line” in the city’s 2022 budget but her motion was defeated by the Safe Surrey Coalition majority on council. Meantime, canvassers for the referendum petition were targeted by the city bylaws department which issued them tickets for “advertising” in parks and rising tension between the mayor and opponents of the transition led to a bizarre encounter between McCallum and petition signature campaigners outside the South Point Save-On Foods store in September that resulted in the mayor claiming a car ran over his foot and Coun. Allison Patton characterizing this as “attempted murder.” Later in the month a special prosecutor was appointed to advise the RCMP in its investigation related to a complaint lodged by the mayor.
Meanwhile, the SPS had just hired its 100th officer and a move by the Safe Surrey Coalition to ban from city council chambers seven members of the public, largely affiliated with the Keep the RCMP in Surrey campaign, raised eyebrows and generated outcry from critics who denounced it as undemocratic. The banned group vowed to take legal action in response.
The City of Surrey stepped up its game in October, with bylaws officers now targeting “political” lawn signs in Surrey. The Keep the RCMP in Surrey group called the move anti-democratic but the city maintained the intention was to standardize sign rules. At about this time, news broke that the RCMP was conducting an investigation into possible public mischief related to claims made by the mayor concerning his foot being run over.
The Surrey Police Board heard from its in-house lawyer in October that both the board and Surrey Police Service had been seeing a “lot of action” on the Freedom of Information front, with 95 requests filed up to that point.
Elections BC announced in November that Bennett’s initiative petition calling for a referendum had failed despite campaigners turning in 42,492 signatures – just 2,266 shy of the 45,564 votes McCallum received in the 2018 civic election. The campaigners did not give up the ghost, however, and vowed to continue to fight for a regional referendum though Surrey’s seven NDP MLAs did not jump to champion the cause with cabinet. The SPS, meantime, revealed their new uniforms in preparation for its first 29 officers to begin patrolling city streets in tandem with the RCMP on Nov. 30, with another 21 still awaiting RCMP security clearance before they could also head out on patrol.
At roughly the same time, Assistant Commissioner Brian Edwards, in charge of the Surrey RCMP, issued a statement that he would not tolerate “deliberate” attempts by McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition to undermine public safety in the city, in reply to tweets from the SSC. In December, the police board revealed that the transition was expected to cost $17.2 million in 2021 and $64 million between 2020-2024.
The year ended with a bang for McCallum, charged with one count of public mischief related to the alleged foot injuring incident in September, leading political rivals to call for his resignation as mayor as well as chairman of the police board. His first appearance in Surrey provincial court has been set for Jan. 25. Meantime, many Surrey residents expressed dismay that taxpayers will be paying for his legal costs related to this situation and the Surrey Police Vote campaign filed a formal complaint with the City of Surrey’s ethics commissioner.
On Dec. 14, Surrey’s group of seven residents who were banned from council chambers made good on their promise to seek legal action by filing a petition in B.C. Supreme Court to have it overturned and on Dec. 20 the SSC majority on council rescinded the ban.
Surrey’s massive annual Vaisakhi parade was cancelled again, as it was in 2020. Pre-pandemic, it drew a half-million people to Newton’s street.
In April, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry introduced new “circuit breaker” restrictions to fight a spike in COVID-19, among them a ban on indoor restaurants and pubs. It was a tough pill to swallow for Surrey businesses, economically speaking. One local business casualty of the pandemic was Whalley’s iconic Round Up Cafe.
Once vaccines were available authorities targeted areas and age groups most at risk, with the provincial government declaring Surrey a “major priority” as the vaccines were rolled out. People’s mental health took a beating, as not being able to socialize, enjoy a warm hug and of course fear of contracting the potentially deadly virus led Sheila Malcolmson, B.C.’s minister of health and addictions, to remark in May that “COVID has made everything worse.”
Pop-up and drop-in vaccination clinics were rolled out in Surrey and elsewhere in the Fraser Health region, resulting in long line-ups. In June, 19 mayors in the Fraser Health region participated in a “community immunity” challenge but Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum declined despite this city being one of those hardest-hit by the virus. With a surge in infections in August, the provincial brought back its indoor mask mandate and launched a vaccine passport program that required anyone wanting to go see a movie, dine in a restaurant or attend ticketed sports events to have one. In September the provincial government issued online COVID-19 vaccination cards required to enter sporting events, restaurants and concerts.
Surrey parents and teachers rallied in September at Holland Park, seeking a stronger mask mandate before the 2021-22 school year began, seeing the return of full-time face-to-face learning. The vaccine passport rule also came into effect at local recreation centres in September and in October the provincial government began issuing fines to bars and restaurants for not checking customers’ vaccination status. A survey in October indicated one third of B.C. businesses weren’t checking for proof of vaccination. Also in October provincial Health Minister Adrian Dix announced that non-urgent surgeries would resume at Surrey Memorial Hospital.
The Surrey School Board decided in November not to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for staff while Dr. Elizabeth Brodkin, Fraser Health’s chief medical officer, said booster shots will probably be the new reality.
“Vaccination was our ticket out of small pox, it was our ticket out of polio, it was our ticket out of measles and it is our ticket out of this,” Brodkin said.
Surrey city council, unlike the school board, adopted a full vaccination mandate for staff as well as themselves with those choosing not to abide then required to participate in a rapid testing program and turn in a negative test result before each shift. The Surrey Board of Trade, meantime, was trying to “drill down” on the reasons why small businesses were having such a rough time finding and retaining employees, particularly in lower-paid jobs, during the pandemic.
In December the Omicron variant of COVID-19 hit with a vengeance, resulting in a spike of new infections in Surrey and around the world.