YEAR IN REVIEW: Our top 10 stories of 2015 in Surrey and Delta

We count down the top 10 stories of 2015, as selected by the Now newsroom

  • Dec. 31, 2015 7:00 p.m.

Police officers at the scene of another call of shots fired. The startling number of shootings on Surrey and Delta streets in 2015 was chosen as the top story of the year.

10. Surrey prepares to house Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees and their speedy acceptance into Canada dominated headlines this fall. The issue became a federal election issue after footage of a dead child refugee was seen around the world. The Liberals promised to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015 if elected, while the Tories promised 10,000. After the Liberals took the election, Trudeau changed that promise to 10,000 by the end of 2015 and the rest by the end of February.

The matter is of particular importance in Surrey, which typically takes in the most government-assisted refugees (GARs) in B.C. From 2010 to 2013, 701 GARs arrived in Surrey. It’s been estimated that 1,000 of the refugees to arrive as part of the government’s commitment will land in Surrey. Of those, 500 are expected to be children and will enter the Surrey School District. Some service groups say they need more money to deliver adequate programming to those coming, such as Whalley’s Umoja Compassion Society.

Terrorist attacks in places such as Paris and Beirut further stirred public debate on the issue. That led to a Surrey Interfaith Pilgrimage being planned. The walk was to honour victims of those attacks but also to foster understanding between people of different backgrounds. “It’s so easy to fear each other,” said Minister Will Sparks with Northwood United Church during the event. “We can’t be doing that.” Donations of clothing and furniture have flooded into local organizations that help refugees, such as the Middle Eastern Friendship Centre in Whalley (shown in photo, above). Several initiatives were launched, including Operation Backpack, to give child refugees everything they need to begin school, as well as a bike drive led by local kids.

 

9. New bridge brings more tolls

If you’re wondering for whom the bridges are tolled, they’re tolled for thee.

Surrey and North Delta residents learned this month that the bridge to replace the George Massey Tunnel, at a cost of $3.5 billion, will be tolled with crossing fees “comparable” to those charged on the Port Mann Bridge.

Crossing the Port Mann Bridge currently costs commuters anywhere between $1.60 for motorcyclists to $9.45 for large trucks. The tolls on that bridge rose on Aug. 15.

Construction of the new 10-lane bridge, to be built over the Fraser River at Highway 99 on the same spot as the aging tunnel, is expected to begin in early 2017. The goal: Fix what is now considered to be the worst traffic bottleneck in the province.

While that’s good news, motorists having to pay a toll to cross four of the five local bridges connecting civilization south of the Fraser River with that of the north – namely, Golden Ears Bridge, the new Port Mann, George Massey Bridge and the eventual replacement of the aged Pattullo Bridge – will no doubt transform the last free option, the Alex Fraser Bridge, into a parking lot.

 

8. Nobody hurt but 220 people lose homes to massive fire in Whalley

Roughly 220 Whalley residents lost their homes in a spectacular early morning fire on Sept. 30.

Flames ripped through the Access apartment complex in the 10800-block of City Parkway. Some tenants had to be rescued from their balconies.

Surrey firefighters think the fire was started by “smoking materials.”

In layman terms, that’s maybe a cigarette butt.

The fire is believed to have started outside, shortly before 6 a.m., and worked its way up into the roof of the four-story complex. Close to 100 of the 253 units were affected.

Roughly 30 firefighters fought the three-alarm blaze and social service workers were kept busy in the following days helping to set up emergency shelter at local hotels for those people who were burned out.

Thankfully, nobody was injured.

 

7. Water restrictions cause tension

A drought hit the Lower Mainland hard this summer. Due to unseasonably dry and hot weather, Metro Vancouver had higher than normal water restrictions and air quality advisories were issued several times due to wildfires throughout the province.

Stage 3 restrictions for Metro Vancouver began on July 20, banning lawn sprinkling and car-washing completely, as well as pressure washing and the refilling of pools and water features.

By early September, the restrictions were brought down to Stage 2, which meant limited lawn sprinkling could resume and car washing was permitted, but only with automatic shutoff hose nozzles. In Surrey, the weather led to a pond almost completely drying up in Fraser Heights.

The pond was home to two Koi fish that were released there illegally decades ago.

The city classified the pond as ornamental, and as such, said it couldn’t refill the pond under the restrictions. A petition was launched in August by residents in attempts to save the fish and one was rescued. In early July, Delta closed Watershed Park, Cougar Canyon Nature Reserve, North 40 Park Reserve and the Delta Nature Reserve to the public. That was after the fire danger rating had been upgraded from high to extreme.

And a North Delta couple was not impressed when, during Stage 3 restrictions, school lawns were being watered – and it wasn’t even school season. “I don’t like to be double standard-ed,” said one. “They should be fining themselves, too.”

 

6. Federal Liberals paint the town red in a majority win over Harper’s Conservatives

Federal Liberals painted the town red in October’s federal election as part of a nationwide electoral sweep that gave Tory prime minister Stephen Harper’s nine-year-old government the brush-off.

With the exception of former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts, who held onto South Surrey-White Rock for the Conservatives, the other five ridings in Surrey and Delta went Liberal.

Other than Sukh Dhaliwal, prior to this election Surrey and Delta voters hadn’t elected an MP from the Liberal Party in many decades.

Some local highlights of the federal election — which itself made history as the longest ever Canadian election campaign at 78 days — included Watts’ controversial campaign flyer concerning terrorists, a dubious “security breach” by three environmentalists whilst Harper was stumping at the Aria Banquet Hall in Brownsville, and former Surrey North Tory MP Dona Cadman endorsing Liberal MP candidate Randeep Sarai in the contest for Surrey Centre.

“It isn’t the same party I joined with,” Cadman said of Harper’s Conservatives.

The election in Surrey saw NDP MPs Jasbir Sandhu and Jinny Sims lose their seats, as did veteran Conservative MP Nina Grewal, in Fleetwood-Port Kells.

Her loss marked the end of an era in Surrey politics as the city had a Grewal MP since 1997, when Gurmant Grewal was first elected as Reform MP for what was then Surrey Central.

He was re-elected in 2000 under the Canadian Alliance banner, and in 2004 as Conservative MP in Newton-North Delta. He didn’t run in 2006 and was a political sideliner ever since. His wife Nina was a three-term MP, representing the Conservatives from 2004 until Liberal Ken Hardie defeated her in October.

The Grewals had made Canadian history as the first married couple to serve as MPs at the same time.

 

5. A game of political football ensues as Surrey waits for 100 new Mounties

Our list would not be complete without mention of the Surrey 100.

Mounties, that is.

Surrey’s city council and the provincial government called on the federal government to deploy 100 new Mounties to the city’s streets following a record-breaking 25 homicides in 2013, growing fear from residents and a flurry of drive-by shootings this past year.

The former Conservative government promised to deliver, under intense pressure from then Surrey NDPs Jasbir Sandhu and Jinny Sims, but the question of just when the new officers would arrive, and in what increments, became quite a political football at all levels of government. The resulting information vacuum wore on increasingly impatient Surrey residents as well.

Surrey had been asking Ottawa for more officers since hockey mom Julie Paskall was killed. She was attacked on Dec. 29, 2013 and died two days later.

In his recent “end of year message” to Surrey residents, Surrey RCMP Chief Supt. Bill Fordy stated that since the approval of 100 new officers for Surrey was given in May, 75 of those positions “have been filled” and 31 new city employees have also been hired. Contractually,  a full 100 new Mounties are to be working in Surrey within 12 months of approval being given.

 

4. Late-summer wind storm punishes Lower Mainland

Several storms walloped the region this year, but a particularly violent one in late August caused power outages to hundreds of thousands of homes across the Lower Mainland, leaving some without power for several days.

It was the single largest power outage event BC Hydro has ever seen. Surrey city workers alone dealt with more than 150 fallen trees.

The outages were costly for many Surrey businesses. The Surrey Night Market was ravaged. “Tents were ripped apart, our fence came down, everything was destroyed,” said director Gary Grewal. The market had to call it quits for the season early and estimated $100,000 in damage.

The Surrey Food Bank was an organization that took a particularly large hit. They lost power for five days, meaning they lost all their perishables, including $2,000 to $3,000 in eggs and milk alone. But Save-On-Foods stepped up to help replace the lost product. Meanwhile, a woman was left fighting for her life after being hit by a falling tree during the storm, near 148th Street and 100th Avenue. Police said the woman, in her 40s, was with her daughter when she saw tree branches falling. She apparently tried to warn others before being struck. Luckily, her daughter managed to jump out of the way. The woman, whose family identified her as homeless, was taken to Royal Columbian Hospital, then transferred to Vancouver General.

 

3. Helicopters spray chemicals to kill dreaded gypsy moth

Gypsy moth spraying caused a flurry of news stories this past spring.

Helicopters repeatedly spraying the area with chemicals to kill the pests had residents worried about what it was doing to their health and that of their children’s. Some worried they were being poisoned, and there were news stories about people getting sick, but Fraser Health officials said they had no cases of people in hospital due to spraying.

Dr. Lisa Mu, medical health officer for Fraser Health, wrote a report saying the pesticide is known only to affect caterpillars but “as a precautionary measure, we are advising residents to avoid contact with the spray and stay indoors with the windows and doors closed for at least 30 minutes after the spray has been completed.”

Helicopters also flew very low to the ground, making for noisy mornings when spraying occurred. Plus, according to some residents, it left a mess. Well over 1,000 people signed a petition demanding the provincial government stop the spraying in Surrey and Delta.

So, why kill the gypsy moths? They are an invasive European pest that eat the leaves of trees and shrubs, posing a serious threat to B.C.’s fruit producers, lumber industry and, by extension, B.C.’s economy. They were found in traps in Surrey in 2013, when a total of 197 male moths were caught. The spraying was declared a success by the province in the fall.

 

2. ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ forces fight for votes in contentious transit tax plebiscite

The transit tax plebiscite was a hot topic last spring. The question? “Do you support a new 0.5% Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax, to be dedicated to the Mayors’ Transportation and Transit Plan?”

The proposed tax would have paid for a 10-year, $7.5 billion transportation plan for the region that the mayors campaigned hard to garner public approval for. Surrey alone spent $240,000 on the “Yes” campaign, yet Delta spent nothing.

Fierce campaigns were unleashed on both sides of the argument.

The “Yes” side argued projects are crucial to the region’s future. Without them, roads will be jam packed, costing the region billions of dollars in congestion, they said. The “Yes” side was joined by a plethora of groups from varying sectors including education, business, industry and more.

From the other side of the field the “No” team, led by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, argued the government should be able to fund these projects within the envelope they currently have, that TransLink has a horrific record and shouldn’t be trusted. In a nutshell: no more taxes.

When the results were made public in July, nearly two-thirds of Metro Vancouver voters said “No” to the proposed tax. In Surrey, 34 per cent of the city’s 123,370 voters said “Yes” and 66 per cent said “No.” The results were similar in Delta.

Jordan Bateman, who led the No TransLink Tax campaign, called the vote a “tremendous victory” for taxpayers. “Our campaign didn’t have millions of taxpayer dollars or fancy CEOs committing their groups to our cause – we had everyday taxpayers who simply believe TransLink wastes too much of our money to be trusted with any more of it,” said Bateman.

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner was obviously disappointed, as she’d hoped some dollars from the plan would help pay for Surrey’s planned $2.2-billion LRT line that she promised during her campaign in 2014. She says she’s working on a public-private partnership to help fund the line.

So what’s to become of the mayors’ $7.5 billion transportation plan that lists Surrey LRT as a priority? During their campaign, federal Liberals promised $2.1 billion for the LRT project, part of a $20-billion commitment to public transportation funding over 10 years.

 

1. Bullets fly as politicians and police attempt to end a lengthy string of drive-by shootings

Surrey had so many drive-by shootings this year, we at the Now sometimes found ourselves changing the numbers in our stories and editorials as they were being written.

At this time of writing, there has been 56 local shootings – the vast number in Surrey, and a couple in North Delta – since the beginning of March. Police staged press conferences to assure residents they were on the case – or  cases – as the bullet casings dropped, mostly in Newton.

During a press conference in April, police said they believe two groups – one of Somalian decent, the other, South Asian – were responsible for most of the shootings to date. They characterized it as a fight over dial-a-dope turf in North Delta and Surrey.

The biggest challenge the police and local politicians clearly faced, and face, is how to get those alleged to have been involved in the shootings, and those who have snubbed police, to co-operate with investigators.

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner and police found themselves struggling to find ways to loosen lips.

During a press conference, Hepner said she would speak with the attorney general about making shooting victims who refuse to co-operate with police pay their own hospital bills.

Remarkably, albeit of course tragically, there have been only two drive-by shooting fatalities in Surrey this year – Surrey-Newton NDP MLA Harry Bains’ nephew Arun Paul Singh Bains, and Surinderpal Singh Hehar – were both killed in separate shootings. Police have not connected those shootings to any gang warfare, though, and suspects have yet to be caught.

In Newton, one shooting in September happened uncomfortably close to Strawberry Hill elementary, which was hit by bullets as gunmen in one car opened fire on another.

A 22-year-old man was shot but survived.

It’s remarkable no one else was hit, as the school’s playground is typically busy at that time of day.

“It’s outrageous that it’s happening at all,” Surrey school district spokesman Doug Strachan said at the time.

The Surrey RCMP has arrested two suspects in that case.

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