It’s a new political landscape for Metro Vancouver municipalities after an election night of surprises, upsets and much nail-biting.
Thirteen mayors out of 21 in the region decided not to run for re-election this time around — including Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson, Surrey’s Linda Hepner and the three mayors on the North Shore.
“There was a level of animosity towards incumbents,” said pollster Mario Canseco, president of Research Co. Three of eight incumbent mayors and many incumbent councillors lost their seats.
The result is 16 rookie mayors in Metro Vancouver’s 21 municipalities, though a number have experience sitting on city councils.
So what will change?
A shake-up in Surrey signalled changes for regional transit, and a number of new mayors and councils are calling for a slower pace of urban development.
What happened in Surrey?
Crime, especially gang-related violence, has given Surrey a bleak reputation over the years. There have been 33 shootings in the city this year, 10 of them fatal. Last year, there were 59, down from 61 in 2016 and 88 in 2015. Respondents in a July poll by Research Co. named crime as the top issue for the fast-growing municipality of over 550,000 people.
Voters elected a mayor and council who put crime and public safety front and centre in their campaigns.
Doug McCallum, who served two terms as Surrey mayor from 1996 to 2005, returns to the role after his party was elected in a near sweep, booting out a majority Surrey First council under former mayor Hepner.
Considering McCallum’s priorities, his party is aptly named the Safe Surrey Coalition. The lone opposition voice to Safe Surrey elected was Linda Annis, the executive director of Metro Vancouver Crime Stoppers. (Annis ran with Surrey First.)
“A lot of people from Safe Surrey plus the candidate from Crime Stoppers — that tells you the kind of concerns that residents have,” said Canseco. “It wasn’t the transportation candidate elected or education or anything of that sort: people voted for safety.”
Canseco added that the splintering of the Surrey First party – which won elections thanks to the personalities of mayoral candidates Dianne Watts and Linda Hepner — also helped hand McCallum victory.
McCallum’s big promise was to create a municipal police force. The city currently has Canada’s largest RCMP detachment at 835 officers. It would be expensive to create a municipal force, but McCallum claims it would give the city, as opposed to Ottawa, more autonomy over management.
“Surrey’s gonna shine,” said McCallum in a post-election interview with the Surrey Now-Leader.
One prominent Safe Surrey endorsement came from BC Liberal MLA Rich Coleman of Langley East.
A SkyTrain named Desire
McCallum’s other big proposal made a big splash on the campaign trail and is already shaking up the region’s new guard. He wants to do away with the plan for light-rail transit in Surrey and push for SkyTrain service instead.
Canseco believes only a small “core group” of Surrey residents voted for McCallum based on the SkyTrain promise. But his stance on crime and safety handed him the victory needed to lobby for SkyTrain.
The plan for light-rail transit has already been approved by TransLink’s Mayor’s Council (the region’s 21 mayors sit on it) and federal funds have already been committed. But McCallum doesn’t think the switch will be of “too much concern.”
“Surrey’s waited for 30 years in the region to do it and all the other cities in the region have SkyTrain and I think they recognize it’s Surrey’s turn to have a SkyTrain along the Fraser Highway,” McCallum told CTV News on Tuesday.
As for lobbying the federal government for a switch in funding, McCallum may already have an ally in Vancouver mayor-elect Kennedy Stewart, who wants the Broadway subway in Vancouver to reach UBC, further than Arbutus Street already approved.
A break from building booms
Voters in a number of municipalities elected politicians who pledged to slow the pace of market housing development, though they said they were not anti-development.
This featured prominently in the Burnaby race, which ended Derek Corrigan’s political dynasty. Corrigan sat on city council for 15 years before serving 16 years as Burnaby mayor.
Corrigan’s Burnaby Citizens Association (BCA) party has controlled city council for decades, and observers cited Corrigan’s recent record on housing as the main reason for his loss. His council created a density bonus policy that encouraged the rapid redevelopment of old rental apartment buildings around Metrotown, leaving many low-income renters to seek housing elsewhere. Corrigan has also been accused over the years of not doing enough on the city’s homelessness issue.
Burnaby voters elected independent Mike Hurley, who ran on a platform of “time for change.” Hurley, a former Burnaby firefighter who retired as acting assistant fire chief earlier this year, received backing from the New West and District Labour Council that had endorsed Corrigan in the past. He promised to stop the Metrotown “demovictions” in his campaign.
Hurley sits on a council that remains dominated by BCA councillors. Longtime Coun. Colleen Jordan told The Tyee on election weekend that she expected “growing pains” as mayor and council began working together.
However, a major policy shift by Burnaby Citizens Association in July aligned them with Hurley’s stance on demovictions.
The BCA politicians stopped two developments they believed could have included more non-ownership options and announced that going forward they’d try to have a one-to-one replacement of units destroyed, work with developers to bring displaced renters back into the new buildings and be the first municipality in the province to implement rental zoning.
“We’re very proud of it,” said Paul McDonell. McDonell is returning to council for his fourth term with the BCA.
He doesn’t have worries about having an independent as mayor.
“I think it’ll be OK,” said McDonell. “[Hurley’s] on a steep learning curve, but I think he’ll pick it up.”
McDonell is also a former firefighter, but in Vancouver, and has known Hurley for 25 years.
“I’ve worked close with him on different things at fire halls, regional meetings and we got to know each other and become friends.”
Hurley has mentioned in interviews that many BCA councillors are “personal friends.”
Returning BCA councillor Nick Volkow is another optimist about the prospect of an independent mayor, especially since Hurley is a fellow progressive, he told the Burnaby Now.
The demoviction issues goes beyond Burnaby.
In the District of North Vancouver, Mayor-elect Mike Little wants to avoid the destruction of existing affordable rental buildings while encouraging the construction of new rental units.
And in Port Moody, incoming mayor Rob Vagramov ran on a pledge to avoid what he called the “Metrotownification” of his city.
“The Metrotown model might work for Burnaby or Coquitlam, but Port Moody can do better,” proclaimed campaign materials for Vagramov, who ran for mayor after completing a term on council. “Growth is easy. Retaining what makes your town amazing as it grows requires a fresh approach.”
Vagramov’s approach is in contrast to that of his rival, mayoral incumbent Mike Clay. Clay, like other politicians such as Corrigan who advocated for a faster pace of urban development, often cited population projections. Vagramov has said that he won’t plan for more housing supply than necessary.
Vagramov hopes to achieve his vision of more moderate development by updating Port Moody’s official community plan, with public consultation. He also wants more park space for the city.
Port Moody voters elected enough councillors to support Vagramov’s vision.
Further south in White Rock, the Democracy Direct party that won a council majority also wants to “slow down development” via a new official community plan.
“We want to make sure it works for developers and make sure it works for people,” councillor-elect Scott Kristjanson told the Peace Arch News.
In Surrey, McCallum wants to keep it slow too, and concentrate development on major corridors. He calls this “smart” development.
Other highlights from the region’s elections
- More millennials! This election, 26 out of 155 new mayors and councillors in the region were under 40 years of age. Last election, only 12 candidates under 40 were elected.
- Sunset on mega-mansions: Houses on agricultural land are often larger than those on residential land, and evidence has shown that a number of large homes on Richmond farmland have been purchased for purposes other than housing a farming family — for property tax breaks, renting them out as a high-end guesthouse, or simply to have a big house on a large property. After heated debates on the campaign trail, Richmond voters elected a council majority that wants to limit the size of farmland homes.
- Gridlock on the North Shore: Even before the election, a collaboration called the Integrated North Shore Transportation Planning Project with TransLink, the three North Shore municipalities and the provincial and federal governments was under way. Land use on the North Shore is mostly car-oriented. Growth has exceeded road capacity and public transit is poor. The new mayors and council will have to confront these growing pains together and make North Shore issues heard on the regional level.
- #CouncilSoWhite: Metro Vancouver residents elected a disproportionate number of white politicians compared to the diverse makeup of the region. But does that mean voters are racist? Or are they colour-blind, and few candidates of colour won because they weren’t well-liked? Or perhaps there just weren’t that many good candidates of colour this time around. Do we need a ward system to correct this? Or would it just entice parties to run token candidates of colour? Perhaps ethnocultural groups are still struggling to break into politics in a country with Anglo-French history, just like they are in other institutions like art and sports. The debate rages on.
- The team that’s not a party: There was some controversy in New Westminster when a number of council candidates ran with mayoral incumbent Jonathan Cote under something called “Team Cote.” Team Cote was not an official party and the brand did not show up on ballots, but candidates who ran under the brand endorsed one another, campaigned together and shared lists of supporters. Team Cote candidates were also endorsed by the New Westminster and District Labour Council and the group has ties to the provincial and federal NDP. Critics encouraged Team Cote to make itself an official party for the sake of transparency about behind-the-scenes political machinery. A rival party called New West Progressives said that Team Cote could raise more money by remaining a collection of independents because parties are only able to receive up to $1,200 from an individual donor (regardless of how many candidates they have), the same amount an individual independent candidate can receive. Cote told the Globe and Mail the aim wasn’t to bend rules, but was used because New Westminster hasn’t responded well to political parties in the past. He added that the city has no big donors, and that candidates who are part of Team Cote still run their own individual campaigns. On election night, Team Cote swept the council seats, giving New Westminster a majority progressive council. Pollster Canseco said the approach shows what could be a new model for candidates running independently to grow their support, unless the province forbids the strategy.