Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum is back, but his future (and the city’s) is uncertain

Doug McCallum regained the Surrey mayor's chair last fall by offering easy-sounding solutions when it comes to policing, transit and real estate development. The veteran politician says he's changed along with B.C.'s second-largest city, but is he the right person to lead it into the future?

Credit: Robert Kenney

During his mayoral campaign, McCallum pledged to build SkyTrain instead of light rail from Surrey to Langley

Doug McCallum regained the Surrey mayor’s chair last fall by offering easy-sounding solutions when it comes to policing, transit and real estate development. The veteran politician says he’s changed along with B.C.’s second-largest city, but is he the right person to lead it into the future?

On election night last October, Doug McCallum did something no other mayor would dare to try in this region where beleaguered residents are wracked by angst over the cost of housing and seething with resentment toward developers and anyone they perceive as the 1 percent. The newly elected Surrey mayor dedicated a notable part of his victory speech to lavish appreciation for a prominent Surrey developer, would-be casino builder and contributor of tens of thousands of campaign dollars.

“I want to give thanks to a person who is the reason I’m here today,” said McCallum, his voice straining as the then-74-year-old struggled to make himself heard over the raucous celebrations. “I’ve known him 40, 45 years. He worked with me tirelessly. Truly, he’s a friend of mine. I want everyone to thank very much Bob Cheema.”

That’s pure McCallum, strolling nonchalantly through minefields where others fear to tread. During the campaign, the unassuming-looking candidate—balding, on the short side, with his rimless glasses and standard-issue suit jackets over open-necked, sometimes slightly wrinkled shirts—blew past opponents who dismissed him as a doddering senior citizen, talking over them in debates to drive home his simple, easy-to-understand points: Get rid of the RCMP. Get rid of light rail. Get development away from nice single-family areas and put it beside transit. Post-election, he brushed aside a TV news story about his tendency to live in a world of his own magical facts.

And now he chugs on toward the two big projects he campaigned on almost exclusively. Those would be switching Surrey’s big new transit project from light rail to SkyTrain and shifting the city’s RCMP service to a municipal police force—two moves that have stirred up a lot of questions from both Surrey residents and politicians around the region about how doable or expensive those projects might be.

For the more than half-million residents of B.C.’s second-largest and fastest-growing city, it’s been an unsettling time. Surrey, once a vast tract of farmland, has changed dramatically since McCallum was first elected to council in 1993. Then the population was just creeping past 250,000, three-quarters of whom lived in single-family houses spread out along the city’s agricultural road grid. Barely more than a quarter were classified as “visible minority.”

McCallum fit right in as mayor, with his pleasant house in Crescent Beach that he’d bought for a mere $80,000 in 1988, shepherding a suburban community that was primarily focused on cheap housing for families whose wage-earners were expected to commute elsewhere to earn a living. Many voters identified with him, a guy who had moved away from the city—he was a grad of Magee Secondary School in Kerrisdale—for a new life in the suburbs, a small-business owner with a modest home décor business in Richmond.

Now this city with some spectacular views of mountains, ocean and river has become a different place. It’s as big as Vancouver was in 2011, edging toward 550,000, with six distinct neighbourhoods that range from mansion-prone South Surrey to a Downtown Eastside–like strip of despair in Whalley. It’s one of the region’s prime landing spots for refugees and a home to never-ending development. And McCallum’s house is now valued at $1.5 million.

Surrey First finishes second

Many people didn’t expect McCallum, who reigned as Surrey mayor from 1996 to 2005, to win last year, even though he’d won every election handily during that time on his no-tax-increases, keep-the-city-problems-out-of-our-suburb platforms. But he’d been soundly beaten in 2005 by then–city councillor Dianne Watts.

Watts went on to attract flattering attention with her plan to turn Surrey into a real city, with a downtown and fusion festivals and bike lanes. McCallum tried for a comeback in 2014 and failed. He only entered the 2018 race in mid-July, the day after former BC Liberal deputy premier Rich Coleman, who’d been courting his support, decided not to run, a withdrawal that came shortly after the first of B.C.’s money-laundering reports blew up in the media with accusations that the Liberals, with Coleman a key player, had allowed that mess to fester.

To some observers of the campaign, McCallum seemed kinda old and out of it, repeatedly referring, in his sometimes quavery voice, to “Youber” (a mash-up of Uber, which he meant to talk about, and YouTube) and displaying other signs of a person occasionally living in the previous century.

But he won his bid for a comeback—and a final act that could help erase his earlier defeats—thanks to what almost everyone describes as Surrey’s weird political landscape, where campaigns often seem to be less about the issues than tribal alliances. As Jagdeesh Mann wrote in the Georgia Straight during the campaign, Surrey’s South Asian community has a complex dynamic. “There are many fragmented groups, and extended families who are often at loggerheads with each other, jockeying for influence in one form or another.”

In that world, McCallum didn’t win by the landslide that he unfailingly suggests. He won largely because the party Watts had created, Surrey First, ripped itself in half, with three councillors leaving for a new party. The stake was even more firmly driven into the heart of the old Surrey First when Tom Gill, the councillor chosen as the mayoral candidate for Watts’ party, struggled with anonymous suggestions in flyers distributed around the city, as well as heavily negative coverage from the Punjabi-language radio station that broadcasts from Point Roberts, just across the Canada-U.S. border. (McCallum got his share of backlash on social media, but it didn’t seem to stick.) But the mathematical reality is that McCallum only took 41 percent in a low-turnout vote, while most of the rest was split equally between the two Surrey First factions.

Back to the future

Then there are those in the middle, who are simply trying to figure out what’s going on and are baffled by events so far. “We have no idea what his economic path forward is,” says Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman. “Before the election, Surrey was thriving, we had the health-tech district, we were the city to watch. There was so much excitement. Now it’s stopped.”

Echoing some others, she says the mayor doesn’t seem keen on the public ambassador side of his job, declining most invitations. He also doesn’t appear interested in talking to those who disagree with him. “No one can really dialogue with the mayor,” Huberman says. “He will not listen to adverse opinion.”

Some of the most surprised by McCallum’s moves were his own councillors. The split started when a surprise budget went out to the public in December before councillors saw it, one that proposed several controversial cuts, as well as no funding for more police officers. Four of the city’s nine councillors, including three from McCallum’s party, voted against it. That 5–4 split has continued on other issues.

All the signs are there that more turmoil is to come, since the three councillors who have quit the Safe Surrey Coalition this year include former Liberal MLA Brenda Locke and former RCMP officer Jack Hundial, both of whom have strong followings and their own ideas about how to run things. Hundial, who has been particularly critical of McCallum, is pushing for public consultation on the cost and usefulness of switching from the RCMP to a municipal police force.

Locke and Hundial, who had planned to run together before McCallum entered the race, recently spent an afternoon over soda waters at the new hotel across the plaza from city hall, talking about the strange and twisting journey Surrey politics is taking. Months before the two formally left McCallum and his cobbled-together party, it was obvious that they were having a hard time working in the mayor’s harness, though it took until summer for them to make the final break. Locke went first, after McCallum issued a news release criticizing her, and Hundial followed a few weeks later, concerned about the mayor’s whole approach to the police-transition issues.

On that afternoon in March, they’re alarmed by McCallum’s statements that a changeover from RCMP to municipal police will be a snap, noting that Richmond decided not to transition its police force after an estimate showed it would cost $42 million. Hundial (along with the third breakaway councillor, Steven Pettigrew) has asked for a public consultation on the move, something McCallum has said is unnecessary. Hundial is also pushing for an ethics commission and a land inventory, saying he wants the latter to ensure that city property doesn’t get sold off to pay for the expensive SkyTrain and police changes.

But he and Locke are mostly worried about the big picture. “What’s driving me nuts is what is the future,” Locke says as city workers stroll past the hotel windows on their way home. “This is going to be the biggest city in the province, and I don’t see any vision for it.” Hundial, too, is dismayed that things seem to be settling into an old-time status quo. “This city deserves a new type of government, one that’s not placating the same players.”

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

That’s all “whatever, it’s history” territory now. Now the biggest mystery for many in Surrey is what is going to happen in the next three years. Not only with McCallum’s two big projects—SkyTrain and police transition—which are increasingly mired in the kind of Gordian-knot complication that comes with trying to radically change the course of multibillion-dollar operations that involve the federal and provincial governments. But what is going to happen with the dozens of other city decisions that will inevitably land on his desk.

Besides the political wrinkles, early public consultations showed that while Surrey residents appear to be enthusiastic about the switch to SkyTrain, they’re twitchy and dubious about the potential cost of redoing the police force.

Now their city is led by the guy who picked a fight with the RCMP when he was mayor before because he didn’t like them making crime statistics public, adamantly opposed homeless shelters and never seemed to meet a development he didn’t like. That last topic is particularly key, as Surrey keeps pushing through dozens of development approvals a year. Mann notes that McCallum still gets a lot of support from local developers who flourished during his era. One controversial decision from that time: the sale of 250 acres in the new Campbell Heights business park for $35,000 an acre in 2002 to launch the project. (Two acres sold 15 years later for $3.7 million.)

McCallum’s supporters say he will tackle Surrey’s biggest problems unstintingly. “He’s a strong leader, which Surrey needs. He gets things done instead of talking about it,” says new councillor Doug Elford. “And he’s certainly not as conservative as I thought he would be.”

But even Elford admits that he doesn’t know who McCallum takes his advice from. Elford, who used to be a pillar of the political left in Surrey until McCallum recruited him in a last-minute move, is a manifestation of what appears to be the template for local political success established by Watts. That is: Form a party around yourself with the name Surrey in it (McCallum ran under the Safe Surrey Coalition banner from the 2014 race) and include the widest spectrum possible of candidates, even people who belonged to parties once opposed to yours.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart is another surprise ally. “I recognize in him somebody on a mission,” Stewart says. “He wants to get these two things done. So many politicians say things and don’t even try to deliver. I feel a real deep dedication to his community.” As a result, Stewart has provided material help to McCallum, vocally backstopping him at TransLink over his decision to switch to SkyTrain and signing onto an agreement to support Surrey with its police transition.

But McCallum is also generating waves of criticism, from community groups and former councillors but also from some of his own team. Many feel as though they got blindsided after the election by his quixotic decisions about a host of issues that no one had paid attention to during the campaign.

Chief among the critics is Dianne Watts, watching from the sidelines as McCallum appears to be systematically dismantling many of her initiatives. He says he will shrink the scope of Surrey City Development Corp., which Watts had set up to enable the City to become a player in getting downtown developed—an agency that many Surrey developers didn’t like, although outsiders appreciated it.

Since McCallum arrived, the City has pulled out of the health-tech innovation hub and the Surrey Local Immigration Partnership. He’s put several projects on hold, including an arts centre, a library, a community centre and an ice rink. And you get the feeling he’d like to tear down the expensive city hall that Watts got built, as her way of enticing development to Surrey City Centre. To Watts, it feels like a bad flashback. “I do worry about the city,” she says. “We have come so far, and I do worry that we are going back in time.”

Another dismayed watcher is Mike Bola, a young dad who is president of the Cloverdale Community Association. That’s the group that was dumbfounded to hear that, after its members had spent years lobbying to get new ice rinks, McCallum had decided to delay their project because he was apparently worried about how much debt the City was taking on. “I can’t wait till this four years is over,” Bola says. “We don’t know what will happen.”

I believe in development

McCallum dismisses all of that negative thinking and those negative people. In an hour-long interview in his fifth-floor office, which is remarkably generic (though with a gorgeous deck and view of the city-hall plaza) and free of visible personal mementoes, he shows off the kindly grandfather side of his personality that many have warmed to over the years.

He talks with pride about his wife of the past two decades, Donna VanSant, a coach in the education sector, and his three children from his first marriage: two teachers and a B.C. Children’s Hospital nurse. He mentions walking his grandkids to school near VanSant’s house in Crescent Beach, where he now lives. He lights up as he speaks about how energized he’s been by his second crack at the job—something that others are noticing as well—getting in at 6 a.m. He wants to make Surrey a vibrant place that “shows how a large city can have many different cultures.”

He says he now has a different approach to homelessness, after serving on the board of the Law Foundation of British Columbia. Because the foundation gives an annual grant to First United Church, which runs a homeless shelter at the church, he got a close look at the shelter’s operations. There, he says, he became convinced that you can’t push homeless people from one place to another to solve problems. “The homeless, where they locate, that’s their home. I said, ‘Let’s not try to move them; let’s make their home better.'”

But he’s still a development keener. “I believe in development. It creates a huge number of jobs.” It just doesn’t belong everywhere. McCallum says he will let the people decide where it goes. He’s already told some big developers privately that they should stick to building close to transit and to areas already zoned for high density.

As for who he really listens to, that’s still not clear. He’s always been close to key staffers—he was exceptionally tight with his previous city manager and relied on them to carry out his targeted list of must-do projects. For sure, he’s not listening to his subset of recalcitrant councillors. “Jack’s been a big disappointment to me,” McCallum says of Hundial. “But I’m letting it fly right now.”

He has nothing to say about his friend Bob Cheema, brushing aside a question by mentioning that he has several strong supporters in the Indo-Canadian community. Cheema declined to be interviewed, saying he likes to be a private person.

Building a following

With a $1,200 cap on individual donations, several real estate developers gave as generously as they could to Doug McCallum’s 2018 mayoral campaign. Conspicuously absent from the public record was developer Bob Cheema, whom McCallum praised as a key supporter.

In 2014, McCallum lost the mayoral race to Surrey First’s Linda Hepner. He reported raising $258,486.94 for that campaign, which relied heavily on donations from Cheema-owned companies Bill’s Development ($83,062.50) and Popular Group Investment ($21,000).

Total raised for the 2018 campaign: $241,983.11

Total spent: $247,289.90

contributorS: 253

Prominent 2018 contributors

Elizabeth Beedie, Ryan Beedie and Todd Yuen, all affiliated with Beedie: $1,200 each

Dale Bosa, BlueSky Properties: $1,200

Eric Carlson, Allan Copping, Kevin Falcon and Rob McJunkin, Anthem Properties: $1,200 each

Robert Dominick, Weststone Group: $1,200

Brock Dorward, Aspen Developments: $1,200

Kirk and Larry Fisher, Lark Group: $1,200 each

Vaughn Hodson, Kater Technologies (ride-hailing startup backed by the Vancouver Taxi Association as a rival to Lyft and Uber): $1,200

Peter and Ronald Toigo, Shato Holdings: $1,200 each

David, Mary and Peter Wesik, ParkLane Homes: $1,200 each