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Shopping for Surrey: three-way fights make this B.C. city central to campaigns

August 19, 2015

By Stephanie Levitz, Globe and Mail |

For 45 minutes on a recent rainy Friday afternoon in Surrey, B.C, the flow of shoppers in and out of the grocery store never stopped.

Women in bright floral Indian suits, turban-clad husbands walking alongside, jostling against retired seniors clutching coupons, while four kids and their mother jumped out of a navy blue luxury SUV, parked next to a dirt-encrusted 70s-era Ford pick up.

Welcome to Vancouver’s fastest-growing suburb, where 44 per cent of the population has a mother tongue other than English or French and where all three main federal parties are waging tough fights to have their political language become number one.

The three-way race here is reflected throughout the province, a reality of British Columbia’s unique political culture, said longtime Conservative strategist Hamish Marshall.

“It’s going to be a tougher election than past ones.”

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair arrives here today. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was here the day the campaign began. And Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is likely to spend many days here in the remaining two months of the campaign.

There’s no clear winner in this population of about 470,000 people; of its four main ridings, two are currently held by the Conservatives, two by the NDP. But vote totals and polls suggest all four will be a fight, in some cases between the Tories and NDP and in others the NDP and Liberals.

The votes in play belong to the key demographic each party says should be theirs — families.

Statistics Canada says most families in Surrey are made up of three or more people, but veteran campaigners say those stats don’t reflect the fact that three or four generations of one family can live in the same house, leaving door-knockers often at a loss when it comes to recording political support.

A complicating factor is that most people who live in Surrey don’t work there and have long commutes each day, making after-supper and on-weekends the only time to make a political pitch.

So while political messaging on jobs is important, what is often on people’s minds is how they’ll get to those jobs. Many expect the Conservatives to make a campaign pledge on the issue, backed by their star candidate for the city, former Surrey mayor Diane Watts.

The Conservatives are perceived as being vulnerable, however, on another key issue for the city — crime.

Their tough-on-crime approach doesn’t jibe with a gang war that’s plagued the city for months, even though the government pledged an additional 100 RCMP officers earlier this year.

A former Mountie is among those thinking the Tories are going the wrong way. Retired RCMP inspector Garry Begg, who spent eight of his 38 years working in the Surrey detachment, is running for the NDP.

When he retired, a local newspaper for the Indo-Canadian community described him as one of its long-time friends; South Asians are the dominant ethnic group in Surrey, representing about 30 per cent of the city’s total population but in some ridings, are more than half.

Begg is running in the riding currently held by longtime Conservative MP Nina Grewal, who comes from an influential South Asian family that has been instrumental in holding the support of that community for the Conservatives.

The Conservatives’ increased focus on punishing criminals is welcome, but many are also looking for more focus on keeping young men away from crime in the first place, said Rattan Mall, the editor of the influential local newspaper the Indo Canadian Voice.

While South Asians by no means vote as a block, crime is among the universally important issues, as is immigration.

“The Conservative have brought in more immigrants, but overall, there is the impression among South Asians that it’s the Liberals who were responsible for their families being there in the first place,” he said, alluding to immigration policies of past Liberal governments that spurred a settlement boom among South Asians in B.C.

Sukh Dhaliwal’s family arrived in Canada in the 1980s and his admiration for Pierre Trudeau is what drove him to run for the Liberals in 2004. He won the riding of what’s now Surrey-Newton in 2006, the first time the Liberals had won in decades.

But he lost in 2011 to the NDP’s Jinny Sims by only 900 votes, a loss he attributes partially to the collapse of the Liberal vote across the country under Michael Ignatieff.

This time, he said if he wins it will be in part because of Justin Trudeau himself.

When Trudeau attends events, he works the room, talking and taking pictures with everyone. The result is a leader who knows Surrey better than any other, he said.

“If you don’t pay attention, you don’t see what’s needed on the ground,” he said in an interview at the engineering business he’s had for years.

In 2012, Dhaliwal was charged with six counts of failing to file income taxes in relation to that business. He pleaded guilty and paid a fine.

In a strip mall a few kilometres away, Sims was in the midst of organizing volunteers and getting her campaign office set up. Workers were still putting up walls and lights, but bright orange pencil holders were already sitting next to every phone bank.

The personal connection with voters is important but the ballot box question is bigger than that, she said.

“I always say to people, don’t vote for me because of the colour of my skin or because I might be from the same village,” she said.

“Vote for me based on my abilities, what I believe in and what you think I can do.”

Her reputation, however, took a beating recently with revelations that the NDP were seeking Punjabi speakers to do voter contact work for less than they were paying English speakers.

It may cost her at least one vote — a Surrey cab driver ferrying a reporter around the area said he was furious at the insult.

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