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Surrey is Western Canada’s fastest-growing city, but it can’t outgrow its crime reputation

A competitor takes part in a turban tying competition in Surrey earlier this year. The city has a vibrant South Asian culture.

JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS 

A competitor takes part in a turban tying competition in Surrey earlier this year. The city has a vibrant South Asian culture.

‘Crime is an overhead you have to pay if you want to live in the city’

— George Moscone, San Francisco mayor (1976-78)

SURREY, B.C. — The parking lot of the Newton Arena & Community Centre leads out onto 136B St. About 3,000 square metres in size, the concrete slab holds 92 stalls and a plethora of trees. Across the road is the Recreation Centre, which houses the popular wave pool, a gymnasium and the only public wrestling room in the city.

A well-used slab of Canadian ice sits inside the arena. Bench seating for 150, a scoreboard and skate shop. Black metal beams drape over the frozen surface, local advertisements line the walls on each side. The City of Surrey offers skating programs for all ages here, as well as various leagues, including Tot’s Fun Hockey, and sledge hockey lessons for those who want to learn the Paralympic sport. The arena, which also houses the local bus terminal, is the heart of the local community. All veins lead to the block that inhabits the two recreational buildings.

On Dec. 29, 2013, Julie Paskall was waiting in the Newton Arena parking lot for her son, Caelyn, to finish refereeing a hockey game. As she sat in her car, the hockey mom was brutally attacked and beaten senseless with a rock in an attempted robbery. She was found bloody, unconscious and rushed to Surrey Memorial Hospital where she was put on life-support. Friends and family held their collective breaths for a recovery, however two days later, on New Year’s Eve, she died due to severe brain injuries.

Mourners held candlelight vigils, while flowers and cards piled up in the parking lot. But soon grief turned to frustration and frustration to anger. Paskall’s death was the third murder in five days for a city with a population of just over half a million. Residents wanted action; they wanted quick and swift justice for the assailant. They wanted their community cleaned up, no longer accepting of the almost cyclical mantra haunting the city they called home:

Another day, another homicide for Surrey.

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The Fraser River slashes through the lower mainland of British Columbia, dumping into the Pacific Ocean. Before its final destination, as the river veers southwest underneath the brand-new, postmodern cable-stay Port Mann Bridge — which cost taxpayers an estimated $3.3 billion — the tributary serves as a cultural divide to those who know the area well.

To the north is Vancouver, growing from tiny beginnings around a sawmill in the late 1800s to one of the most desirable cities in the world. West is Richmond, with a population that’s close to half of Chinese descent, giving the city a distinctly Asian feel. Back across to the east, a new metropolis is taking shape. The one Canada’s 2011 census revealed as Western Canada’s fastest-growing city by percentage growth. Surrey’s proliferation is unmatched on the West Coast, on average more than 1,200 people are added to its population each month. As the city expands, a picture appears of a community both struggling with its past while employing progressive ideas as it leaps into the future. Its story is much like Winnipeg, where growth and economic prosperity are marred by one statistic: While crime is dropping across the nation, both cities still sit well above the national Crime Severity Index average.

After her final state of the city address, outgoing three-term Surrey mayor Dianne Watts was given applause fit for a queen. It was standing room only as she delivered a speech that read like a laundry list of civic accomplishments. Watts, previously a credit manager and materials consultant for an architecture firm before winning a seat on council, took the shaky controls of Surrey in 2005 and helped right the ship’s course when the city was an afterthought in the big picture of the province’s lower mainland. Her glow was so everlasting, her hand-picked successor, councillor Linda Hepner, coasted to the mayor’s chair this past November in a landslide victory promising to carry on her legacy. While Winnipeg is celebrating its first Métis mayor in Brian Bowman, seen as a victory for the indigenous population, Surrey stayed the course and chose not to elect Barinder Rasode, who would’ve become North America’s first female South Asian mayor. The two cities both have distinct visible minority groups, which have given them identity and forced them to ask questions about race relations in today’s 21st century.

When Surrey first incorporated in 1993, it was primarily a bedroom community of commuting lower-class workers. Cheap housing complexes attracted a distinct socio-economic group. By 2002, it was named the Car Theft Capital of North America and was, quite frankly, a place to avoid. Rife with gangs, full of undesirables, Surrey was a spill-over zone where frenetically placed housing was littered between large plots of underused agricultural land.

Fast-forward to 2014, and Vancouver’s prestigious Bosa Properties is planning a massive upscale highrise project called University District that looks straight from the affluent complexes that house Vancouver’s upper crust milieu in False Creek. Bosa has snatched up enough real estate in downtown Surrey to erect half a dozen or so buildings, as the central core plans to erect a monstrous skyline across the Fraser River.

While there is no exact turning point to signal when the city went from afterthought to up-and-coming, Surrey’s revitalized downtown City Centre plan gave the community a new sense of pride. Simon Fraser University was the first notable stakeholder to set up shop in 2002, and city hall now has a brand-new office space that opened earlier this year, designed by renowned international architectural firm Kasian. Once simply a Skytrain stop, City Centre now encompasses “Innovation Boulevard,” a term coined by the mayor’s Health Technology Working Group. Housing the revitalized Surrey Memorial Hospital — which recently underwent a $512-million facelift to increase its capacity by 30 per cent — City Centre is a sneak peek into how downtown cores develop in today’s modern age of urban planning. Other burgeoning metropolises should be taking notes, as city hall works with various public and private entities toward a deliberate vision void of urban sprawl and teeming with integrated networks of residents, commercial outlets and recreational amenities specifically tailored and strategically placed — all the while adhering to sustainable growth standards.

However, the good news always seems to be lined with a sour taste. In 2013, Surrey posted its worst homicide rate on record, a whopping 127 per cent rise from the previous year. The recent killing of Surrey teen Serena Vermeersch, allegedly by a recently paroled felon who boasted about reoffending upon release, only added fuel to this fire. Meanwhile, in B.C. Supreme Court this spring, the infamous Surrey Six trial unfolded under the national eye. Six people brutally murdered execution style in 2007 as part of a gang turf war, two of the victims nothing more than innocent bystanders. The complex where the killings took place, the Balmoral Court-Tower, is less than 1,000 metres from Bosa’s planned highrise. The apartment complex is an asterisk as the city sprouts new developments, as if to take two steps forward, one step backwards.

 

Crime is nothing short of electrically charged in both Surrey and Winnipeg. While Winnipeg Police Service statistics from 2013 showed a 13 per cent drop in total violent crimes over 2012 and a 17 per cent decrease in property-related crimes over the same period, police Chief Devon Clunis admitted there was still a long way to go before the city could applaud its crime rate.

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“Certainly, there have been a number of residences and business owners that have expressed some concern about crime in the city of Surrey,” said RCMP Const. Dale Carr, who works in the detachment’s media relations unit. Carr said crime in any city is inevitable and called the homicide spike in 2013 an “anomaly.” Case in point: Right now, Surrey’s on track for a 33 per cent drop in homicides by the end of this year.

The police force is doing everything in its power to quash crime further even though they rank 31st in the province in terms of officers per capita.

Surrey police have been chronically understaffed; however, the city outlined in its 2015 budget an increase of 100 officers. Carr said they hear residents loud and clear — clean up the city, and do it now.

“We take that concern very seriously and what’s important to notice, too, is the population of Surrey has grown significantly over the last number of years. And our crime rate has actually decreased overall.”

Crime in Surrey has been decreasing for years, part of a nationwide trend. But in a recent online survey that polled 495 local residents, crime was the top issue for more than 50 per cent. Transportation was the next biggest concern, coming in a distant second at 18 per cent. Forty-nine per cent of Surrey’s residents believe the level of criminal activity in their community had increased in the past five years, and 53 per cent say they fear becoming a victim of crime “a great deal” or “a fair amount.” This is in stark contrast to Vancouver residents polled in the InsightsWest survey, where housing was their No. 1 issue, and crime came in at three per cent — below transportation, economic development and health care. Vancouver residents also felt crime had plateaued in their neck of the woods.

The 2011 Statistics Canada census was not kind to Surrey, pouring gas on an already burning issue. The city ranked in the top 15 concerning various criminal arrests per capita: 14th in homicides, third in robberies, eighth in break-and-enters and fourth in motor-vehicle thefts. So while crime is dropping, it’s falling from great heights to begin with. Winnipeg fared even worse, ranking third in homicides, sixth in sexual assaults and first in robberies.

James Stewart is a business lawyer who’s been practising in Surrey since the ’80s. He’s also the chairman of the Surrey Downtown Business Improvement Association. Stewart is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to Surrey’s past and acknowledges the crime stigma surrounding the city. However, he’s quick to point out that while there are legitimate concerns that must be addressed, the scale of the problem is more perception than reality. Stewart compared the situation to Vancouver’s infamous East Hastings Street, a haven for drug users and criminal activity that has long been a thorn in that city’s side.

“First, people outside of Surrey tend to lump different areas of the city together. And (they) think as if it were a unified whole with the result that a crime that occurs in, for example Guildford, is associated with the whole city, not the neighbourhood where it occurs. In a city like Vancouver, no one has the impression that a crime committed on the Downtown Eastside has any association with Point Grey (an upper-class suburb bordering the University of British Columbia).”

Stewart’s point is simple: Surrey is now a major city, and no city is impervious to crime.

The real estate outlook isn’t spooked by the crime talk. In May, the Fraser Valley Real Estate Board posted its highest sales numbers in seven years. The thinking is, with the average price for a single-family detached home in Greater Vancouver soaring to more than $1.36 million, most cannot afford to own in the big city anymore. So with homes selling for half that price and offering the same amount of square footage, Surrey is reaping the benefits.

“We are currently seeing over 50 per cent of our buyers coming into the Surrey market as first-time purchasers who will be living in the home as a primary residence,” said Shayna Thow, director of sales for BLVD Marketing Group, which handles marketing for two Surrey developments for Vancouver’s Fairborne Homes Ltd. “The majority of these buyers are under the age of 35 and are utilizing family members to help aid them with deposits and getting into the market.”

BLVD handles Ashbury Hill and Eton, upscale townhome complexes in Surrey’s sought-after Panorama neighbourhood. The units are selling as fast as the sales reps can show them, and buyers are coming from everywhere — Vancouver, overseas, the United States, and yes, even Surrey. Thow said crime isn’t on any buyer’s worry list, and it’s obviously not stopping them from putting pen to paper. Ray Werger, president of the FVRB, who’s been selling real estate in the Fraser Valley for 22 years, agrees.

“One definite trend we are seeing is the baby boomer generation either helping their kids get into the market (in Surrey), buying detached homes with basement suites for them, or for their elderly parents as well.”

While home sales have cooled as of late in Winnipeg, sales in October were still five per cent higher than the 10-year average for the month. The total price of all sales decreased slightly from previous Octobers, but year-to-date numbers surpassed $3 billion for the year, the earliest that target has ever been achieved according to Winnipeg Realtors.

With Surrey’s population expected to surpass 300,000 in the next three decades, the race is on to lock down land.

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While the legendary night market and the Chinese New Year Festival have become Richmond’s calling card, Surrey has cultivated a large South Asian population. In the late ’60s, the Canadian immigration floodgates opened to all ethnicities. Flocking to the Fraser Valley because of a low cost of living and large plots of agricultural land, South Asian migrants quickly set up shop across the river. By the 2011 census, Punjabi and Hindi were two of the most common languages spoken in households in Surrey. People who identify as being of South Asian or East Indian descent make up 30 per cent of residents. The largest mosque in B.C., the Baitur Rahman, a 35,000-square-foot concrete facility that cost nearly $8 million, is located barely outside of city limits in neighbouring Delta.

As the city grows, its South Asian culture becomes more apparent, but has also started to blend with Canadian traditions. Head to any rink in the summer, and you’re likely to catch a ball hockey game, which has become hugely popular with East Indian boys. In 2009, Team India, which featured 10 players from B.C., took home silver at the World Ball Hockey Championships in the Czech Republic.

However, any melting pot has its cultural differences. The divide between East Indians and other Caucasians is often spoken about, but rarely reported on or quantified. While East Indians are proud of their tight-knit traditional family heritages, outsiders would accuse them of being exclusive and unwilling to adapt to modern Canadian customs and mainstream ways of social living. Racial tendencies and stereotyping have led to a wedge where ethnic integration has been slow and clunky at the best of times. Kathleen Kennedy Strath is the chief executive officer of Kinsmen Lodge and the Whalley & District Senior Citizens Housing Society. Strath was raised in New Westminster. Strath noted growing up, kids from Surrey had a reputation as being “rough” and “from the wrong side of the tracks.” Strath previously managed two care homes in the Downtown Eastside, and Kinsmen Lodge is located across the street from the Surrey Memorial Hospital. She said Surrey is currently going through “growing pains.”

“It is a stigma, and they just don’t change overnight. Now we’re seeing a truly multicultural mix, which is a good thing. But they don’t necessarily come with traditions that are quite the same as Canadian traditions. When we talk about drive-by shootings, they happen in Surrey and, quite frankly, they are often ethnic-related. And that’s not discriminatory, but culturally they handle things differently than we do.”

With Canada’s largest aboriginal population, Winnipeg has a similar situation: how to both integrate, and respect, visible minorities’ customs and traditions in today’s fast-changing globalized world. While First Nations people and Métis are not considered immigrants, they offer the same challenges the South Asian population does: making sure Canada remains a cultural mosaic and not a country of segregated ethnic backgrounds.

There’s also the age-demographic movement — literally. While Winnipeg will see a 74 per cent increase in residents aged 75 and over from now to 2035, Surrey is going the opposite way. One-third of Surrey’s population is under the age of 19, which means while Winnipeg will be focusing on care-home facilities, Surrey will need more schools and jobs.

By 2046, Surrey is expected to house one in four residents of Metro Vancouver, meaning not only will it be its own metropolis, but could one day surpass Vancouver in terms of overall population given its vast areas of undeveloped land and large geographical makeup.

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Whalley is one of the five official names used to divide Surrey into specific districts. However, the name has garnered a negative connotation over the years as a way to describe the city’s underbelly, prompting city hall to rebrand the downtown core to City Centre, signalling a push to shift the area to more urbanite-friendly space. Pete Nichols owns Whalley Printers, which opened in 1968, and said he refuses to change his business’s title simply to appease a preplanned cultural shift.

“It was suggested as far back as 25 years ago to change our name to something else, and I’ll be buggered if I’m going to succumb to pressure like that. (Operating my business in Whalley) doesn’t stop me from coming into Whalley at any time of the day, or night, that’s for sure.”

Leo Smyth, the Fraser Valley office leader and Private Company Services partner for PwC, who’s worked in Surrey’s downtown core for three years, is part of a growing trend of white-collar employees now inhabiting office space across the Fraser River. He offered a frank anecdotal rebuttal to Whalley’s negative connotation, showing some are downright fed up with the stigma.

“I live in Vancouver, and I work in Surrey, and my cars have never been broken into in Surrey. But it gets broken into all the frigging time in Vancouver.”

Smyth said the press has created the stigma through inconsistent reporting. While Vancouver’s news coverage has always been robust, Surrey’s criminal aspect are the only headlines consistently making their way back across the river, where all the lower mainland’s major media outlets are stationed.

“The media perpetuated this image, and they need to do some homework, to be honest. And understand what’s really going on.”

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With the murder trial of Paskall — a half-baked robbery gone horribly wrong by an alleged repeat offender — waits for a start date, the community finds itself shaking its head once again. In November, also in the Newton area, police found themselves in a brazen shootout with three men in a stolen vehicle.

It appears while the community continues to be outraged, the cries are doing little to curb violent crime.

The saddest thing about Paskall’s death, and also the most confounding, is that less than a few hundred metres across 136B St. is the Newton RCMP detachment. Drive through the area, day or night, and the station’s parking lot is flooded to the brim with cop cars.

The Greater Vancouver area, which includes Richmond and Surrey, has dealt with crime and its fallout for years. The B.C. lower mainland, like Winnipeg, sits above the national Crime Severity Index when it comes to major metropolis areas. However, Saskatoon, outpacing both Surrey and Winnipeg in terms of growth, has the country’s second-highest CSI according to the 2011 census. An optimist might say crime is a product of exponential growth and may be an indicator of burgeoning prosperity. However, that all depends on whom you ask, where they live, and more importantly, where they park their cars.

Surrey does not have the luxury of undertaking this transition to metropolis hub in simpler, less complicated times void of 24-hour news cycles and endless media coverage. Growing pains are tough to begin with and even tougher under today’s unrelenting spotlight, where forgiveness is hard to come by and scrutiny is dished out by the bucketful.

 

Patrick Blennerhassett is a freelance writer/editor based in Vancouver. He is a Jack Webster Fellowship Award winner and has published two fiction novels.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 27, 2014 D9

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