COVER

A DIFFERENT VIEW

BUREAU REPORT: British Columbia

CHRIS WOOD May 19 1997
COVER

A DIFFERENT VIEW

BUREAU REPORT: British Columbia

CHRIS WOOD May 19 1997

A DIFFERENT VIEW

BUREAU REPORT: British Columbia

CHRIS WOOD

In the gilded light of late afternoon, the manicured gardens and large, well-kept homes overlooking Bear Creek in suburban Surrey, southeast of Vancouver, embody the middle-class dream of the good life. Reform’s Gurmant Grewal is doing a little door-to-dooring. At one house, retired lithographer Stewart Cooper is about to leave for a softball game but stops long enough to catch Grewal’s pitch. He says he has supported New Democrats in the past, but is “ready to make a change.” He takes Grewal’s literature but makes no promises. A few doors down, construction manager Tony Maida says Grewal will probably get his vote. “The Liberals,” he says, “still focus too much on Central Canadian issues.” A man who has been cleaning his van talks willingly enough but declines to give his name. He tells the candidate he probably won’t vote Reform—and views all of his choices in the election with equal distaste. “People have been stung so much,” he says, “They’re getting fed up.”

That cranky mood seemed to afflict many British Columbians as the campaign on the coast snoozed through most of its second week. The Surrey Central riding where Grewal campaigned is one of two that the province has gained as a result of redistribution to reflect its growing population—bringing B.C. representation in the next House of Commons to 34. In 1993, Reform swept 24 of the 32 seats then up for grabs, with the liberals taking six and the NDP two. Now, both Liberals and New Democrats hope for gains at Reform’s expense. For the Tories, who in 1988 elected a dozen B.C. members, a single seat would look very much like a victory.

But even with Jean Chrétien enjoying a 15-point lead over Preston

Cranky B.C. voters focus on local issues

Manning in personal popularity in the province (in polling done before this week’s leaders debates), sizeable Liberal gains are far from a sure thing. The governing party, notes University of Victoria political scientist Norman Ruff, suffers from a general perception of “arrogance and losing touch with reality.” Ruff adds that the Liberals also score low on “a lot of little issues,” ranging from the closure of coastal lighthouses to the ineffectiveness of the Young Offenders Act as a deterrent to crime.

An Angus Reid poll released late last week showed Reform with 41per-cent support among the province’s decided voters, compared with 34 per cent for the Liberals. Liberal support is clustered in a dozen ridings in Vancouver and its nearest suburbs. Most of the rest of the province appears to be staying loyal to the Reformers it sent to Ottawa 3 V years ago. It is on the boundary between Liberal Vancouver and the beginnings of Reform country in the lower Fraser Valley where the race between the front-runners is most in earnest.

That is particularly apparent in the new constituency of Surrey Central. Formed from parts of other ridings to the north and south, Surrey Central is home to 112,000 people, more than a quarter of them Indo-Canadian, and the largest concentration of Sikh voters in Western Canada. With those ballots clearly in mind, all three leading parties recruited Sikh candidates: Grewal faces Liberal Palbinder Shergill and New Democrat Charron Gill. So striking was the rush among other parties to sign up Sikh candidates that the president of the local Tory association, Sunil Ahuja, said that his party had nominated 26-year-old Filipino-Canadian nightclub owner Vincent Antonio, in part so that he would stand out from the rest of the pack.

But in fact, voters in the riding have far more pressing matters on their minds than race. A rash of home invasions in recent weeks has underscored Vancouver’s reputation as the country’s most crime-ridden big city, and the issue is raised frequently by constituents. They also talk about jobs: despite the prosperity evident in much of the riding, Surrey voters fear for their own employment as well as for their children’s prospects. And contrary to at least one survey, which found that barely four per cent of British Columbians considered national unity to be an important election issue, the question comes up often when candidates meet voters on their own turf. Maida, for one, wanted to know what Grewal had to say “about that little bombshell of Parizeau’s.”

In Surrey Central, at least,

Grewal seems to be having some success in dispelling his party’s image of intolerance for ethnic minorities and immigration. He confronts the issue head on, pointing to Reform’s opposition to distinct society status for Quebec as evidence of a commitment to equality for all Canadians. He also accuses the Liberals of tilting against south Asians by tripling processing fees for immigration applications from $500 to $1,475. “For somebody from Germany or the U.K,” Grewal argues, “$1,500 is approximately 15 days’ wages. For somebody coming from India or Pakistan, $1,500 is almost 1'/2 year’s salary. That’s discriminatory.”

The dynamics of ethnicity and party allegiance are playing out quite differently in British Columbia’s other new riding. Vancouver Kingsway—the name was borrowed from a former riding in the area—is populated by both old and new blue-collar Canadians. About 35 per cent of voters are Chinese, and at least four of the names on the ballots will be Chinese as well. Among them is Sophia Leung, one of four Liberal candidates across the country appointed directly by Chrétien in order to ensure that the Liberals field at least 75 women.

RIDINGS TO WATCH

Surrey Central: Well-known Reformer Gurmant Grewal battles both his party’s anti-immigration image and Liberal newcomer Palbinder Shergill.

Vancouver Kingsway: This riding features a fight between Liberal society matron Sophia Leung and high-profile activist Victor Wong, who is backed by Premier Glen Clark’s local New Democratic Party organization.

North Vancouver: The race between incumbent Reform MP Ted White and Liberal rival Warren Kinsella, a Chrétien adviser, has intensified with White’s May 5 claim that Kinsella defamed him by linking him in print to white supremacists.

Vancouver East: NDP candidate Libby Davies, a former city councillor, must win against Liberal incumbent Anna Terrana and Reform’s Keith Mitchell if the New Democrats are to begin rebuilding in British Columbia.

Esquimalt/Juan de Fuca: The Victoria-area riding once held by former NDP premier Dave Barrett features the New Democrats targeting moderate Reform incumbent Dr. Keith Martin. Chris Main, a public policy consultant, is carrying the NDP banner.

Chinese-born, Leung is a former social worker fluent in Mandarin who entered the campaign with other advantages as well. For one thing, the redistribution of polling districts gives the Liberal candidate a 17-point lead over her competitors, based on voters who cast ballots for her party in 1993. Reinforcing that edge is the backing of the Liberal election machine. Last week, Minister of International Co-operation Don Boudria campaigned at Leung’s side, as did one of half a dozen young Liberal cabinet aides and advisers on leave from taxpayer-paid posts in Ottawa.

But Leung, who lives in considerably more upscale Quadra, is not a

particularly obvious match for the riding into which she has been parachuted. The widow of the former head of dentistry at the University of British Columbia is a veteran of such upper-crust organizations as the Vancouver Opera Society and the Vancouver Art Gallery. Last week, she seemed out of place as she campaigned along the working-class Kingsway, a thoroughfare lined with small ethnic groceries and momand-pop storefront businesses. The presence on the ballot of two former rivals for the Liberal nomination—one of whom, Raymond Leung, shares her last name and is running for Reform—may also dilute Leung’s support among Chinese-speaking voters.

If that happens, the riding could go to New Democrat Victor Wong. Although unable to speak more than a few words of Chinese, Wong has made a name for himself by campaigning against anti-Asian racism. He has the support of an NDP riding organization that is kept in good tune by the area’s provincial representative, NDP Premier Glen Clark. Reform’s Leung, meanwhile, is given little chance in Vancouver Kingsway. Despite Preston Manning’s stroll through Vancouver’s Chinatown early in the campaign, leading Chinese-language TV reporter Winnie Hwo says the party continues to evoke distrust among Chinese voters. “This is still a party,” says Hwo, “that doesn’t like immigrants, especially Asian immigrants.”

With no single, galvanizing issue emerging by the end of last week in B.C., analysts predicted little dramatic change overall from the 1993 election outcome. Reform, said Ruff, seemed well placed to retain as many as 20 of its seats, with the Liberals likely to win about 10. For New Democrats, however, a return to the glory days of 1988, when the province sent 19 NDP MPs to Ottawa, seems highly unlikely. “Not in this election, not in B.C.,” concluded Simon Fraser University political scientist Lynda Erickson.

The one issue that might change those projections is national unity. Campaigning on Vancouver Island late last week, Reform Leader Manning moved to capitalize on the Parizeau controversy. Claiming to speak “on behalf of all Canadians” to Chrétien, Manning said: ‘We do not believe you have either the will or the capacity to lead on this issue.” But ironically, Victoria’s Ruff suggests that the Bloc Québécois’s embarrassment over the Parizeau affair might in fact work against Manning’s party. The more those disclosures damage the Bloc, Ruff argues, the less the motivation for B.C. voters to cast strategic ballots for Reform in order to deny the BQ official Opposition status. Not for the first time, British Columbians’ studied detachment from affairs east of the mountains may be more apparent than real. □