Red-neck City, BC
Always abused, but what can Surrey expect?
There is a split second of waiting for a punch line that never comes. And then you realize the folks in Surrey, British Columbia are serious about this: they honestly don’t know what the word red-neck means. “As far as I’m concerned,” says Mayor Ed McKitka, “red-necks are twofaced politicians.” But even McKitka, a man who modestly asserts that he is “classed as a pretty intelligent guy,” figured his answer left something to be desired, so he yelled to his secretaries: “Any of you gals out there know what a red-neck is?” There were a few giggles before a mature female voice wafted back. “Gee, Ed, isn’t it an S-disturber?” Next, one of the leading members of Surrey Council took a run at it. “A lot of people have a different term for red-neck,” said Alderman Bonnie Schrenk, “but to me, it’s people who, if they don’t like what’s happening, get hopping mad until their necks turn red and sizzle.”
To the rest of Canada, oblivious to the daily effusion of bizarre and wonderful events out here in God’s country, it may not seem strange or even interesting that people in Surrey don’t know what a redneck is. But here in British Columbia, where Surrey has become a bit of a bad joke, it may well be the punch line of all punch lines, rather like a member of Toronto’s upper-crust Forest Hill or of Vancouver’s posh Shaughnessy Heights having to be told what upper middle class means. As most North Americans know, the term red-neck these days connotes all manner of bigotry, backwardness and bush-league behavior—the three BS. Surreyites have been branded with them as fervently as they themselves have embraced the basic three RS of education instead of all this newfangled open curriculum nonsense.
In the past 18 months, Surrey, a sprawling suburban monster lurking just 20 miles southeast of Vancouver, has been accorded scorn, ridicule and abuse by the rest of British Columbia, perhaps smug in the knowledge that if Surrey (or “Surrey with the fringe on top” as the Vancouver papers have dubbed it) is fingered as the red-neck capital of the province, then other bastions of conservatism in BC can carry on their work of getting on with the past without the same sort of aggravation.
On the other hand, Surrey has earned the attention it is getting. In recent months, the town has banned sex education in the schools, done away with nude art in the
public galleries and tried to stop low-income housing being built because it looked tacky. And this last move took place in a vast aesthetic wasteland where all roads lead to McDonald’s and where the only visual relief at hand is to close your eyes to blot out the onslaught of burger stand signs. Surrey spills out over 124 square miles, a strange rural-suburban municipal hybrid set amidst rolling hills that suggest an exurbanite’s dream. But then, just around the corner, you find the kind of tight, cramped subdivisions that are the very model of the suburban nightmare. Surrey is BC’S largest municipality, and like a lively amoeba, seems forever to be changing shape. There is no centre to Surrey. Instead, there is a cluster of five smaller town centres which have unfolded in two forms: major suburban shopping centres, and honky-tonk strips laden with drive-in restaurants and run-down hotels and bowling alleys and car lots. Signs along the road offer clues to Surrey’s essence: this way for a Bible college, that way for some new (“Buy Now!”) condominiums.
With a substantial East Indian population (2,000 in a population of about 120,000) there have been outbreaks of racial violence in Surrey, including beatings and vandalism. That may be why the recent refusal by the Surrey school board to allow in its classrooms a slide show on racism prepared by the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation elicited a savage response from commentators. Somewhere in Surrey, said the Vancouver Sun, there had to be “intelligent, sensitive, good-natured and fair-minded people.” Unfortunately, the Sun continued, Surrey just can’t seem to help electing “officials who are just the
opposite.” Last month, the neighboring municipality of Langley also banned the film, which included a harsh look at BC’S generally sorry record of racial discrimination. The move presumably delighted McKitka, who once boasted that “people look to Surrey for what to do next.”
There was no need for The Vancouver Sun to detail Surrey’s past transgressions. It had already shouted them out as they had happened in bold newspaper headlines: the proposal for a vigilante squad to control an upsurge of break-and-enter artists (“that’ll shake hell out of’em,” said the mayor), the entreaties—in vain—to the provincial government to legalize gambling so Surrey could become the Reno of the North.
Surrey has spawned not one but two titans of profound philosophical thought, one of whom, former mayor William Vander Zalm—now Minister of Human Resources in BC’S Social Credit government—earned national attention when he suggested that young men eligible for work should be cut from the welfare rolls. The other giant of non-liberal thought is the incumbent Mayor Ed McKitka, who won wide publicity last spring after his bold stand against a faintly defined 10-inch nude woman’s form, barely visible in a wall size mural, which he ordered removed from the municipal hall lounge. “A woman’s body is a very attractive thing,” says the mayor, “as long as you don’t take certain parts and explode [sic] on it.” McKitka went on to set up a three-man censorship panel to oversee all art coming into the community and quaintly promised it would be “a committee of openminded people who agree with me.”
It is basically McKitka who is responsible for Surrey’s high public profile. Once, for example, he called in the Mounties when he didn’t like what an alderman was saying during a council meeting, and proposed that any council member, except himself, who leaked confidential information to the press should be tried before a magistrate and fined $500.
Though people in Surrey like to say that this is “where the real people live,” it is difficult to imagine a more unreal politician than McKitka, who, at 41, is both a grandfather, and, by his own admission, a kid who never grew up. He says exactly what he thinks—and much of what he thinks spills out in a mixture of exaggerated machismo and outrageous malapropisms: “You’re getting my dandruff up” is a favorite saying of the mayor’s. A man of average build with a wave of silvery hair carefully combed into a semi-pompadour and administered to often, he has a penchant for expensive looking suits, flashy jewelry, and large cars. He has been described by a former council member, frustrated by McKitka’s outbursts of temper and what many see as his illogical behavior, as “the most irresponsible and incompetent mayor Surrey has ever had.”
Over the years, McKitka has been involved in a series of legal skirmishes, including one conviction, as a contractor, for violating a soil removal law, and one charge of violating the Public Disclosures Act, of which he was found not guilty. He has also fought and lost a libel case. As a result 30% of McKitka’s $23,000 a year salary has been ordered garnisheed to pay off damages he owes. McKitka is fighting the order, which he calls “embarrassing.” Says McKitka: “In the past people have always had people in office that were of a probably more educated degree and were, shall we say, of the elite, the wealthy, and I’m probably the first mayor that’s got elected that I have a feeling of the people. People are sick and tired of slick politicians. They want a good, down-to-earth, gut-working man and that’s what they got when they got me,” he says.
He is right about one thing. Slick he ain’t. He invited this reporter for drinks in a grotty little U.S. border town and, once there, let the contradictions in his life run their course. Hyped up by a recent council meeting, he played pool with a vengeance and then showed his down-to-earth nature by being just an insult away from a punch up with a defiant young man who had the temerity to use an obscenity near the mayor’s table. “Do you want this pool cue shoved up your ass?” muttered His Honor.
He is a man who talks often of “lowering the boom” on certain recalcitrant members of society and he enjoys being seen as a troubleshooter who can straighten out touchy situations. Like the time he intervened personally in a racial dispute between whites and East Indians. “I went down to their (the East Indians’) house and lowered the boom. It’s just a matter of edu-
eating them that when they come to our country, we want them to live our way. I mean, their ways are way behind ours.”
McKitka can, in the solemnity of the mayor’s office, deliver a serious lecture on the evils of “prono”—his word for pornography—pulling from a drawer one of the more “disgusting” objects that he had removed from a local variety store. Although his own council passed a motion forbidding him to do any more one-man censoring, the mayor vows he will persevere. “A lot of mayors would like to do what I’ve done, but they didn’t have the guts,” he says. And he can say that, overlooking the memory of the night before, when he strode out of a bar into the night, right past a pornographic bookstore, and confided to me with a snicker: “I’ve always wanted to go in there, but I’ve never had the nerve to go in alone.” And he can do all that knowing that he himself is not above salty language and vulgar jokes.
Crossing the border after drinking in an American bar, the mayor shouts gleefully at a customs officer who knows him that I am “some hooker” he picked up. While I explain to the customs man that I am a journalist, McKitka is brandishing a wooden spoon he found in the car and threatening to “beat the shit” out of me. At the same time, McKitka has managed to attach a silver hoop earring he found on the dashboard to his right ear.
McKitka is unabashed by his unorthodox behavior. Smilingly, he will say of himself that “I’m a very interesting man,” and then launch into his favorite story— the life and times of Ed McKitka—the workingman’s workingman, born in smalltown Alberta, raised in east-end Vancouver and then on to Surrey, where he now works weekends at his contractor’s job and where his phone never stops ringing and where, he says, “If I go into a local bar, I’m mobbed.” Indeed, he is even writing his autobiography. “I’m gonna call it Little Man, Big Man because I started with
nothing and look where I am today.”
Just what do the people of Surrey make of their flamboyant mayor? It’s hard to say. In November, 1975, Ed McKitka, after 10 years as an alderman won the mayoralty by a mere 48 votes. He comes up for reelection next fall. And while there are pained letters to the editor bemoaning his existence signed by people from Surrey, there are also avid council watchers like Pat and Olive Keenan, decent, hard-working folk who applaud McKitka for his common sense approach. The Keenans have lived in Surrey for 22 years and love it for the privacy and the feeling, they say, that you’re in a family-oriented area. Keenan is a laughing sort from Ireland, his wife a massive, motherly presence from Saskatchewan farm country. Together they have raised three bright, attractive children who are all honors students. Keenan is an oldfashioned man. He remembers coming to Canada in ’52 “without a bloody bean” and sleeping in the cold on English Bay beach. He rode horses in a local circus, worked for everything he ever got, and consequently has a low tolerance level for “bloody welfare bums.”
Keenan’s children, heading into maturity, laugh nervously when their father begins his philosophic outpourings, some of which coincide with Ed McKitka’s. Criminals? “They should ship ’em all up north to Ellesmere Island. Drop their food in. Let them stay there alone.” (Surrey recently turned down a proposal to have a new federal maximum security prison in the area.) Ed McKitka? “He’s doin’ the best for Surrey,” says Pat.
It seems a strange political paradox that these same people, and their elderly neighbors, Lillian and Dave Thomas, paragons of civilized behavior, would support both Ed McKitka and Pierre Elliot Trudeau (although the municipality as a whole has usually voted Conservative), men of very different sensibilities. Perhaps the explanation is BC’S traditional affection for the rugged individual in politics.
But not so much farther down the road, mention of Trudeau’s name triggers a tor-
rent of obsence insults, while McKitka’s evokes a studied indifference. But then, political analysis is not a moving force in the hodgepodge household of Al and Ivy Klaczyk, who, along with their children, their four cows, their dogs and cats, their house and their goat live a wild and free life on five acres of land in Surrey. There are stacks of hay and piles of mud in the front yard, with heaps of metal and rusting carcasses of crippled cars; there are five guns over the fireplace of the Klaczyk’s tenant and friend, Robert Wells, and various assorted folks lolling around the kitchen and living room, some of them friendly, some of them not. “Take a picture of me,” growled one young man with a James Dean pout, “an’ I’ll bust your camera.” As for Surrey, they find it totally to their satisfaction: “It’s a beautiful place to live.”
Others who have tried the Surrey life are not so effusive in their praise. Developer Dan Fritz says with bitterness that Surrey is a “cancer,”a product of urban sprawl afflicted “with all the awkwardness of growth.” Fritz, 30, lived in Surrey all his life until he struck it big with his company, Westwater Realty. Now he has chosen to remodel a house in Shaughnessy for his young family. A thoughtful, articulate man who once had a personal axe to grind with the Mayor of Surrey (it was Fritz who sued him for libel, and won), he recalls with horror how his parents’ home was vandalized—splattered with eggs and battered with rocks—after an erroneous public statement had been made about them.
People from outside Surrey often recount tales of residents turning on them. It is as though a mask drops sharply down over usually friendly features wherever there is the slightest challenege to property or authority or the rightness of one’s views. It is a special kind of hostility that might be seen to stem from a feeling of powerlessness. It is small-town meanness that sometimes can be more frightening than big-city coldness. Some people say Surrey is a community of hate.
Mayor Ed McKitka, who represents Surrey today, but not necessarily Surrey tomorrow (he may be in for a rough time in next November’s municipal election), has his own view of the Surrey way of life: “You see, we’re all little people here. We’re average people, like you and I, okay? And the big guy comes in here and he thinks he can kick us around; they been pushin’ the people of Surrey around for so damn long, making tons of money off us.” But who is this big guy? “The guy with all the money. He sees all this green grass out here and all he sees is money. They come out here and maybe because we’re not as shrewd and smart as they are, we get ourselves in a jam. Yeah, maybe we do have hate here, but it’s (because) of the big guy walkin’ all over us.” So even the Mayor allows that perhaps Surrey is a place of hate. “But this is the way we live. We want it that way.”0