Interview with Dianne Watts


Mayor Dianne Watts

Interviews with British Columbia mayors

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October 26, 2011

Once touted as a possible premier, Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts remains one of the province’s most popular politicians.  Known for her pragmatism and moderation, she is running for a third term in a race that Surrey’s main opposition party declined to contest.

You recently got a chance to meet Bill Clinton and George W. Bush at the Surrey Regional Economic summit. As a fellow politician, do you think you have anything to learn from their legacies?

Well, I think they’re very different in terms of the office they held and the amount of issues that they dealt with. I think that at their level, the political arena is pretty ruthless. Actually, I think any political arena can be fairly ruthless, perhaps on a lesser degree, depending on which office you hold.

I think certainly, regardless of your position, it’s very difficult to make decisions. I can only imagine, let alone speak to, the decisions that presidents and prime ministers have to make. I’m sure a lot of times it keeps them up at night.

Are you interested in politics, generally? Do you actively follow federal and international politics?

You know, I would probably say I don’t like the political arena and I don’t like how things are sometimes played out. But I’m interested in current events.

What current events interest you?

Well, from the international perspective, I’m interested in what’s going on in other countries, like what we’ve seen with Europe — particularly Greece — with some of the issues surrounding their banking system, and what we’ve seen going on in the US with their banking system.

For me, it gives me some relief that we’ve got one of the best banking systems in the world, and one that has protected its citizenry. So I find that remarkable, and I look at that in comparison to what’s going on when you look at some of the developing countries, especially the disparity between the different groups of people that are moving business forward and ones that are working to bring themselves out of hard times and poverty and things like that.

I can speak specifically to China and India, having recently been in both countries. Particularly in India, the poverty was, and is, so overwhelming — and the wealth in the country as well. So I think it’s incumbent upon all of us when we look at the global perspective to ensure that we’re helping developing countries, not just taking the very best from them.

Surrey’s opposition party chose not to run a candidate against you. Are you surprised?

Well, they didn’t, but they’re still doing it in a different way. They don’t officially run a candidate against me, but they work with other candidates that are running for mayor.

But it’s still symbolic of this “Dianne Watts is so popular” narrative that’s so big right now. Does that kind of popularity ever become a negative?

Well, when I look at the landscape in this election, there’s seven people running against me. So I look at that, and I take that very seriously. And I know the other party is working very actively with a couple of those mayoral candidates, so it’s a different way of doing things. It’s a little more behind the scenes.

All I can say is that for the past six years I’ve been mayor I have done the very best of my ability in an honest and forthright way, and it’s the report card you get every three years from the electorate that matters. They’ll either like what has gone on or they won’t. If they do, that’s great, I’ve got some more things I’d like to do. If they don’t, then, well, I get to have a life.

In your official biography it says that you and your husband ran a manufacturing plant in the city for 30 years.

Not me. My husband and his family.

What was your job prior to getting into politics, then?

I was an architectural consultant. I love architecture, it’s always been an interest of mine. And no matter where I go, traveling around the world, I love looking at architecture and buildings.

I want to ask you some questions about Surrey’s problems. But before I do, I was just curious how you feel when people frame the discussion in this way. The idea that Surrey is a “problem city”? Does Surrey still have an image problem?

I think that’s something that was put to bed about six or seven years ago.

Right when you became mayor.

Well, I don’t want to put it in that context, because I don’t think that’s accurate. I just don’t think that people have really understood what the city and its people are all about. They look at an area of Surrey that is similar to East Vancouver and say, “this is Surrey,” even though we have half a million people here and we’re one of the largest cities, geographically, in the country. So I think typically it’s just been a lack of understanding as to what we look like.

What is the root of Surrey’s gang problem?

Again, you can’t really define it as “Surrey’s gang problem.” I would suggest that it’s B.C.’s gang problem, and the Lower Mainland’s gang problem. People move around the region and around the province with great fluidity. So we have some people from Vancouver moving over to the North Shore, coming out of the Fraser Valley, going up to Kelowna and Penticton — they move all over the area.

British Columbia has 120 gangs. So the alliances that are made can change from one day to the next.

But what is the root of this? Why does our province have 120 gangs?

Well it’s different. If you look at the gang problem in Quebec, you’ve got two major gangs that run the province. And in British Columbia it’s very diversified. Historically, how did that come to be? I couldn’t answer that question. But I think that one of the things that we need to do — and we are doing in Surrey — is really making sure that our young people — and a third of our population is under the age of 19 — aren’t entering that type of lifestyle. And I think that therein lies what we need to do as a society. We need to make sure that we’re teaching our kids what that lifestyle leads to. And usually it’s either jail or death.

What do you think of the issue of drug legalization as a way to cut into gang profits? Were you a supporter of the safe injection site in Vancouver?

Well, again, we’re a little different. We don’t have the Downtown Eastside, and we have a very family-oriented community with a lot of young kids. We do have a needle exchange that’s up and running. What I’d like to see is to have needle exchanges in every pharmacy around the city.

In terms of drugs, I just don’t believe in the carte blanche legalization of all drugs. I don’t think we should be legalizing crack and ecstasy and everything else.

What about marijuana?

Again, it would depend. If you look at the strains now, they’re very different than back in the 60s. A lot of times it’s mixed with heroin or methamphetamines. So I don’t think it’s a black or white question.

I think the medical profession needs to engage more directly with individuals that are addicted to drugs. And I think in that regard we would probably have more success. I think when we look at the methadone program — British Columbia has, I think, has one of the largest methadone programs in the world, because so many people are signed up on it — I don’t know if that’s a measure of success, because what we’re seeing is a lot of multi-diagnosed individuals selling methadone on the street, or methadone dispensaries being set up to sell only methadone because it’s profitable. There’s got to be some shifts and changes there.

I guess at the end of the day when you look at the individual that’s addicted, I haven’t yet heard — and I’ve talked to a lot of individuals that have gone through various programs and come out the other side — I hear more about “I needed to get out of the environment, I needed the support, I needed people to help me in a positive way.” I don’t hear “I’m so glad they gave me more drugs.”

It’s a very complex issue, but I think that having people that are addicted and want to change their lives living in an area where they’ve got to run the gauntlet every time they step out of their door, relapse will be quite high.

Are Surrey’s city workers overpaid?

I don’t think they are. We’ve got a collective bargaining process that our bargaining unit is very involved in, and wants to do the very best for the workers. So I don’t think so.

I ask because when you, and some other local mayors recently voted to hike the gas tax to pay for TransLink, it generated a bit of resentment in some quarters. This idea that all new revenue must come from the taxpayers, rather than through cuts to existing government spending.

Well, you can’t tear up contracts. But I’m glad you brought this up. If you look at where we are in the City of Surrey, we’ve got the lowest residential taxes in Metro Vancouver and the second-lowest business taxes. So based on per-capita spending, if you do that analysis, we’re one of the lowest in the country. So we run a very lean organization here.

When you look at the two cents [tax], and again, we go back to the government’s piece of TransLink, the provincial government legislated us four options: property taxes, fares, gas taxes, and vehicle levies. So the provincial government said “we’ll give you another two cents on the gas tax.”

Here’s what I look at, because I pay it as well: when we look at where the population growth is coming from, we have seventy percent coming south of the Fraser. So that’s another million people within the Lower Mainland. We don’t have a whole lot of infrastructure. When we look at our seniors population, that will increase 179% over the next 10, 15, 20 years. Seniors, typically, don’t own vehicles. Some do, but typically they want to get on the bus, or they want to get on some mode of transportation to get to the doctor or wherever they need to get to. We look at the third of our population that is under the age of 19 — kids. Where do they need to go? They need to go to work, they need to go to school, they need to get to the university, and they need to move around. Again, they can’t afford cars. So what are you going to do with that population?

I look at from my personal perspective to say “you know what, I have been part of a generation of consumption.” And we have, the baby boomers have. We consume and have done all of these things. So do I like two cents? No I don’t, but I’m going to take that and I’m going to invest. Because it’s not going to be for me, I don’t need to get on a train or a bus. I will, but I don’t need that. But my kids do, and the seniors do. So for me, it’s less about me and more about how we’re going to treat the next generation.

You’ve sort of answered this already, but is public transit about getting people where they need to go in an affordable and efficient way, or is it about helping the environment and getting people out of their cars? You sound like you’re more partial to the former.

No, I think it’s both. I have very specific reasons why I support it. We have the second largest border crossing in the country. We have seven thousand trucks going back and forth across that border. That’s a lot of congestion. But the funding for the major road network was cut in half. It’s now being implemented. So what we need to do is work at getting the cars off the road and getting the goods and services moving around the region in a proper way.

There are people that will never get out of their cars. That’s true. So we’ll still have cars, we’ll still have all of those things, but do you need four cars in your family? When you don’t have the infrastructure and you have the population we have, you exacerbate the problem by becoming a lot more car-dependent.

You’ve said that you want to see a more integrated, less ethnically segregated Surrey. How do you pursue that in a city, as you’ve noted, that is as geographically large as Surrey? Isn’t it just natural tendency to form little enclaves with people of their own community?

And that’s fine to a point. Because I agree, you feel that comfort and you speak the language and everything else. And this is where tolerance comes in as well. When you understand another’s culture and another’s religion, and you have that conversation and you realize that at the end of the day, we all bleed red, those barriers are broken down. Especially for kids, it’s really, really important that what we do in everything we do as a city, or parks and recreation, and all of those programs, are very inclusive and making sure that everybody’s coming together.

That’s one of the reasons why I started our multi-cultural advisory committee, which is about all-around inclusiveness and making people feel part of the community. Because we’ve got a couple of issues here where people are coming from a different country, their kids are being educated, and they’re very isolated, which is not a good way to live. We’ve also got a large population of refugees. And again, the needs for that population and those kids is so significant, we need to really be working with the refugee population to ensure that they are stabilized in a new country and that their kids are succeeding in school.

We do have issues, and we really want to make sure we don’t have 500 at-risk kids if they’re not being given the support they need. So when I talk about being inclusive and outreach and all of these things, I think it’s really important. Especially with the refugees, they’ve lived in a refugee camp and they come here — some of them have had no formal education, some can’t even use a telephone. And they have the transportation fee that they have to pay back to the federal government. So there’s a lot of issues going on, health issues as well. We need to be addressing that collectively.

What’s your culture?

I am Ukrainian-Yugoslavian.

Who was the most recent immigrant in your family?

Well, my father couldn’t speak English when he started school, but he was born here. So it’d be my grandmother.

When I was asking some of my Surrey friends what sort of questions I should ask you, a lot admitted that they had no real idea what the municipal government even did. And certainly voter turnout remains low. So I’ll ask you, why should people care? Why should they vote?

I look at it in this context: you’ve got the federal government, the provincial government, and the municipal government, who are actually your front-line workers. So we are very engaged in the day-to-day workings of everything that goes on in your life.

I’ll get phone calls over things we have no jurisdiction over, but I can also be an advocate. So not only do we affect lives directly, but we can also be advocates on the health of our residents as well.

But you’re right. People are busy. They’re raising kids, they’re doing whatever it is they’re doing and they don’t realize that the federal government does this and the provincial government does that, and we do this. So there’s a lot of things we get involved in that are not under our jurisdiction. Like funding for schools. That’s a provincial issue, but we’ve been strong advocates able to say, “hey, we’ve got overcrowding in schools, so let’s get to work.” And I can go meet with the premier and the finance minister and education minister. That’s probably why I like it so much, actually, it’s so hands-on. We can affect change very quickly, whereas provincially or federally the wheels of bureaucracy move very slowly. That would drive me nuts.

Do real estate developers have too much power over municipal government?

I guess it would depend on the government. I’ve been around for 15 years, both as a councilor and the mayor. And frankly, people know full well if you have a good project I’ll support it, and if you don’t then I won’t. Whether you want to donate money to a campaign or not, that’s totally up to you. I think we’ve been pretty open and up front about that, and you can ask any developer around and they’ll say the same thing. “I better come and it better be good or it’s not going anywhere.”

What do you make of the “Occupy” protests happening in cities around the world?

Well, I think that the gap is widening. And I think that is something people are really concerned about. I go back to the fact that my generation, the baby boomers, have had it pretty darn good. Now we look at the next generation, how do we reconcile all of that? So I’m really happy that these voices, in a very peaceful, respectful way, are coming forward.

Here’s where I disagree. I think that getting involved to affect change is better done inside a system than sitting in a tent for however long they’re going to sit in a tent. I understand why they’re doing that, but I think there has to be more to it.

But let me backtrack a little bit. We have to be very cognizant of the difference between Occupy Wall St, and what’s going on in the United States, and what’s going on in Canada. And I alluded to this earlier. What’s going on in the United States is not what’s happening here. Their banking system has failed, their mortgage system has failed, the stock market, the Ponzi schemes, all of that stuff. I get why they’re as upset as they are, I absolutely do. Now when we look at Canada, our banking system didn’t fail, our mortgage rates are pretty decent. Affordable housing — that’s an issue. So I think we need to define what it is that we want to change, and then have a plan to affect that change. So there’s really two totally separate pieces here.

On the question of affordable housing, we often discuss this in terms of the poorest people in our communities, whether they have access to affordable housing. But do you think Surrey is an affordable place for say, young unmarried, middle-class people in their 20s?

Absolutely. There’s a difference between social housing and affordable housing. Again, when we look at who we are as a city, we have a lot of students that are here, a lot of young people, a lot of people raising their families. So we have 800 to 1,000 people moving here a month. They come from all over the Lower Mainland and Canada, plus some immigration as well. There’s a reason for that, because it is affordable.

Here’s what we’ve done: we have put many different stocks on the market. Actually, I shouldn’t say “we” because government doesn’t do that. We’ve worked with the development community, and said, “okay, what will work?” So we’ve implemented some of the small lot housing. We’ve got the coach house. I’d like to see more apartments being built, but we’ve got some high-rises built in the downtown core, which people have purchased and then they in turn rent out. So there’s a lot of different housing stock throughout the entire city. Plus you can rent out a farmhouse and be on a farm in the agricultural land. So there’s quite a variety here, and I think we’ve got to pay attention to make sure that it meets the needs of the people that are here.

Complete this sentence: “She will be remembered as the mayor who…”

Who really cared about the community.


Despite the well-known dangers of other drugs, some people truly can become dependent on marijuana as well.