Councillor Barinder Rasode points the way to Surrey's future

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Rasode Barinder

Last week, Vancity Buzz interviewed Surrey City Councillor Barinder Rasode at her newly opened Community Hub, a much needed space to provide local residents with the ability to meet and discuss issues that concern their city.

Rasode has been one of Metro Vancouver’s most outspoken municipal politicians – she hasn’t been afraid of voicing her opinion on key issues that are critical to Surrey’s future.

Here is a shortened transcript of the interview.

Can you tell us about yourself?

I am 45 years old, grew up in Kamloops, moved to Surrey in 1988, went to Simon Fraser University, and have been a single mom over the past three years with three kids including two sons and a daughter.

I grew up with real small town values about knowing your neighbour, participating and volunteering. I was a member of the debate team and student council in high school, and raised to think that the only way you should complain is if you are participating in the process.

So, I always voted, which I think is extremely important because people lose their life for the right to vote. When my parents came here, when they were in Canada at that time they did not have the right to vote and it is something they advocated for.

In keeping with that level of commitment to community and activism, I was always politically engaged. One of my first jobs was in a political office and I have always been engaged in volunteerism.

I was elected in 2008 and since that time I have had the privilege of having very strong support from businesses and groups in Surrey. People is what make our community strong and I think leadership is about being able to advocate the concerns and interests of those you represent.

 

Why did you leave the Mayor Dianne Watts’ Surrey First party?

I made the very difficult decision of sitting as an independent on City Council. While I believe Mayor Dianne Watts has done a fabulous job in transforming the city, we came to a place where independent thought and questions were no longer being welcomed. I was also increasingly isolated from the team because I had raised questions on public safety.

I believe that in such a position of leadership, providing support to victims is the number one priority. When I spoke out on Julie Paskall, who was a mother of three and murdered on our watch… we sent people to community centres to be safe – we encouraged youth to go there.

To me, things significantly changed in how I felt we were serving our community and I think we have failed. Our Newton Town Centre strategy was not working and we have clustered a number of social service and resource-type work within the community of Newton.

So, we’re now at the point where some decisions need to be made with the November election coming up. I believe that I do have the passion, values and vision to be a strong leader for Surrey, but I want that leadership to not be me but rather one that is driven by the residents of Surrey.

Engaging people is about inclusion, and it’s why I have been such a strong advocate for complete open dialogue at City Hall. I don’t think you should need to FOI your government for information as it belongs to the residents. Trust builds relationships and as soon as you shut things down, that’s when people start to lose trust.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was a great example during the floods. He was not only engaged, he wasn’t afraid that people would be failing miserably because supplies weren’t being delivered. He was on Twitter saying, “what the heck”. Acknowledging something isn’t working isn’t reflective of personal failure but saying that you are prepared to make it better, which is what leadership is about.

With one thousand people moving into Surrey every month, what does Surrey look like in 10 or 15 years?

If you look at where Surrey is now, we have more people under the age of 19 than any city in the country. We will have rapid growth of an aging population, numbers as high as an 179 per cent increase.

So what does Surrey like? It looks like to me as one of the most diverse and vibrant communities in Canada. We have the largest number of South Asians outside India than any city in the world.

I think that Surrey will be a success story, building on the transformation that has happened. If we keep in mind and stay true to both our crime reduction strategies in terms of having preventative approaches to dealing with crime.

We will be building high density neighbourhoods in the town centres, protecting one third of agricultural land that is the heart of our community and we will be making sure that we are doing the best for both economic and social areas.

I think we are going to have the rapid growth that will not go away. Seventy per cent of the region’s growth is coming to the south of the Fraser, and we will need more buses and the proposed light rail transit network to support our growing community while fostering economic opportunities.

We also need to shape growth by building denser neighbourhoods around areas supported by public transit. Our town centres need to be further developed, such as at Newton, which will provide economic and retail generation.

We just have to do smarter city concepts and I think that’s something we’ve really brought to the table.

There’s a lot of people who say Surrey’s slogan, “The Future Lives Here”, is not accurate. How do you respond to that?

Well, consider that we have more young people than any other city in Canada. We also have the largest industrial land base in the region, so our opportunity to create jobs south of the Fraser is unprecedented compared to any other city.

We also have an opportunity to build a performing arts centre in the downtown core. I was part of the decision of relocating City Hall, but if we had built a more modest building and created a Centre of Excellence that included a performing arts centre, ice rinks and an aquatic centre – let me tell you that people would be more inclined to buy upscale condos around that type of development.

So I think that moving forward, the development of the neighbourhood needs to occur in that format. I also think that food security is a number one issue, in terms of being both a major industry that creates jobs and answering to those interested in knowing where their food comes from.

By landmass, we are larger than Richmond, Burnaby and Vancouver combined, so I think there are significant opportunities with our future.

I do not disagree with the critics who say we need to do a better job on public safety and transportation, but I’ll tell you this: we’ll be the envy of every city in Canada in ten years if we do it right.

We remember someone who put up a t-shirt that says “The Future Dies Here”. How do you get rid of the stigma that’s surrounding Surrey and that it’s an unsafe place to come to? How do you get Metro Vancouverites to want to come to Surrey?

I think that the only way is to put proper resources into the area of public safety to match our growth so that this is no longer true. I do not question people who say to me they do not feel safe in their community because I see it too.

I do believe people are not reporting crime. The City of Victoria has a very good model that revolves around a smartphone app and online reporting. The engagement they have and how they use Pinterest and other social media tools to provide people with the ability to report crime and stolen goods works very well.

We need to create a significant mind shift that not only do we need the resources, we need to be engaging in new technologies and strengthening areas around policing – like supporting them through bylaws.

We also need to shift our priorities towards actually serving vulnerable people, it’s something the developmental disability groups have noted to us.

Once we start putting city resources in the proper places of public safety, that will eliminate the stigma – it will no longer be true.

The crime problem has been around for awhile. Why have the issues not been seriously addressed before?

Even though every large city grapples with the issue of public safety, I think where Surrey could have done a better job is maintained our resources with growth. I think that we did our Build Surrey program fabulously, I fully support it and have placed a lot of energy and attention into that.

We need to maintain our ratio of one police officer per 700 residents, but we are far from that right now. We also need to maintain and put money behind our crime reduction strategy, which is an award winning strategy. But even with an award winning strategy, nothing can happen until money is placed behind it.

 

Are there educational and job opportunities that would allow young adults to gain the experience they would need?

Not enough yet, and I think that’s the other area that needs a lot of work. The City of Surrey does not have a senior management team around the public safety and investment portfolios.

I think we need a general manager in terms of economic development, where the sole focus would be around creating jobs and opportunities.

When it comes to the role post-secondary institutions have played in our community, Kwantlen is doing a great job with the agricultural industry. I passed a motion at the last council meeting because classes were being canceled at SFU, but we have now allowed them to use our new council chambers as a lecture theatre during the day. We have also had conversations with BCIT about bringing their school of business to Surrey.

I am also reevaluating our municipal government’s role in the Surrey Development Corporation, where we have been engaged in buying strip malls and multi-family developments. I think that we should also be looking at creative opportunities in investing city money into actually providing for the future of young people.

You know, not all of my kids have to cross the bridge to go to work. And I think that is what a lot of people aspire to.

With what we have with our agricultural and industrial land base, there is no excuse to be putting that as a number one priority.

What are you going to do to encourage companies to move out of Surrey? What makes Surrey better than Vancouver and other municipalities?

The availability of land, the competitive tax rate, the available workforce and a spirit of welcoming business – we are very entrepreneurial friendly. We need to bring in the right people to take it to the next level.

Our incentive program has worked really well in building out the downtown core. But with our industrial land base, we need to make it easier for people that will be creating jobs. So this is dialogue that should happen at the table with businesses.

When it comes to economic development, it’s about recruiting and selling our city. For example, I had a conversation not too long ago about creating a 3D printing digital hub – or a general hub for new technologies. We should go out and find specific technologies that will be leaders in the future, and partner up with local post-secondary institutions and provide them with some incentives to run with it.

What do you love most about Surrey?

I love the people of Surrey, meeting new people, every event I go to… we have such a fabulous opportunity with not only our young people and diversity, but also our six town centres as each are very distinct.

For example, Cloverdale is so different to Fleetwood and Newton, and I want to nurture and keep that individual identity as we build communities of old and new. If we have transit that connects it all, that would be fabulous.

It is the people of Surrey that makes it Surrey, and that’s why I want to maintain the integrity of the town centres while protecting the agricultural lands and natural habitats. We need to build and densify areas: create the energy that comes with the people who are brought by the buildings.

Let’s create the people energy in our town centres.

But what does disappoint me a bit is that only 20 per cent of the Surrey population turns up to vote for who sits in the seats at City Council. It’s not that people don’t care, I just believe that we as government have done a good job with displaying the relevance of people voting. I do not think young people are dismissive or do not care about what goes on in their environment.

I think that people will participate if they think they can have impact, but we need to get them engaged in the process first.

You noted about having transit connect Surrey. Specifically, what do you want to see?

Immediately? The only immediate solution is buses. That hasn’t been brought up as a priority in the dialogue, so more buses on the road now while we have a long-term vision of light rail.

Our heritage rail folks have also created a beautiful train that will connect Cloverdale to Sullivan. I think light rail is a great model, but we need to look at a mixed mode way of approaching our transit expansion.

Transportation for young people specifically is an impediment. You are not able to take public transit in a way that accommodates student or business life. If we are going to be true to our sustainability charter – which looks around the three pillars of economic, social and environment sustainability – until we are providing proper public transit we are failing.

For example, my son when he was sixteen had to get a car because there was no way he would be able to get a part-time job. And that defeats the whole purpose as he was spending most of his paycheque on operating and maintaining his car.

We are having a very important dialogue on the long-term vision of light rail for parts of Surrey, but where we need to do a better job right now is more rubber on the road.

Why do you think Surrey should get rail rapid transit ahead of Vancouver’s Broadway corridor? If you look at the Broadway corridor right now, it’s already exceeding capacity. Wouldn’t the argument be made that it should go to Vancouver first where it’s needed right now as supposed to Surrey where it will be needed in the future?

It’s shared equity. Seventy per cent of the growth is coming to the south of Fraser and again, we have a huge youth population. The only way we are going to stay true to sustainability is to increase transit funding south of the Fraser and this will benefit the region.

A lot of people who are traveling from Surrey and causing the gridlock in Vancouver, whether it be through the viaducts or transit… they will be using transit from Surrey instead and it will alleviate problems for the region. If we are able to provide proper transit for areas like Campbell Heights, industrial areas will be built out and jobs will be created. You will actually have less people moving to Vancouver.

We are not going to increase ridership until transit actually exists.

So I think that with all due respect to Vancouver, they are putting the cart before the horse when they give us the argument of how many people use transit there – because people in Surrey don’t use transit when there is none. I don’t think that’s a valid argument around the debate on transit.


Image: Mayors’ Council

The Pattullo Bridge is the most dangerous crossing in Metro Vancouver. What do you see that can be done about it?

I have been a very strong advocate of replacing the bridge immediately. We have spent $4 million in consultation with TransLink and New Westminster.

But this is not a Surrey-New Westminster issue: this is a regional transportation issue. We need an expanded bridge immediately. If there is a seismic event, that bridge is going to fall.

When I talk about an expanded bridge, it’s not just about moving cars but also cyclists and pedestrians. It would be great to walk over from Bridgeview in Surrey over to the Quay in New Westminster, but you would need an expanded bridge.

With the issue of the movement of goods with trucks, we cannot stand in their way given its importance to our economy: the port and two border crossings are located in Surrey.

The South Fraser Perimeter Road, now that it is completed, is one of the best things that have happened to divert truck traffic from local roads. I think that once the road is more used, we will get truck traffic off local streets.

SkyTrain SkyBridge Pattullo Bridge Fraser River Vancouver / ShutterstockImage: SkyTrain and Pattullo Bridge via Shutterstock 

What is your relationship like with Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson?

Excellent! I’m actually a fan. I think Mayor Robertson has shown great vision and leadership, and has made some very bold decisions. I’m very proud of the work that they have done in response to the Vancouver Foundation’s report on how communities have felt isolated. The health of the community comes from how engaged people feel, and their task force on engagement is something Surrey should look at.

We have noticed you are big on social media. How do you see that as a factor in the next election and with engaging in the community in general?

It is my responsibility to be responsive. I think social media gives everyone a equal playing field with raising concerns. You no longer need anyone’s phone number or a corporation’s address to file a complaint.

I welcome and embrace that. It’s a way of adding value to community engagement and enhancement while also allowing me to serve the community better as I can engage directly and provide answers to questions.

I think anyone who is not embracing social media is sending a strong statement on what level they are willing to engage on. I hope that people recognize that, because let me tell you something: it’s sometimes not fun when you engage in dialogue with people who are critical of what you have done.

But I feel that I have made those decisions based on a solid process, and I am accountable to it and not threatened by it.

I always say people in the community: as long as you never disagree with me on how I got to that decision I made, I am very comfortable. The day that someone questions me on a decision and I cannot be accountable for why I made it, then there’s a problem.


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