Darlene Bennett is undaunted by Elections BC’s announcement Tuesday that her initiative petition calling for a referendum on Surrey’s policing transition has failed.
“I think it’s a clear voice for Surrey, Surrey wants a referendum and we’ll keep the pressure on the provincial government because they still have the ability to call for one,” she told the Now-Leader at press time. It’s not a provincial “problem” but a regional one, she said, adding she was expecting this outcome but the fight is not over.
“We’re asking for a referendum only for Surrey.”
She said she’s not disappointed.
The Surrey Police Vote Citizens Initiative Campaign collected 42,942 signatures from Surrey residents who want a referendum held on the transition. That’s just 2,622 shy of the 45,564 votes Mayor Doug McCallum, champion of the controversial policing switchover, received in the 2018 civic election.
The signatures were taken to Victoria, to Elections BC, for submission on Monday, marking a milestone in a campaign launched by Darlene Bennett, whose husband Paul Bennett was shot dead in front of their Cloverdale home in 2018 in what police believe was a case of mistaken identity. The case has not been solved.
McCallum issued a statement Tuesday that since Elections BC announced the “failure” of the petition “it is clearly time to move on.”
Elections BC’s statement notes that under the Recall and Initiative Act a petition must gather signatures from at least 10 per cent of the registered voters in each of the province’s 87 electoral districts to succeed.
“It was clear upon submission that the petition did not receive the required number of signatures in each electoral district. As a result, Elections BC will not be counting or validating any of the signatures submitted,” Elections BC’s statement reads.
Bennett said it was always her campaign’s intention to focus on collecting signatures in Surrey.
“You know, 42,942 signatures during a global pandemic, crazy weather systems and you know, the interference with the mayor, this is huge. People are mad and they want a voice in this,” she said. “It’s still in play, it’s still a win and this is a clear message to the provincial government that the residents of Surrey want a referendum.”
The petition was issued on Aug. 16, giving Bennett and her supporters 90 days to collect the necessary signatures.
Bill Tieleman, who assisted with her campaign, noted that it collected more than the “35,000 something” signatures required, “well over the 10 per cent across Surrey.”
Bennett’s was the second initiative petition application approved this year and the 14th since the Recall and Initiative Act came into force in 1995. Tieleman helped former Social Credit premier Bill Vander Zalm conduct a referendum campaign that defeated the Harmonized Sales Tax in 2011. To date that is the single successful initiative petition under the act since it was enacted 26 years ago.
Tuesday’s announcement by Elections BC came as no surprise to the campaign.
Andrew Watson, director of communications for Elections BC, said Monday that if it’s “immediately clear” the petition has not met the requirements of the Recall and Initiative Act, “then it won’t proceed further in the process and won’t be successful.” The Act requires getting signatures from at least 10 per cent of the registered voters of every electoral district in the province.
“So that’s every district in the province – there’s no provision for like a local-only petition. So if the proponent doesn’t collect signatures province-wide then the petition will be unsuccessful.”
But Tieleman said the campaigners knew all this from the beginning. He said there’s two pieces of legislation, the Recall and Initiative Act, and Bennett’s campaign was done under the initiative portion of that.
“There’s also the B.C. Referendum Act, which is a separate piece of provincial legislation, and that allows the province to hold a binding referendum on a regional basis on any provincial issue within the provincial jurisdiction. We’ve always said we want them to use the Referendum Act to call a referendum regionally in Surrey.”
Tieleman said the campaign is “not at all” daunted by Watson’s comments.
From the get-go, he said, Surrey Police Vote acknowledged they had no intention of sourcing signatures across the province, but would rather focus efforts on Surrey.
Tieleman noted that the binding referendum on the HST was not achieved through the Recall and Initiative Act but the Referendum Act.
“Cabinet could order a referendum, with a cabinet order, at any point and we could do it by mail.”
The aim, then, was to conduct the campaign through the only authorized process available to the campaigners.
“It was the only tool available, it’s flawed, it’s flawed legislation, but we have followed all of the rules, we’ll be reporting financially within the time limits, every single canvasser was authorized by Elections BC as is required.”
The strategist said the legislation that allows a referendum is flawed because it doesn’t contemplate a regional approach.
“People in Prince George or the Kootenays are not particularly interested in policing issues in Surrey, but the people of Surrey really are. There should be the opportunity for citizens when something is of enormous importance like Surrey policing, so expensive, such a big decision, they should have been allowed to have a regional referendum,” Tieleman said.
“It’s too big of an issue to allow a very small number of politicians with a one-vote majority in city council to decide a multi-billion dollar decision here.”
While the requirements of the petition have not been met, the Surrey Police Vote group is hoping provincial politicians recognize the desire for a referendum in Surrey as the provincial cabinet has the ability to order a referendum under the Referendum Act.
In the most recent provincial election, the BCNDP, which formed a majority government, ran on a campaign promise that it would not order a regional referendum on Surrey’s policing matter. However, the province has not yet indicated whether or not the Surrey Police Vote petition has changed its perspective.
The 90-day effort has had its share of controversial moments, from a city councillor accusing one of the petitioners of “attempted murder” for allegedly running over McCallum’s foot, to the public mischief investigation related to claims he made to police.
People collecting signatures also voiced concerns about bylaw unfairly targeting them at signing events. And about halfway through the campaign, Bennett filed an intimidation complaint against the mayor with Elections BC.
Bennett agreed that the campaign was an ugly process.
“It’s been a crazy ride,” she said.
Surrey’s Eileen Mohan, mother of Christopher who was an innocent victim in the Surrey Six shooting, said she wanted to thank the community for exercising democracy and asking for a referendum.
“Before RCMP came into Surrey in the 1950s, we had a referendum then. The people spoke and the RCMP came to Surrey. To change policing in Surrey, we would like to engage all of the citizens in Surrey to have a voice in policing, which reflects their safety and security in their homes,” Mohan said.
Tieleman said as far as the campaign for a referendum in Surrey is concerned, it’s still “totally game on.”
Cabinet, he noted, could make a decision “today, tomorrow, a week before Christmas,” and proceed with a referendum in Surrey.
“It doesn’t end the issue at all.”
Campaign organizers will be making public and private “representations” to the provincial government and will meet soon to discuss what the future holds.
“People want a vote,” he noted. “I don’t think there’s any reason we should stop this campaign at this stage because we don’t have a referendum yet. And if we don’t get a referendum I think the municipal election will be the referendum, next year.”
Surrey Coun. Brenda Locke initially supported the transition to the SPS from the Surrey RCMP but later became an outspoken critic amid concerns about transparency in the process. She said she doesn’t believe the effort to seek a referendum is a dead horse, “nowhere close to that.”
“The citizens were very clear – they got just about 20 per cent over the bar set by Elections BC, for the Surrey ridings,” she said. “I think the message from Surrey residents was very clear and should have been very clear to the mayor. If he doesn’t hear that, I don’t know what to say.”
“It’s absolutely game on,” she said, and it’s now time for local MLAs “to take heat.”
“They have to know that they have a responsibility now to tell their cabinet, take heat to their cabinet, and say you have a decision to make now on behalf of the residents of Surrey. The residents of Surrey have spoken loud and clear.”
– With files from Aaron Hinks