Abbotsford prepares for a council after Braun

With two-term mayor Henry Braun retiring, his departure and new arrivals on council could shake up the city or re-confirm the existing power balance.

By Tyler Olsen | October 12, 2022 |5:00 am

Find our Abbotsford election hub here, with everything you need to know about the candidates, polling places, and issues. 

Polls close at 8pm on election day, Oct. 15. Watch the results come in live here to see who will lead Abbotsford.


For eight years, Abbotsford politics have been relatively dull. That has been no accident.

At least in public, Mayor Henry Braun and a roster of like-minded councillors rarely clashed as they focused on building their city’s financial reserves and creating long-term plans for the future.

But Braun is now retiring, and with Abbotsford changing quickly, the question will become whether the incrementalism of the last eight years will continue, or if new faces will bring a new approach.

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The candidate field

Shortly after Braun announced his retirement, incumbent councillor Ross Siemens declared his intention to run for mayor.

Since first being elected in 2014, Siemens has been one of four councillors tied to AbbotsfordFirst, the city’s only local political party. That group doesn’t field mayoral candidates, so Siemens is running as an independent.

Braun and Siemens only took differing positions a handful of times over the last eight years, and Siemens has explicitly promised to stay the course if he is elected.

His three opponents are a diverse group, all of whom are promising significant change. Of them, Manjit Sohi has the most community experience, and he says the city needs to do more to promote growth and deal with its consequences. But to win, he will have to dramatically expand his political base from last year, when he finished a distant third in a by-election for a vacant council seat.

Troy Gaspar and Dave Pelikaan are political newcomers with little traditional campaign infrastructure. (Gaspar doesn’t have a website; Pelikaan runs a YouTube channel that touts various unfounded claims. Pelikaan was a member of a group who, during a 2019 council hearing, accosted Braun; police were called and council withdrew to a back room.)

The mayoral field may be crowded, but change is most likely to come from new faces at the council table.
For much of the past decade, half of Abbotsford’s council have been AbbotsfordFirst members. That has recently changed.

Last year, Coun. Brenda Falk resigned from the slate following a series of controversies related to social media posts about the COVID pandemic. She isn’t running for re-election, and with Siemens taking a shot at the mayor’s chair, there will be at least two council seats up for grabs.

This election could return the party to dominance and confirm the strength of slates in campaigns. Or it could leave te party one of several moving pieces.

In addition to their two incumbents, AbbotsfordFirst is two new candidates to try to recapture those vacated seats. But there is a range of other hopefuls who want a spot at the table. The most familiar name is ousted-MLA Simon Gibson, who was previously a councillor and has rarely shown an inclination to rock the boat while in politics. But there are also a handful of younger candidates whose election could signal a council, and a city, prepared to strike out in a new direction.

(To see all the people running in the Abbotsford election, check out our election hub.)

The people

Like all Fraser Valley communities, Abbotsford’s electorate is changing, with new arrivals bringing new ideas and priorities. The question is how many newcomers will end up voting in a municipal election in which they may not be fully aware of the candidates or the key issues.

Abbotsford is one of Canada’s most diverse cities. It’s also very geographically and socially segmented, with large Christian communities and churches in the city’s east and heavily South Asian neighbourhoods in the west. That frequently manifests itself in politics. In federal elections, western parts of the city are Liberal strongholds, while more rural and suburban neighbourhoods in the east vote overwhelmingly for Conservatives.

The political gap is still present during municipal elections, although it’s not nearly as pronounced. In 2018, Braun faced challenger Moe Gill, a prominent former councillor. Braun won handily and claimed the most votes at all but two polling stations. Those locations were located in the city’s west, though even at those locations, Braun was competitive.

There is a good chance the council sworn in next month will be the most diverse in the city’s history. In the past, Abbotsford’s council has been predominantly white, and often, though not always, male. A handful of new candidates, with engaged social media presences and professional websites, could change that.. The likes of Patricia Driessen, Bharathi Sandhu, Reann Gasper, and Alex Mitchell are working to emphasize their business and community credentials in their campaigns. If a few of them can find large constituencies, they may herald a new era for Abbotsford politics.

The challenges

For all its growth in recent years, the City of Abbotsford has actually seen less home-building than Langley Township and has begun to fall behind Chilliwack. But even if construction does increase, there will be additional challenges. Complaints about the time it takes to get a building permit have been long-standing, and don’t seem to be going away any time soon. There is also the problem of land.

With much of Abbotsford’s land in the Agricultural Land Reserve and off-limits, most building must take place either in existing neighbourhoods or on Sumas Mountain, which poses its own logistical and political difficulties. (See our story on the McKee Neighbourhood Plan.)

The result may be more so-called demo-victions, in which the renters of older homes are evicted to make way for the construction of new buildings. Siemens and Braun have warned that the city is likely to see more such evictions, and council will have to figure out how to protect renters while not discouraging new construction.

Council will, of course, face the same challenges as other quickly growing Fraser Valley communities. The city has spent cautiously and modestly on new infrastructure in recent years, and residents have been patient. But there are indications some of that patience is running out.

In particular, many of the most idealistic parts of the city’s lauded 2016 Official Community Plan have yet to be realized. That plan pitched a denser, more efficient “city of centres,” and has guided Abbotsford’s development for the last six years.

But while the recent building boom has largely matched the vision set out in the plan, the grandest ideas, like a completely redesigned South Fraser Way, are still waiting for development to fund them. There is also little evidence that Abbotsford has actually become less car-dependent—one of the most-talked-about goals of the 2016 plan.

And then there is the disaster. This spring, the city put together a plan to deal with another Nooksack River flood. But it will cost more than Abbotsford can afford and its future will depend on the funding priorities of the federal and provincial governments. The same goes for any work to boost the Matsqui dike to prepare for a Fraser River flood.

It will fall to the next mayor and council both to try to leverage money out of senior governments and take action to prepare for the next flood, which could arrive before any new dikes are built.

The responses

The city’s 2016 Official Community Plan is a huge document that guides how Abbotsford changes, and how staff implements policies. While it can be amended at any time, in 2016 council was warned that the plan would not be effective if they regularly deviated from it.

It’s six years later, and amendments to the plan have been rare. But when it comes to future changes, it’s clear that would-be councillors feel less obliged to stick to a plan they did not approve.

[LINK] We asked each city’s candidates whether their OCP is 1) outdated; 2) needs significant and regular amendments; or 3) provides a good roadmap and should be rarely amended.

Of the 17 Abbotsford mayoral and council candidates to take our questionnaire, seven said it should be rarely amended. Those included the four current councillors who took our survey, along with Sandhu, Mitchell, and Gibson. Four candidates—David McLauren, Steve Pimm, Tim Felger, and David Egans—said the plan was already outdated and needs to be replaced. The other six—Sohi, Driessen, Dao Tran, Amritpal Mund, Tom Norton, and Jaspreet Anand—said it needed regular and significant amendments.

We also asked respondents whether their community should maintain or modestly increase disaster preparation funding levels while seeking senior government money or if their city should increase preparation spending, even if it required hiking taxes.

Of the respondents, only Felger and Evans said the city should go it alone, while the other respondents suggested waiting for senior governments. (Gibson did not respond to the question.)

Join more than 25,000 other Fraser Valley residents by subscribing to our newsletter. Every weekday morning you’ll get a new feature story and other stories, news, and events from Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Langley, Mission and the rest of the valley. See a recent newsletter here.

Get FV Current in your inbox.

Plug in to the news that matters in Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Mission, and the rest of the Fraser Valley.

By filling out the form above, you consent to receive emails from Fraser Valley Current. You can unsubscribe at any time. View our privacy policy here.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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