Chilliwack: a changing community on the eve of an election

Chilliwack is different from what it was four years ago. Have its incumbent candidates changed along with it, or will they be ousted by newcomers on Oct. 15?

By Grace Kennedy | October 11, 2022 |5:00 am

Find our Chilliwack 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 Chilliwack.

Two years ago, Chilliwack chose a new identity.

On Oct. 24, 2020, Chilliwack voters went to the polls and overwhelmingly chose the NDP as the provincial party of choice. Former school board trustee Dan Coulter swept into his seat with more than 41% of the vote. Newcomer Kelli Paddon did the same, albeit with a smaller share of ballots. Both ousted long-time BC Liberal incumbents from the region.

This year’s municipal election may have only a few similarities to the partisan politics of provincial campaigns. But it’s clear that the City of Chilliwack has changed in the last four years.

In some ways, the current council has changed along with it—advocating for more affordable housing and undertaking other left-leaning projects. But has that been enough for incumbents to keep their seats in a changing community?

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The candidate field

Of all the Fraser Valley’s municipal elections, Chilliwack’s is among the least contentious. Five of the city’s six incumbent councillors are running for another term, putting those candidates in a good spot for re-election. (In the last three elections, only one incumbent was not voted in for another term.)

But with Sue Knott saying goodbye to the council table, that leaves at least one position open for a newcomer. There are seven candidates who have yet to sit on council running in this year’s election. Nearly all are willing to ruffle some feathers to bring in affordable housing; the majority think all council decisions should consider impacts on climate change; and many think the municipality should be doing more to support reconciliation.

In short, most of the newcomers are on the progressive side of Chilliwack politics—although there are some differences in how quickly they feel the city should be changing. (You can learn more about each candidate’s position in The Current’s candidate survey.)

The mayoral race is not much different—although there very nearly wasn’t a race at all.

Incumbent mayor Ken Popove was all but set to be acclaimed when Ian Carmichael put his name in at the last minute. Popove hasn’t been opposed to progressive change during his first term—endorsing the city’s new single-use plastic bylaw and supporting new affordable housing developments—but he also hasn’t pushed the city as far as some residents hoped he would go.

(In 2019, Popove personally signed a petition supporting rainbow crosswalks in Chilliwack, but wouldn’t push the issue forward in council. Coun. Jason Lum was the only member of council to officially support the request.)

Popove has done little active campaigning so far this election, suggesting he is relying on name recognition and incumbency to return him to the mayor’s seat. (Not an unreasonable approach: Popove had the third-highest vote share when he was elected councillor in 2014, and beat incumbent mayor Sharon Gaetz by 1,000 votes four years later.) His website focuses on his successes as mayor, particularly during the chaos of the last four years thanks to the pandemic, fires, and flooding.

Carmichael, on the other hand, is campaigning largely on a platform of environmental sustainability, transparency, and preparing Chilliwack for future growth. He’s also spending some of his energy on a strong digital campaign. Since Sept. 6, when Popove announced his candidacy, Popove has posted seven items on his Facebook page. Carmichael has posted nearly 30.

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

The people

How council changes will be up to the voters in Chilliwack. And those people have changed significantly from the last election. The 2016 census showed that roughly a quarter of people over the age of majority in Chilliwack were seniors. While that remained true in 2021, a larger proportion of residents were in their 30s.

The influx of residents from other regions into places like Garrison and Promontory, as well as the rest of Chilliwack, has also likely had an impact on the occupations, income, and family history of the municipality’s residents—all things that can come into play at the ballot box.

Uniquely, most Chilliwack residents care more about the school board election than either the mayoral or council races—and for good reason. Over the last decade, Chilliwack has become infamous for its dysfunctional board relationships and the actions and statements of several socially conservative board members. (You can read our analysis on the upcoming Chilliwack school board election here.)

The direction the school board takes after the election will be a major indicator to people outside of the city of how much Chilliwack is changing—or how tightly it is clinging to the past.

The challenges

Regardless of who gets in on Oct. 15, Chilliwack council will have some significant decisions to make in the next four years.

Chilliwack is one of the country’s most vulnerable communities when it comes to flood risk. Although not as severely impacted by the flooding and landslides in November of last year as Abbotsford or the eastern Fraser Valley, the potential of a major flood from the Fraser is a serious risk for the city. Chilliwack has undertaken some work to boost those dikes over the last decade, while seeking funding from other levels of government to help pay for future necessary upgrades. That work will need to continue in the next four years.

The city is also experiencing growing pains from the influx of new residents and development—and has been for years. Things like upgrades to the city’s wastewater treatment plant and road infrastructure (both expensive undertakings) will need to be considered by the next council. How much the city wants to grow, and what it will do to support people affected by the housing crisis, will also need to be up for discussion.

Social issues will also be returning to the table. The annual Chilliwack Pride celebration is growing, and support for the LGBTQ+ community will likely come back to the council table—if not in the form of sidewalks, then in some other way. Reconciliation will also be an important topic in the next four years, as Chilliwack has the highest proportion of reserves around the city of any major Fraser Valley community, and one of the highest proportions of Indigenous residents.

The responses

Just a few months ago, Chilliwack had to decide who would take on management of the city’s pools and leisure centres. The current council chose to give the contract to the YMCA, and it hasn’t impacted how much the facilities cost to access—something many residents were concerned about. But those costs could change with a new council.

We asked each Chilliwack candidate whether the city should seek to reduce fees and cost barriers at recreation facilities, and pick up any increased cost itself. (Nearly all candidates responded; Ken Popove did not complete the survey and Nicole Huitema Read only responded to long-answer questions.)

Nearly all of the incumbents either said the city should not take on more of the cost, even if it meant lower fees for patrons, or were neutral to the idea. (The exceptions were Jason Lum and Bud Mercer, who did want to reduce cost barriers to the facilities.) Newcomers, on the other hand, were more likely to support cost reductions for residents. (The exceptions there were Brent Bowker and Michael McLatchy, who were opposed, and Ian Carmichael and Amber Price, who were neutral.)

We also asked respondents about their approach to preparing for natural disasters: should the city wait for federal and provincial funding, or go on their own to protect the city dikes and other disaster-related infrastructure?

Nearly every respondent said the city should focus its efforts on getting help from senior levels of government—although that doesn’t mean Chilliwack shouldn’t also modestly increase the amount of money it puts in on its own. Only two candidates—Debora Soutar and Michael McLatchy—said Chilliwack should start work on funding its own projects now, even if it means increasing taxes for residents.

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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