A tale of two Langleys
How a dispute 70 years ago divided Langley residents and split the city in two.
This fall, Langley voters will go to the polls to elect not just one, but two mayors. But that hasn’t always been the case. Before a disagreement 70 years ago there was just one Langley. Today’s municipalities are an echo of that deep-rooted quarrel in how the two cities have governed and grown.
In 1955, Langley’s central business area seceded from more-rural parts of Langley Township after rising tensions between the business and farming communities. Each community had different priorities in the development of the municipality.
And for decades, all three of the Fraser Valley’s largest communities were split between municipalities. Into the latter part of the 20th Century, Chilliwack and Abbotsford were also made up of smaller jurisdictions. But while residents and politicians in those cities came to believe there was benefit to working under one municipal government and eventually amalgamated, the two separate Langleys persist—for better or worse.
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The growth of commercial areas in Langley was influenced by the arrival of railways. That was particularly true for Langley Prairie around 1910, according to local historian Warren Sommer. Langley Prairie—the area near the intersection of what’s now Glover Road and Fraser Highway—became the pre-eminent downtown commercial area of Langley.
By the 1940s, Langley’s single council was controlled by rural farmers who were happy to shop in the area, but had no interest in their tax dollars being used to provide urban amenities like sidewalks, sanitary sewage, paved roads, and, especially, street lighting.
“They felt they really didn’t need those amenities living out in a rural area, and weren’t prepared to pay the taxes to provide what they consider to be a subsidy to the commercial interests in Langley Prairie,” Sommer said.
Increasingly, the reverse was also true. The merchants in Langley Prairie provided a disproportionate amount of tax revenue to the municipality to build roads, bridges, and culverts in the rural areas.
“Things came to a head in the 1940s when a committee of businessmen was formed to investigate incorporating the City of Langley to carve it out on the larger township,” Sommer said.
In 1949 there was a plebiscite held regarding street lighting being paid for out of general revenue. The proposition was stricken down by everyone except for those in Langley Prairie.
Eventually a vote was held amongst registered voters in Langley Prairie about the idea of incorporating the City of Langley. The move was considered highly controversial at the time, said Sommer, pointing to the high voter turnout (92%). In the end, 74% of those who voted endorsed carving Langley City out of the existing Township.
AMALGAMATION IN THE FRASER VALLEY
The cities have remained separate for nearly 70 years, with the idea to amalgamate rarely mentioned.
“I haven’t heard it discussed in maybe 20 years,” Sommer said. “I think occasionally a candidate comes forward and says we’re duplicating services… If we had one jurisdiction, we could do it a lot cheaper and keep your taxes down.”
The electorate hasn’t been convinced of the need. Sommer understands why some might be against the cities merging because a larger municipality creates a larger distance between politicians and electors.
While amalgamation has been rarely discussed in Langley, that’s not the case elsewhere in the region. Both Chilliwack and Abbotsford went through mergers to create the municipalities we know today.
The Langley dispute most closely resembles one that happened in Chilliwack. It was also related to a battle between downtown residents and rural farmers.
Downtown residents lobbied the Township of Chilliwhack for street improvements and more importantly, fire protection, said Tristan Evans, the archivist at the Chilliwack Museum and Archives.
In 1906, a large fire burned the entire northern side of Wellington Avenue from Five Corners to Mill Street. Later that same year, two prisoners perished in a fire at the courthouse.
After the council vetoed a fire protection bill, downtown residents took matters into their own hands.
“They had a meeting and basically decided that they were going to become their own government,” said Evans. “Fast forward to 1908, they separate and become the City of Chilliwack.”
Decades later, in 1980, Chilliwack’s city and township agreed to amalgamate.
Before the 1970s the city was a central hub in Chilliwack, whereas the township remained rural.
But by the 70s “that area had urbanized around the City of Chilliwack,” said Evans. “So you have neighborhoods, where half of the street is in the township, and the other half is in the city. And you have a lot more services as well that are provided by government… so there’s a lot of overlap.”
Politicians on both sides decided to put amalgamation to a referendum in 1976, but Township residents voted the plan down. According to the Chilliwack Progress, residents feared a merger would have meant a decrease in taxes for the city at the expense of township taxpayers. Three years later, voters took a chance on the proposed benefits: an increased tax base and improved city planning. Nearly 90% of city residents approved, and 62% of township voters approved.
In 1972, the District of Sumas and the Village of Abbotsford amalgamated into the District of Abbotsford. The City of Abbotsford was officially born in 1995 after the District of Abbotsford merged with the District of Matsqui.
But Abbotsford’s first amalgamation occurred decades earlier. It didn’t involve its municipal governments, but rather its school districts in 1935, said Kris Foulds, the curator of historical collections at The Reach Gallery Museum.
It was an experiment for the three district governments to see whether working together made sense.
“So instead of every district having a nurse or busing system, they shared one system,” said Foulds, “When government saw that was beneficial, they began to sort of look at other ways [they could benefit from working together].”
Even before the 1995 merger, Abbotsford and Matsqui had been working together for years. Fire rescue and recreation services were already being administered by an organization of the joint municipalities.
“With all of those really significant kinds of operations being run as joint municipalities, it would work more smoothly if it was administered under one sort of government,” Foulds said.
Even then, achieving consensus took time. A referendum in 1990 failed when only 45% of Abbotsford residents voted to join with Matsqui. (86% of Matsqui voters supported amalgamation.) Three years later in a second referendum, amalgamation was approved after strong endorsements from Abbotsford mayor George Ferguson and the local chamber of commerce, which argued it would simplify business-government relations.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR LANGLEY?
Today in the Langleys, the school district and RCMP are already operated jointly by the two municipalities. And even as the Township has grown much more urban, with a population exceeding 100,000 residents, the issue of amalgamation has never gone before voters in a referendum. The City, however, has studied the subject of amalgamation, in general, as undertaken and studied elsewhere. A report to council 11 years ago suggested amalgamation would not necessarily lead to improved governance and cost savings.
“There is no reason to sacrifice the benefits of greater citizen participation and representation that are a feature of smaller governments only to create a larger government that costs more and provides services that are less likely to meet local preferences,” the report stated.
Small and medium-sized jurisdictions found in governance systems where multiple governing bodies work together, can offer economies of scale resulting in less expensive local governments, the report argued.
However, Mayor Val van den Broek didn’t dismiss the idea of amalgamation entirely.
“If it came to [council] as a serious ask, a formal ask, then yeah, absolutely, we would have to address it,” she said. “That’s our job to do that.”
But that idea won’t be coming from the current mayor. Van den Broek plans to seek re-election this fall, but said amalgamation won’t be a part of her election platform. Nor will the idea come from her challenger Coun. Nathan Pachal.
Pachal said if the idea does come up during the election it will likely come from a Township candidate or resident.
“And I think it’s probably because we have a casino, and they’d love to get the money that comes from that.”
Where it makes sense, Pachal believes the city is already sharing resources. He listed a few examples at the district level: public housing, 911 services, water, sewer and libraries.
For Pachal, the problem with amalgamation is that of accountability.
“I would find it extremely difficult as one councillor to represent [162,000] people,” he said. “So I think that really could be problematic when it comes to local government accountability.”
But Pachal believes amalgamation wouldn’t be an issue at all if the city just had a different name.
“I don’t hear too many amalgamation discussions between White Rock and Surrey, for example,” he said.
Whether amalgamation is an issue will be revealed as the calendar approaches the fall election.
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