British Columbia·Metro Matters

Kelowna's mayoral race a battle over the city's identity

Kelowna's mayoral race is largely an election about identity and what image the city wants to embrace.

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Kelowna mayoral candidates Bobby Kennedy, Colin Basran, Bob Schewe and Tom Dyas debated leadership, inclusiveness and the issue of homelessness in an election forum hosted by CBC Kelowna and UBC Okanagan. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

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In Metro Vancouver, there's been a more or less single-minded focus on one issue this election: housing affordability. Most other big topics — transportation, density, the relationship with business — are related to it.  

But it's a little different in the Okanagan. In Penticton and Vernon, the growing homeless population and each city's response has dominated the discussion. In smaller communities, a lack of condos and foreign investment means elections are fought on the traditional questions of transparency, taxes and accountability.  

For today's bonus Metro Matters issue, though, we'll focus solely on the region's largest city, Kelowna. There's no shortage of big issues here too, but as CBC Kelowna journalists Chris Walker, Brady Strachan and Josh Pagé explain, it's largely an election about identity and what image the city wants to embrace.

The changing heart of Kelowna

By Chris Walker

From the Bennett dynasty to the parachute candidacy of Christy Clark, the Okanagan is B.C. 's traditional and reliable conservative heartland.

It is changing, however. This election, the municipal campaign in Kelowna is a battle over the city's identity. And the two men leading the race personify the possibilities.

Colin Basran swept to victory four years ago with a slick, pro-business campaign with backing from the progressive tech industry. His tenure has been marked by growth and development, but urban problems have followed that success.

The clatter of issues like homelessness and crime is beginning to grate on the more traditional business community.

Enter Tom Dyas, the immediate past-president of the Chamber of Commerce, promising a return to the Okanagan's more conservative roots — a no-nonsense, tax cutting, small businessman reminiscent of the valley's Socred past.

These divergent visions of Kelowna's future have grown out of a personal relationship gone sour.

Before the campaign, Basran and Dyas were close friends.

The mayor appointed Dyas to the city's homelessness task force, nominated him to lead the city's successful bid for the Memorial Cup and even invited Dyas along to celebrate his 40th birthday in New York City.

Dyas, it seems, has grown disillusioned with Basran's leadership, especially on the city's growing homeless problem, which is the target of a five-year strategy that has only just begun.  

On that front, Dyas proposes a slightly more muscular approach than Basran, with more auxiliary police, more support for first responders and more input from businesses. He also proposes a "ranch" on the city outskirts where the homeless can be sent, with centralized detox services far away from downtown tourists.

Basran was slow to respond, allowing Dyas to set the agenda early.

Basran has rebounded in the last few weeks, buoyed by support from a nascent progressive coalition of yuppies, the LGBT community, local developers and a sizeable university population.

And Dyas' rhetoric, more than his actual proposals, has caused significant backlash from social service agencies, who together wrote an unprecedented open letter endorsing Basran's approach, if not his campaign per se.

Many older Kelowna residents will find Dyas' ideas familiar, even comforting. That's a considerable advantage, given that demographic's propensity to turn out on election day.

And so for Basran, it comes down to the ballot box enthusiasm of his newfound liberal support.

His progressive coalition, cobbled together by shared fear as much as shared interest, is not necessarily a natural fit for the usually conservative Okanagan.

The vote Saturday could be close.

Highlights from the debate

CBC British Columbia and UBC Okanagan collaborated to host a mayoral debate in Kelowna, which is recapped here.

The main topics were civic leadership, homelessness and diversity, but here's what our CBC journalists found noteworthy about the debate and the race: 

From Brady Strachan: What stood out for me were the plans some mayoral candidates have for Kelowna's homeless population. Tom Dyas wants to send people to a "ranch" for the homeless, with supportive housing and transportation to get them to and from the site.

Bobby Kennedy pitched a similar idea but on a vacant field next to Kelowna's main shopping centre where he'd put shipping container homes powered by solar panels and encourage the city's most vulnerable to take up farming. Some other ideas pitched at the debate were mandatory rehab for addicts on the streets by Bob Schewe and a trolley train that connects some of Kelowna's wineries by Bobby Kennedy. Colin Basran didn't pitch any election promises, beyond continuing the kind of work he's done in his first term. He did, however, warn the audience not to believe what he called 'unrealistic ideas' by his challengers.

From Josh Pagé: You could call Oct. 20 a referendum on Colin Basran. All three opponents pitched how they feel city hall has lost its way under Basran.

There was Tom Dyas repeatedly making sailing metaphors about the city being a directionless ship. You also have mayoral candidates Bobby Kennedy and Bob Schewe disagreeing with Basran on nearly every front, while generally leaving each other alone. 

Basran took a different tone, pointing out how he was the grand marshall at the city's Pride parade and how the city has to rally together to fix its problems. It's the first campaign in two terms where there's an incumbent, so there is a different brand of civic campaigning compared to the last election.


That's it for us!

For election night coverage from northern B.C. and the Interior, tune in on Oct. 20 from 8 to 10 p.m. PT with host Sarah Penton on CBC Radio One or on the CBC Radio App.  

For more civic election coverage, CBC and UBC will host a mayoral debate in Vancouver on Oct. Oct. 17. Check out the latest municipal headlines at cbc.ca/bcvotes2018 and if you have any questions about the municipal election, drop us a line at metromatters@cbc.ca.

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