British Columbia

Prince George's 1st mayor of colour says city is sending 'strong signal' to the world about diversity

Engineer Simon Yu is due to be sworn in as the as mayor of Prince George, B.C., on Monday. "Diversity is doing well here," said Yu, a first-generation immigrant from Hong Kong who will be the city's first mayor of colour.

Simon Yu — whose election has drawn attention as far away as China — says he'll tackle issues with empathy

Prince George Mayor Simon Yu
Simon Yu, 63, came to Prince George as an international student from Hong Kong in 1975. He was elected mayor of the central B.C. city in the municipal elections on Oct. 15. (Kate Partridge/CBC)

Simon Yu will be sworn in as the mayor of Prince George on Monday night, the first person of colour elected to lead the B.C. Interior city.

Yu, 63, came to central B.C. as an international student from Hong Kong in 1975. At election forums and in campaign advertisements this year, he emphasized his experience immigrating to Canada with "just two suitcases."

He told CBC News on election night that he was in a "state of shock" following his victory, but that it showed "diversity is doing well here."

His success has since been noticed far outside the city. 

Yu's victory was highlighted by Global Times, a state media outlet in China, while the Richmond, B.C.-based Chinese magazine Rise Weekly hailed Yu's win as "the biggest political miracle" in Prince George's history.

Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times at a newsstand in Beijing. Yu's mayoral victory was highlighted by the media outlet. (Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press)

That level of attention is unusual for elected leaders in Prince George, a city of approximately 77,000 people located around 500 kilometres north of Vancouver.

But the mayor-elect is eager to use his moment in the spotlight to showcase the benefits of life in a community that is sometimes stereotyped as — in Yu's words — "a redneck town."

"Prince George is sending a very strong signal to the rest of the world," he said. "Diversity is well here … We welcome investment, we welcome new immigrants."

According to the latest census data, 70 per cent of Prince George residents (52,740) are of European descent, while just 1.3 per cent (1,010) are Chinese.

Mr. PG , an eight-metre tall lumberjack and the city's mascot, greets visitors to Prince George. Yu is eager to use his moment in the spotlight to showcase the benefits of life in Prince George. (The Exploration Place)

While he acknowledges discrimination exists in the city, Yu says he has been lucky enough to never experience it himself.

"I never, ever felt that I was an outsider," he said shortly after his mayoral victory over five other candidates, in which he received nearly 40 per cent of the vote. "I belong to the city of Prince George."

'Friend of stars'

Fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and Shanghainese, Yu — whose Chinese name is Yu Sing-yau (余星友), which translates to "friend of stars" — arrived in Prince George from Hong Kong at age 15. 

He lived in residence at Prince George College, a Catholic school that enrolled both Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth from across central and northern B.C., before going on to study as an engineer in Vancouver.

After working as the municipal manager for Rankin Inlet, now in Nunavut, he returned to Prince George where he has raised six children.

Using the slogan "Yu can do it," he campaigned on his career as an engineer, offering an analytical approach to the city's problems.

He promised to cut red tape and streamline approval for new developments, and to build emergency shelters for people living with homelessness in the city, having previously helped construct temporary homes for survivors of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia.

The key to tackling issues such as mental health, homelessness and addiction, he said, is "empathy."

"Discrimination comes from a fear of the unknown," he said. "As human beings, we're all the same."

Community leaders welcome Yu's leadership 

Prince George labour lawyer Bobby Deepak, who ran as an NDP candidate for a local riding in the 2017 provincial elections, said Yu's election represents a "positive step" for inclusiveness in the city.

"It's a reflection of our changing demographics in the north," Deepak said.

"It's a reflection of our electorate accepting our history of immigrants coming to the north, B.C. and Canada … and also it's an acceptance of truth and reconciliation with the First Nations."

Bobby Deepak said Yu’s election represents a 'positive step' for inclusiveness in Prince George. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC)

Brian Chang, owner of the Asian grocery store Marquee International Food and Gifts in downtown Prince George, said he's known Yu for two decades, and was surprised and excited that a Chinese immigrant was taking the city's top job. 

"I voted for him, and I'm happy that he got elected," Chang said. "He is a very valuable member of Prince George."

Brian Chang said he was surprised and excited that Yu as a Chinese immigrant will take the city’s top job. (Nadia Mansour/CBC)
Prince George made history by swearing in its first mayor of colour. But Simon Yu’s mayoral win has resonated well beyond the northern city.


Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary and the Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award. Based in Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry and the Paralympics.