By Surbhi Gogia
Be the change you wish to see in the world. The famous quote by Mahatma Gandhi suits no one better than Surrey City Councillor, Tom Gill. The City of Surrey is home to one of the largest South Asian communities in Canada that has worked exceptionally hard to earn a unique financial and cultural identity in the world. But the community has been so busy flourishing that it forgot about representing its needs at the municipal level from September 1993 when Surrey officially became a city.
It was only in 2005, one man stepped out of the comfort zone to fill-in-the-blank and take this challenging role. That was Tom Gill. Gill became the first non-Caucasian Councillor to be part of the leadership for Surrey City Council. A Chartered Professional Accountant by profession, Gill decided to take the plunge and run for Councillor. “They said no South Asian is going to be a City Councillor. I accepted the challenge.” He not only won, but worked hard for 10 years to maintain his position. In 2014, he was re-elected with highest vote counts. He now serves as theChair of the City’s Finance Committee and Transportation &Infrastructure committee.
Recalling his more than a decade long journey as a Councillor, he says his ability to communicate with the South Asians especially Punjabi community of Surrey, has given him a deeper appreciation oftheir needs. He is proud that he and his colleagues onCouncil have listened to these community members and recognized the need for South Asian Sports. Under him, many projects were accomplished like hockey turf fields, cricket grounds, Kabbaddi grounds and expanding Newton Athletic Park to include more parking spots etc.
Gill continued to serve as the Chief Financial Officer for Coast Mental Health, the largest non-profit mental health agency in B.C., after becoming the City Councillor.After 10 years of balancing both duties, he decided to retire from Coast Mental Health and continue serving the community as a Councillor. “People must recognize being a city Councillor is not a lucrative job. I worked as a CFO for 24 years. But as you grow you recognize your passion and where you can make positive changes, I found my role as a Councillor fulfilled these needs.
In an exclusive interview with Desi Today, he talks about his journey as a City Councillor, his contributions towards Surrey and some unique aspects of the city, he calls his home for 25 years. He and his wife are residents of Surrey’s Fraser Heights neighbourhood raising three young children. Here are the excerpts:
Tell us something about your family and growing up days?
My mom and dad moved from Punjab to Canada. I was born and raised in Kamloops. I moved to Surrey in 1986. It was a huge transition for me. During my days in Kamloops, I didn’t realize the uniqueness of our community. I missed out on cultural components, particularly music. I also noticed, there was a significance dominance of our community in Surrey as compared to Kamloops. For example, it wasn’t quite culturally acceptable for one to leave the home in your Indian outfits. But when I came to this city I noted that people were so comfortable in their Indian outfits on roads. I think the credit goes towards pioneers who really worked hard to have that acceptance. In the beginning many new immigrants had to take off their turbans and shave their beards just to get a job, which is not the case now.
Q) What more can you tell us about the growth and contribution of the Punjabi community here.
There is no question this community has made huge strides. It has grown in every field but predominantly in construction. Construction in itself has secondary impact on every other business like finance, furniture etc. The community has done well in these areas too.
I think the city too has played a major role in the growth of the community. There is no big city that permits small developers to construct, but this city is rare. It promoted small developers and they have been successful particularly the South Asian developers.
I was the first non-Caucasian to be elected in the city council. This too shows acceptance of the South Asian community into the mainstream. During my tenure on Council, we have legalized secondary suites and removed the house size cap on the RF zone for single family homes. I feel it shows that we recognize many unique family dynamics and are meeting those needs.
However there are two major areas that our community needs to put more importance — education and giving back to the community. Not to suggest that Punjabi community doesn’t contribute. But more people have to come forward for the philanthropy.
The first generation came to this country with great values. There was a time when someone new came, people opened their doors to help them settle, get jobs. I don’t see that happening anymore. People have to grow accustomed that this community belongs to us and we need to be able to go back to the roots that we belong to.
We also at one time valued education. But we are not encouraging our youth to go and get fully educated. Some of it I attribute to being successful in businesses. When people become multi-millionaire sometimes they lose sight of value for better education.
Q) Why do you think the community is losing its core values?
Spending too much time earning money and making it a priority is the main reason. Money is important but so is spending time and energy around the kids. It is because of this, the incidents of youth getting into gangs and drug violence happen more in the South Asian community.
But it is disheartening to see that such a small fraction, a minority percentage makes the trouble and the same brush is painted against the entire community.
Q) Same goes with the city of Surrey. Only because of few bad people the entire city is stereo-typed as city of gangs and guns. How do you feel?
It is disheartening. I have travelled to many cities and countries but I feel Surrey is one of the best cities to live in. It has best quality of air, best water and lots of greenery. There is so much of wildlife and so many creeks.
We have made tremendous efforts to showcase that Surrey is a great city. We want to ensure that we make it sustainable as well by having more parks, walk ways etc.
Surrey is recognized in many places as having best facilities like ice rinks, recreational centers, pools.
The city also has lowest residential taxes as compared to any other cities in the Lower Mainland which is quite some achievement.
We will continue to grow. Only bigger and better things are expected to happen. I am very optimistic that we do have exceptionally great future.
Q) What are some other unique aspects of the city?
Its significantly growing youth population. One third of the city’s population is under the age of 19 which not common in any other city. As the youth grow they would get into secondary education, businesses and jobs. We see it as an opportunity. We are working with SFU and other universities to invite more education institutes for providing adequate post secondary education.
We want to create employment opportunities within Surrey so that residents don’t have to travel to Vancouver. We want companies to set their head offices here Already there are businesses that want to relocate to Surrey because their employees live here. Campbell Heights Business park is one such example. It has become a huge employment generator.
We want to be recognized as the new metropolitan city at South of the Fraser. Recently the City hall was relocated for the purpose of developing a busy city centre. It has been a great honor to participate in creating a new downtown core, a legacy for many future generations to come. Many developers didn’t have enough confidence coming into Whalley. We stepped in to take leadership and show confidence in this area. After the relocation some incredible investments have been made. More towers are being built.Surrey never had a hotel greater than four star. Now for the first time a four and a half star hotel is coming up in this area.
There have been great investments around Surrey Memorial Hospital the area around it is to be recognized as high end research hub.
The city’s effort in terms of infrastructure development have been commendable, but when it comes to crime prevention and transportation, the public seems to be unhappy about the Municipality’s efforts. What do you have to say, being chair of the transportation and infrastructure committee?
We need a robust transportation system for one of the fastest growing population in this City. But the City of Surrey doesn’t control Translink. Translink is an entity in itself. Translink has been encouraging us to get the densities that we need to support the rapid transit. On our part are trying to make sure that we have the right number of people to use the transit so that when the Light Rail comes it will be successful.
We have been working at some of the major network of roads and significant improvements on north-south east-west transit routes.
To address the crime, we hired unprecedented 100 police officers. It has never happened in the past. When it comes to public safety that is one of the most important steps.
Another strategy for crime prevention is to keep the youth engaged and busy. We need to make sure that they have the right amenities to use whether it is hockey, swimming or soccer. The city has done some major investments in public amenities.
Q) You have been a great advocate of promoting healthy activities for young families. Can you elaborate more on your contribution?
Prior to me being on council, there were individuals that didn’t recognize the South Asian sports,though the demand and desire to have such amenities has always been there. I facilitated some of those conversations. Now there is no other municipality that has cricket fields. We have also worked with the wrestling group to help them get the right equipment.
We also opened grass hockey fields in Surrey. There were doubts these fields would not be successful since there would not be enough people to use it. But after my conversations with the community, I knew from the beginning they would be used. After the first one, we opened the second one and now the third turf field is coming soon.
My contribution to Surrey has been Newton Athletic Park. Over the last 10 years it has been my pet project. I have been advocate of getting that park to where it is today. The Whitecaps junior team has expressed its desire to play there because of the amenities. We have marvellous turf fields, made improvements to drainage, fixed up the tennis courts, added basketball courts, water park, creating seniors room and cricket lounge.
Q) What are some of the other unique features of Surrey’s sports amenities?
We had the B.C. summer games in Surrey two years ago. The participants were amazed by the quality of city’s infrastructure .
The city has been able to recognize and work towards the needs of different communities. For example we are now concentrating on putting several sheets of ice, something that hockey community has been pushing. We are putting two more in Cloverdale and two more in Bridgeview. These are very expensive investments. But we recognize the demand.
We are the only city in North America to have a Kabbaddi park.
Q) What are some of the upcoming projects?
The big projects we are looking at are the pools. We just finished constructing one in South Surrey (Grandview Aquatics Centre) and another in Guildford, both are over $50 million projects.
We have made significant expansion in City Hall, Libraries and the Cloverdale Museum.
We are also working with YMCA in creating more recreational and health facilities.
Q) City is at great pace with residential development projects. But there have been concerns about overcrowding of schools. What is your take on that.
It is a huge concern. My job is to approve land for development. But the responsibility of schools is not on my shoulders. It is a provincial mandate.
I am a great fan of the Liberal government and it has done great investments here but I fail to understand why it has been laxed in investing in schools in our area.
The conundrum that I face is, I realize we need more schools yet I cannot slowdown on investment just because one group is not doing its job. I cannot stop approving the land for development if a developer approaches with a plan that is close to what we need. I have to make sure that people who want to invest in this city continue to invest.
Since I am an accountant, I calculated some numbers. Just based upon our residential development not including commercial or industrial, we generate enough money in property purchase tax plus PST to easily fund two schools every year. If we stop residential development we will not generate enough money. Someone at provincial level needs to recognize we need to continue to have positive investment atmosphere.