COLUMN: Ed McKitka was a dynamic, divisive leader

Perhaps the most colourful politician to come out of Surrey, with the exception of Bill Vander Zalm, died in a traffic accident earlier this month.

Ed McKitka served as an alderman (the former term for councillor) for about a decade before succeeding Vander Zalm as mayor in the 1975 election. He always portrayed himself as being “for the little guy” and that grassroots populism appeal served him very well over the years.

However, his term as mayor was highly controversial and ended up with him being convicted of breach of trust and going to jail for misuse of his office.

It was likely the most damaging moment in Surrey municipal history, in terms of being a black mark on the city.

The investigation was well underway during his term, which ran from 1975-’77, and it was fairly obvious that charges would be pending. That didn’t stop him from running for re-election in 1977, in what was a highly controversial and bitter fight. He ended up losing to Bill Vogel, who had been an alderman and only served one term as mayor himself before stepping aside.

But McKitka didn’t lose by a landslide. He still had his followers. In fact, the situation at that time had a good deal of today’s (Toronto Mayor) Rob Ford drama about it. While there is a “Ford nation,” there were at that time many McKitka believers.

Some of this came about because McKitka was an excellent retail politician. If he got a call from a citizen about a concern, whether it was a plugged ditch or lack of garbage pickup, he looked into it personally, and often even came to the caller’s home. It’s something he did throughout his years in office, and many people were grateful for his personal attention.

In the 1979 election, two years after he had been defeated in running for re-election, he was elected as an alderman for a one-year term.

His name recognition and tending to people’s issues prevailed, and he was back on council. But it was for a very short time. A court conviction came down within a few months, he was stripped of his office and sent off to jail.

An iconic photo taken by longtime Surrey photographer Ken Fisher at the inaugural meeting of council in December 1979 still sticks with me. Newly elected Mayor Don Ross was wearing the chain of office, and McKitka, sworn in as an alderman, was wistfully touching it as a cat tentatively would paw a ball of yarn or a toy mouse.

Over the years, McKitka was a fairly constant presence in Surrey. He was involved in various business ventures, many of which revolved around trucking. Some brought attention to himself. That was something he never minded, even after going off to jail a second time for breaching his probation.

He was always friendly, and was good-natured with most people – other than his political rivals, some of whom were subjects of a ferocious enmity. Among those were longtime alderman, MLA and (briefly) premier Rita Johnston, who never trusted McKitka and felt that he was harmful to council and the community.

I ran into him many times over the years. I first met him about 40 years ago and dealt with him often in my years working for the Surrey-North Delta Leader. At one time, his son lived next door to me and Ed and I talked across the fence on many occasions.

I will always see him as an enigma. He was likable and a good listener — to ordinary people who had concerns. Yet he was easily manipulated by those with unscrupulous motives, and was unscrupulous enough in his own way.

The people of Surrey who remember the1960s and 1970s will not forget him, especially if they had any personal contact with him. I know I certainly won’t. He was a character whose like I have never come across in any political setting. He was absolutely unique.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

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