Judge orders Surrey to amend controversial political sign bylaw, clarify that single signs are still allowed

It was a controversial bylaw, an ambiguously worded bylaw, but not an illegal bylaw. 

That was the ruling of B.C. Supreme Court on Thursday, technically dismissing a lawsuit against Surrey’s changes to its sign bylaw, that opponents said was squashing political speech. 

At the same time, the court ordered Surrey to amend its legislation to make explicit that a single political lawn sign is allowed at any time.

“The 2021 Amendments give rise to an ambiguity in the bylaw,” wrote Justice Nigel Kent in his ruling. 

“It is not the Court’s role to draft legislation. That is the role of duly elected government. Nevertheless … this Court also orders [Surrey] to forthwith take all steps necessary to amend [the bylaw] to incorporate clarifications which expressly put into effect the Court’s declared interpretation.”

Surrey now has three months to change the bylaw. 

Neither side compromises 

Last October, council voted to change its sign bylaw, specifically the sections around political signs, including regulating referendums and Elections B.C.-sanctioned petition initiatives for the first time.

Amendments also expanded the definition of “political” to go beyond signs supporting a candidate or party, and include those expressing support or disapproval of a politician, and support or opposition to an issue at any level of government.

It happened while people opposed to Surrey’s change to an independent police force were conducting a petition initiative to try and stop the transition from the RCMP to an independent police force. 

Several organizers of the “Keep The RCMP In Surrey” campaign felt they were being targeted, and filed the lawsuit.

“They submit this amounts to a ‘classic example of infringement of … Charter rights’ given that ‘political speech is the single most important and protected type of expression’ that the Charter seeks to protect,” wrote Kent. 

However, a separate section of the bylaw has a list of exemptions to regulations, including allowing a single lawn sign at all times. Kent said the City of Surrey admitted as much during the submission of evidence, but chose not to make amendments to the bylaw during its initial passing and criticism.

“Despite expressions of confusion and concern from many sources, the City has not volunteered any amendments to clarify its stated intent,” wrote Kent.

“The petitioners refuse to accept the City’s assurances regarding the intent of the bylaw … neither, it seems, is prepared to compromise and so the Court intends to solve the problem for them.”

Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum stands near a mock-up of a Surrey city police vehicle during his state of the city address in Surrey, B.C., in May 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Bad blood 

The ruling also summarized the history between Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum and the Keep The RCMP In Surrey organizers, which has involved other lawsuits. 

In 2021, Mayor Doug McCallum got into a verbal altercation with the RCMP supporters outside a Save-On-Foods, and subsequently told the media one of them had run over his foot — which later resulted in a criminal charge against him for mischief, in a case that has yet to be heard. 

Following this, Surrey council passed the sign bylaw, while also temporarily banning the same people who filed the sign bylaw lawsuit from attending council meetings, before it reversed course following a separate lawsuit. 

“These particular petitioners have been directly targeted by certain members of Surrey City Council for special treatment; they were the subject matter of a (quickly and appropriately rescinded) bylaw prohibiting their attendance at Council meetings and an injunction lawsuit seeking to enforce that bylaw. Their organization (KTRIS) has even been accused, wrongly it appears, of inflicting physical injury on the Mayor,” wrote Kent. 

“In these circumstances one might well understand the petitioners’ reluctance to accept any assurance made by the City regarding its intended interpretation and enforcement of the bylaw.”