Making the Business of Life Easier

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ELECTION 2000: Features
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If there is a motto in the new suburbs, it is live and let live. In B.C., the philosophy has penetrated schools, especially the rapidly growing number of religious schools in which one theme dominates: that the road to salvation -- social, political, religious -- begins with the individual.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the new super-churches of Surrey, the most important addition to the suburbs since the strip mall. Although the city that sits to the southeast of Vancouver, on the other side of the Fraser, is perhaps better known for its large Sikh population, Surrey can claim to be Canada's fastest-growing city (a claim many suburban cities make) because of a surging Christian population.

It started in some ways in the late 1980s, when one of Vancouver's most successful and controversial entrepreneurs, Jim Pattison, bought a piece of forest land in northern Surrey for a new Christian school.

The Pacific Academy -- "Dedicated to the glory of God," according to its commemoration plaque -- now has 1,100 students from kindergarten to Grade 12, an international school with 45 students, mostly from Mexico, Taiwan and South Korea, and one of B.C.'s finest high-school basketball programs.

However, more striking than the waiting list of parents wanting to pay $4,000 a year for their children's schooling are the subdivisions growing like vineyards all around the academy.

"These subdivisions would not exist if the school was not located here," says principal Dave Neufeld, a former public-school teacher whose two sons passed through the academy during his 10 years at the school.

"This area was all bush when we built this. In a lot places, the school reflects the community. I think in this case, the community reflects the school."

Shopping-mall developers used to think that way, that they could build a mall and people would come. Now, Pacific Academy can claim to have spawned more than a thousand big suburban homes in its vicinity, and a few big churches.

Built near the Trans-Canada Highway as it enters the Vancouver area, the academy and its community typify British Columbia's Bible belt, which stretches up the Fraser Valley past Abbotsford.


The school appeals to a sense of alienation that runs riot in many suburbs -- an alienation from government, even from a broader society. People around here look at their school principal, mayor, even prime minister, and they don't see themselves.

To address this parental concern, Pacific Academy teaches Christianity and helps students to understand modern issues such as premarital sex and social welfare through Christian eyes, or at least through one set of Christian eyes.

Mr. Neufeld is tall and handsome with neatly clipped hair, a square jaw and an athletic body that fills his black suit. A resemblance to Stockwell Day seems uncanny, even more so given the pictures on his office wall of white-water rafting and jet skiing, and a poster for Life is Beautiful.

The message of the Oscar-winning Italian film -- that even in suffering one can find hope -- is one the school seems to share. Pacific Academy has an active overseas outreach program that sends groups of students every winter to countries such as Uganda, Guatemala and Sri Lanka to build schools and learn about poverty from children whom they sponsor throughout the year.

It is the sort of pragmatic approach to world problems that the suburbs soak up; it also eschews the more urban concept of guilt.

"We are very privileged. Our responsibility is not to feel bad about that," Mr. Neufeld explains. "A lot of children come back with a tremendous sense of guilt. I don't think it helps anyone to feel badly about what you have. I want them to understand, 'Are these people happy?' You don't have to have a Walkman to be fundamentally happy."

At 3:15 p.m., when classes finish, the line-up of cars coming to pick up children is not filled with the BMWs and SUVs one might expect, but rather an ordinary stream of minivans and North American sedans. It is not the rich who are filling the Christian schools of Surrey, but a large number of middle- and upper-middle income earners who have lost faith in public education.

One of those parents is Helen Balzer, a 36-year-old children's pastor at an evangelical church whose four children are enrolled at the academy. She and her husband, a contractor, turned away from the Surrey public school system long before the recent court fight over the use of a children's book depicting two lesbian parents.

It's not just about moral values, she says. "Parents want to have a say. They don't want to be dictated to."


The disenfranchisement of so many people in the suburbs has fuelled a new style of reactionary politics, and led to a de facto privatization of public services -- most notably schooling -- for a significant part of the population.

But it has also inspired a move to a new sort of selected public-ness, largely in the form of big new suburban churches.

Ms. Balzer sees it at her own church, the central Surrey Victory Christian Centre that draws 2,000 worshippers every week. "People want to get to know their neighbours more. I don't think people want to be islands unto themselves."

From the outside, her church looks more like a recreation centre, which is how people are supposed to see it. It has modern music, carnivals and regular kids programs, a big draw for parents who do not trust daycare. About one-fifth of the children in her programs come from single-parent families.

Most parents "feel like they belong here," she says. "That's what people are looking for today, a sense of belonging. The sense of value they used to get at work, the sense that they are valued, isn't there any more."

This desire for community has its limits. Across the road, a Block Watch sign says all "suspicious activities" will be reported to police. Here, in yet another field being bulldozed to make room for more houses, the people of Pacific Life Bible College are going one step further than Pacific Academy.

Along with a primary, elementary and high school, the college is constructing a community of "assisted-living" houses for elderly people who are not quite ready for a nursing home. And when they are, there will be one of those too, all on the college's extended grounds.

The "careminiums," fitted with call buttons for nursing assistance, mark an important transition in the suburbs, which traditionally have been the preserve of young families.

If Pacific Life Bible College is any indication, Canada's suburbs will become demographic book ends, offering healthy and safe living for the very young and very old -- with a lot of stressed-out parents in between. It also suggests a future of privately funded, community-driven social services.

"It fits our political philosophy of small government, that care should be provided at the community level. This takes some of the burden off government," says Dennis Hixson, dean of Pacific Life and a leader in the Christian political movement that took control of Surrey's public school board in the 1990s.

Mr. Hixson, an American by birth who ran local campaigns for Ronald Reagan in northern California, says suburbanites (the people behind the Reagan Revolution) are only now learning in Canada to stand up for their political beliefs. It's not that they don't want government, he continues; it's just that they don't feel like they're part of government, or that government is part of them.

Another difference he notices between city and suburb is fear. The people living around him in Surrey are afraid. They are afraid of drugs, crime, even the immigrants seen all over Surrey.

"Perhaps people who live in a city are more cosmopolitan," Mr. Hixson says. "They're not afraid of these outside forces coming in, so they send their children to a public school. A good portion of children are going to get involved in drugs, in premarital sex. City people don't seem to be concerned about these things. People live in suburbs because they don't want to be exposed to these lifestyles."

Continued ... Suburbia - Part 3

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