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

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 - image credit)
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 - image credit)

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.

Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press
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.

The Exploration Place
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.

Afer 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."

Betsy Trumpener/CBC
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."

Nadia Mansour/CBC
Nadia Mansour/CBC