The chains of office
City leaders linked by love of community
Wednesday, Feb 22, 2017 06:00 am
Links to the past
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History weighs heavily on the mind of Mayor Nolan Crouse.
Each day, he works in an office he’s intentionally covered with photos from St. Albert’s history. And each day, he walks past pictures of many of this city’s past councils, as well as the mayoral chain of office, which features the name of every St. Albert mayor.
That chain of office is heavy, both physically and metaphorically, Crouse said.
“When I put it on, I think I feel the importance of the moment of the role,” he said.
“You really realize at that moment that you’re in a position of responsibility.”
Some 21 people in the past 150 years have held St. Albert’s mayoral office. Linking them across time is a common commitment to serving their community.
The first mayors
St. Albert didn’t have a mayor before 1904. Instead, priests such as Father Albert Lacombe and regional representatives like Samuel Cunningham ran local affairs.
Frank Juneau was the first elected leader of St. Albert proper, Black Robe’s Vision reports, entering office on July 16, 1900, shortly after the community became a village. A carpenter, he was one of the community’s first non-Métis settlers and the first inhabitant of what we now call Juneau House (the Michif Institute building).
Juneau likely didn’t have a busy schedule – the village’s first financial return showed total expenses to be $4.24, $2 of which was to remove a dead horse. His successors would spend the next four years levying taxes, building sidewalks and fixing bridges.
The first official link in the mayoral chain was Cheri Hebert, who also served three years as village overseer. He became St. Albert’s first mayor by acclamation in 1904 shortly after residents sought and received town status. He would have run against Herbert B. Dawson, but Dawson forgot to sign his nomination papers, Black Robe’s Vision reports.
Hebert’s council had one employee, secretary Felix Page, and rented Coun. Lucien Boudreau’s sample room to use as a town hall. Council would later hire a policeman and pass laws on billiard halls, abattoirs, and sheep-at-large.
1907 to 1919 saw the mayor’s chair pass between six people before it got to St. Albert’s longest serving mayor, Michael Hogan. A teacher at the original Bellerose School, Hogan would often call his town “Little Switzerland” due to its diverse ethnic background, the St. Albert Historical Society notes. Hogan was noted as a prudent fiscal manager, having transformed a staggering $65,000 debt at the start of his first term into a $5,000 surplus when he left office in 1943.
Grappling with growth
The 1950s and 1960s were a time of great change in St. Albert, said historian and past mayor Richard Plain.
“St. Albert coming out of World War Two was still a relatively small community,” he noted. It was the start of the oil boom, and St. Albert and other communities struggled to find the cash for the infrastructure to support rapid growth.
The mayor during this tumultuous time was William J. Veness. Raised on the north shore of the Sturgeon where the St. Albert Trail bridge is today, Veness helped build fighter planes in the Second World War and ran a gas station/garage from 1949 to 1976, writes historian David Johnson.
Plain recalled Veness as an insightful, hard-working, committed man who worked extremely long hours as mayor.
“He was really the architect ... of everything that allowed modern St. Albert to be built.”
Veness’s most significant act as mayor was to apply for New Town status under the 1956 New Town Act. This status let the town get $11 million in low-interest loans from the province in exchange for giving them direct say in the town’s operations. From 1957 to 1962, St. Albert was run not by a council and mayor but by an administrative board of councillors and provincial appointees chaired by Veness.
The new board set out an ambitious plan to build four new neighbourhoods – Mission Park, Braeside, Grandin Park and Sturgeon Heights – and took a direct role in buying, selling and servicing these lands. This work saw St. Albert balloon to about 5,200 people by 1962, Black Robe’s Vision reports – almost five times the number there were when Veness first took office.
It also marked a shift in the role of the mayor, Plain said. Prior to this, mayors were unpaid volunteers and had maybe one or two permanent employees. Veness’s heavy workload prompted him to call for the mayor to be a paid position – a change residents agreed to in 1966 – and lead to the creation of a more expansive administrative staff.
Veness’s later years in office were chaotic. The town effectively went broke in 1962, prompting a formal inspection by Municipal Affairs and the complete takeover of the town’s finances by the province for six years.
Veness was re-elected in 1964, but a citizens’ group led by future mayor Ray M. Gibbon protested the numerous delays and insecure ballots at the polls and challenged the election in court. The judge ruled the election invalid and tossed Veness and three councillors out of office in February 1965, leaving St. Albert, for a few days, without an elected government.
John de Bruijn stepped in as interim mayor until the election of Richard S. Fowler later that year.
Gibbon and Richard Fowler would serve as St. Albert’s mayors for much of the 1960s through 1980s.
Margaret Plain, who served on council with Gibbon and is married to Richard, recalled Gibbon as a “a spit-and-polish ex-Navy guy” whose shoes always shone and military-cut hair was always combed.
Gibbon oversaw the construction of the first Sturgeon hospital and the green belt that now contains Anthony Henday Drive, Richard Plain said.
Fowler commissioned St. Albert Place and became an MLA, solicitor general and provincial court judge.
“He had the classic appearance of a mayor,” Richard Plain said, being well filled-out with a deep voice, and knew the community inside and out.
Fowler was also the first chair of the Alberta Capital Region Wastewater Commission. Plain laughed as he recalled how Fowler, upon hearing about the effectiveness of the group’s treatment plant, impulsively drank a glass of treated sewage from it “and was sick as a dog for about three days afterwards!”
Anita Ratchinsky became St. Albert’s first (and so far only) female mayor in 1989, and oversaw the construction of the city’s clock tower and tourist information centre in her nine years in office. Paul Chalifoux and Plain share credit for getting Servus Place built across their three terms, with Chalifoux commissioning the mayoral chain of office in 2005.
Today, St. Albert’s mayor oversees some 625 employees and 60 police officers, Crouse said – a far cry from the sole secretary of Hebert’s day.
The role of mayor has also evolved, said Plain. Instead of signing cheques or arranging for dead horses to be removed, mayors now focus on policy and governance, leaving administrative tasks to city staff.
What unites all St. Albert’s mayors is a strong commitment to public service and community building, said Plain and Crouse.
“You have to like your people, like your community, and want to make something different,” Plain said.
And once your time in office is done, you get to drive around town and see the industrial parks, arenas and recreation centres you helped create, he continued.
“When you sit back and look at the enjoyment, the participation people are getting out of that, it kind of makes it worthwhile.”