Hi! I am Lucas, an alumnus from the Rivers to Sea region. Last year I won the Rotary Ambassador’s Award for top project at the regional fair, and I represented my region at the 2013 Provincial Fair in Victoria.
Last month I interviewed Richard Stewart, the mayor of Coquitlam. I asked him about a variety of topics, and here are the questions and answers in his own words. Hope you enjoy!
How did you get into politics? Was it a childhood dream when you were growing up?
It wasn’t a childhood dream, it actually wasn’t an ambition even. When I worked in the
government, in fact in the 90’s, I had a big contract with the provincial government, with the NDP government in the 90’s, dealing with the building of the safety and building code. In the course of that, it was actually the leader of the opposition, Gordon Campbell, asked me to run for his party. And I said no, several times, and then I eventually said yes. And then I ran and got elected to be the MLA of Coquitlam, Coquitlam-Maillardville, and then after four years I ran for council and decided to go for local government because I prefer local government in any case. It’s closer to the people.
Do you have any future plans to enhance the heritage learning in Coquitlam for generations to come?
Yes in fact we just purchased Booth Farm House. That’s a heritage building from about a hundred years ago. It’s one of the oldest houses in Coquitlam and we had been speaking with the owner of the house for a couple of years, and we managed to buy it when she passed away. We bought it from the family. And that gives us an opportunity to not just preserve that heritage but to also celebrate some of the original heritage in that part of Coquitlam-Maillardville and a historic community. But we have many other historic elements and one of the main parts of that, this is actually a farm by the way, Booth Farm House, down at the foot of Dawes Hill, it’s across the street from there and four doors down. It’s a beautiful blue house. But, of course, Maillardville is a significant heritage place. But one of the most significant heritage areas is Riverview Hospital. We are working right now with the provincial government on how to preserve elements of the heritage in Riverview Hospital. Not just the artifacts because there are some, we have gathered many of them, but also whether it’s possible to preserve several of the buildings. These are the oldest buildings, some of the oldest buildings in Coquitlam, and some of the oldest buildings in the province, and some of them are quite magnificent.
What are your thoughts about Riverview Hospital and the grounds?
My own preference would be to preserve the whole site. But to find uses for it. Because just leaving it empty isn’t a possibility either. The film industry uses the site quite a bit, partly because of the heritage values. So I want to work with the film industry, for example, and develop a studio or facilities to complement the location with television and production. But the site can also be used for many health related uses, like both mental health, which it has always been used for, but also hospital uses.
What were your specific goals you wanted to achieve as a mayor and have you accomplished those?
One of the reasons I ran was because of the long stalemate with the Evergreen Line. It had been on the books for 20 years and I disagreed with how they were trying to get it built. So I’m pretty proud about the progress we’ve developed to essentially meet with every mayor, meet with every community, meet with the province, work with all the partners, and try to set aside all the differences and find the common ground so that we could get an agreement to start the project. And we got that agreement. It’s federal, it’s provincial, it’s regional, it’s the local government involved, it’s every level of government and many corporate and private partners involved so it’s quite a proud accomplishment for me.
What was the biggest difficulty you’ve experienced so far about the Evergreen Line?
The biggest difficulty is politics. I love public policy. For example, public policy is when you have a new garbage system. We’re going to have a new recycling system too. They are decisions by the government that benefit the residents. Politics though is different from public policy. Politics is the filter that public policy has to go through. I don’t like politics. Some people really love political manipulation. We’re in a battle right now with New Westminster over the Bailey Bridge. That has been why I’m running late today, almost every day. The Bailey Bridge is very political, and politics isn’t in the best interest of public.
I see that you operate your own government relations and communications business. What is your role in that work?
Well not anymore, I still have that business, but I don’t operate it anymore. But largely, that’s how I ended up in government. I developed public policy. For example, I was hired by a crown corporation to write some regulations that would require builders to have licenses and mandatory warranties. Those regulations get written by somebody and that was me in this case. It required talking to both sides, and I actually did do that, because that’s the way I do it. I talked to all the sides to find out their positions and then developed the policy that made sense. If you develop the policy from only one side, then we have a conflict. That was my role, to make sure we could find common ground for good public policy. I still do that now, but I just don’t get paid as much.
From your time as being a magazine editor and publisher, did you learn anything that you could integrate into your time as being a mayor?
The main thing is that everybody has a job. So when the reporter phones me, I had four reporters in the last two hours, I try to help them do their job. Their job is to get a story into the newspaper. I have never, ever said no comment. Some politicians say no comment. That doesn’t help the reporters do their job. In fact, it makes them go around you to get someone else to comment. And usually, the comment is something I wouldn’t have said. Having been a reporter, having been a publisher, I recognize the value of research to find out stuff, but also the value of helping people do their job. One of the important realities that I hope you all will realize as well is that it makes sense if you think about it obviously. The first thing that can help you is usually the person who is already doing that job. So if, for example, a public policy question comes to the council we’re asked, “Should we allow to the RCMP to have tasers?” I could make the decision based on what I’ve read in the newspapers or what I’ve heard from other people. Or, I could go talk to the RCMP and talk to someone who does that. If we’re figuring out how frequently should we disassemble a fire hydrant. Every fire hydrant can get disassembled. How often should we do that? I talked to the people who do the job for us and they show me how do it. I actually put gloves on and took one apart and put it back together. I think it’s important to understand what the job is if we’re going to understand our municipality and try to make it better. Did you know that every fire hydrant gets taken apart every year? And when it gets put back together, we use a vegetable product to seal the joints.
Do you think that multiculturalism and speaking different languages is important in a growing society like this?
I absolutely do. I think that one of the most important parts of Coquitlam is the fact that the world has come here. That people have come from every country of the world, practically, and make it their home. They’re sharing their cultures. My family comes from Scotland on my father’s side, and my mother’s side is from Quebec. They arrived from France around 400 years ago, one of the first settlers. And so I grew up speaking French and English at home. I speak a little bit of Korean, and a little bit of Spanish and Italian because my wife is Italian. And that was multiculturalism 30, 40 years ago was different European cultures. My wife teaches French Immersion at Panorama. And the French Immersion class is made up of people all around the world who speak English on the playground, French in the classroom, and Farsi or Korean or Spanish or Russian at home. It’s just an amazing part of Coquitlam. I go to other communities and the tensions with multiculturalism and diversity and racism are enormous in so many communities. I don’t see them being anywhere near as high or as strong here. There are some tensions, but I think that the best part of Coquitlam is that the world comes here and we get along.
Being a mayor, what is a day in your life at work?
There is no day in being mayor, there’s lots of different days. Monday is city council. We spend the whole day in meetings. Tuesday is usually reporters dealing with the meetings. Wednesdays is more meetings. Every single day is a pile of documents to sign! I always have a pen in my hand because I always have documents being brought in. And there are decisions to be made about all kinds of things. Thursday and Friday I end up in regional meetings. We do regional government meetings for the Translink and transportation system, along with sewer and garbage talks. Friday, we also get the agenda for the next Monday’s council, so there’s at least 16 hours spent on the weekend reading and preparing for the council. Not to mention all the ribbon cuttings to go to on the weekends. They’re typically busier than the weekdays. Every evening there’s something. Sometimes I take time off from meetings so I can spend time at home, but my wife says it’s not enough! There’s lots of different conferences that I have to go to that are out of town. I have to go to Victoria every now and then. Not Ottawa very often, but usually Victoria.
What do you think is the role of a mayor?
The biggest thing of being a mayor is to build a consensus. Try to get good public policy advanced through city council. There’s two parts of that. You have to get good public policy which means trying to guide development of city staff and city policy to put before council. It’s about building consensus on council that quite often involves politics. I do it well, but I don’t like doing it. We also have some legal obligations of being the voice of the city and present the city to people in a legal sense. Finally, mayors get together to run Translink and other things like that.
Throughout this interview, I realized that the mayor and the city council work extremely hard to preserve the heritage of this beautiful city. Coquitlam is fast approaching 125 years as a municipality, and there are several historical landmarks that I would recommend visiting if you’re in the area. These include Fraser Mills, formerly a small community and city and Riverview Hospital and its stunning grounds and views. Visiting these places and stepping back in time has become one of my interests. I appreciate, and I hope you will too enjoy all the work that the city has put into making sure the younger generation is well-educated about our rich and extensive history for the future.