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“I am a Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, or free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.” ~~ John G. Diefenbaker

LEONARD: I tell them this story and stress that there will always be another meeting, another motion, and another debate but often there is not a second chance to be a part of a significant family event

Frank Leonard asks, "Family first, or at least a close second?"

A year after getting elected Saanich Alderman in 1986, I was elected to the Capital Regional District Board, and one year after that I became Chair of the newly minted CRD Environment Committee.  The environment was becoming a key political issue and we were struggling with two key issues: the need for sewage treatment; and the need for more landfill space.  Becoming Chair of the Committee that owned these files was a great opportunity and an incredible responsibility.

My first weekend in this new position witnessed quite the setback.  Not only did we have a meager recycling effort but the one facility we had to receive recyclables burned down.  I recall driving to the Borden Street location as only smolders remained thinking that I really did have to tackle the reduction of waste from the ground up.

My instincts told me that in order to expand the landfill we needed credibility on recycling.  I’d attended a conference to learn how far behind we were from our neighbours in the lower mainland, and particularly Seattle.  Subsequently, nothing was a bigger priority for me than to start a blue box program.

Staff reports laid out a plan but some colleagues were not supportive. “Yeah-buts” dominated the discussion:
... it will cost too much
... folks will use the blue boxes as tool boxes
... citizens won’t take ‘garbage’ to the curb ... and ...
... will the materials really be used again. 

I had some support so our proposals never got defeated, but they always got tabled.  I recall one time where I left the meeting and walked around Panama Flats in Saanich twice just to blow off steam.

As the next meeting approached where the blue box initiative would once again be voted on, we got a worrisome call.  A member of the family had taken very ill and was in hospital in New Westminster.  It was a Tuesday afternoon and the CRD Committee meeting was at 9:30 am Wednesday morning so I said that I’d chair the ‘big’ meeting to get the blue box passed and then catch the 1 pm ferry to be in New Westminster just after 3 pm. 

The travel schedule went as planned, but of course life never follows a schedule ... the blue box was tabled once again, and the family member died midday Wednesday.  I had placed a political meeting ahead of a family emergency and it is a screw-up that I will always regret.

Whenever I have a chance to speak to the ‘keeners’ – the newly elected local government politicians who are so wrapped up in every item on every agenda – I tell them this story and stress that there will always be another meeting, another motion, and another debate but often there is not a second chance to be a part of a significant family event. 

This is where you may expect me to write that the lesson was learned and that I have since put family ahead of all else – but that would not be true. 

To this day I struggle with these judgement calls.  What I stress is that you can’t assume there will be another chance - another chance to see an ill family member; another chance to see your child receive an award; or another chance to be there for someone who is counting on you. 

So, I have missed meetings, been late to meetings or even had commitments moved but I have also visited a love one, given an unspoken ‘goodbye’ and left for a board meeting.  The difference today is that I think each case through to ‘last time’ consequences rather than wishfully assume I can have it both ways.

So, is this a lesson in ‘family first?’  Perhaps, if first thinking of the consequences to family qualifies.  The test can be stated more bluntly: can you live with the worst-case scenario of family being a ‘close second?’ 

Call the question.


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