A Challenge of Time - An Interview with Mike Harcourt

By Tracey Block

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Slowing down is not on Mike Harcourt's to-do list. Although the former B.C. premier said goodbye to provincial politics in 1996, his schedule remains filled.

"I think retirement is a phoney gig, anyway," says Mike. "I don't believe in the term. I think it's a state of mind. The real issue is: do you have the choice? Some people just don't have the resources and have to keep working."

Mike's decision to keep working stems from his desire to see the growth of sustainable cities and promote "green" development. "For me, I wouldn't even call it work," he says. "I decided to keep on agitating on issues that are important. So, I'm involved with a number of cities on how to become sustainable."

At 66, Mike still has a long list of goals to accomplish. "The question is how do you create a prosperous economy, particularly in these challenging economic times, and a healthy environment in terms of air, water, soil and bio-diversity?" he says. 

"And then there's the need to include the excluded people - the homeless, urban aboriginals, disabled and poor, and surround all that with a culture that is rich and creative."

The term "sustainability" wasn't even used when Mike first encountered the issue almost 40 years ago. "I got hit over the head with a sledgehammer, figuratively speaking, when I was a young storefront lawyer, back in the late '60s, early '70s," he says.

Mike was approached about a proposed freeway extending from the North Shore, elevated along Stanley Park and the downtown waterfront. It would have wiped out Gastown and Chinatown and destroyed Strathcona, Grandview, Woodlands, and Hastings East to connect up to the Trans-Canada Highway.

"I was asked to represent a bunch of people in the city who thought this was a terrible idea," says Mike. "That got me looking at, what we then called, a livable city concept - a synonym for sustainability."

"Environmentalism was just beginning, and I realized you can't ignore the economic, poverty and cultural issues. So, that got me going. And then to my surprise and my [then] new wife's horror, I got elected."

For more than two decades, Mike served as Vancouver's Alderman from 1973 to 1980, then as Mayor from 1980 to 1986. From 1991 to 1996, Mike was B.C.'s 30th Premier.

Mike's interest in politics piqued many years earlier, even before becoming a lawyer, when he met one of his heroes, Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas.

"He was from the old Prairie tradition of self-help and mutual aid. He was a Social Democrat and was just a terrific human being," says Mike. 

"I ran into him when I was a dining car waiter on the CPR trains. I was able to talk with him right across Canada because it was September and we had a very low number of passengers," he says. "He got me curious about politics and about what the NDP was all about."

Mike admits, before joining the New Democratic Party, he helped on Pierre Elliott Trudeau's campaign in 1968. "Of course, I realized what my position was as a Social Democrat after that," he says.

Since his days in B.C.'s political limelight, Mike's initiatives and passionate belief in the power of cities and communities has earned him numerous accolades and recognition. In 2005, Mike received the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service and, in 2006, he was recognized with the Canadian Urban Institute's Jane Jacobs Lifetime Achievement Award.

Mike's work in 1993 to permanently preserve the ecosystem of the Tatshenshini River and Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park in Northwest B.C. was applauded by Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore as insightful and bold.

Most recently, in February 2009, Mike was appointed associate director of the new Continuing Studies Centre for Sustainability at the University of B.C.

"The people I really admire are the unsung heroes," says Mike. "We owe a debt to all those community-focused people who volunteer, take on impossible tasks and don't expect any reward."

Born in Edmonton, Mike's family followed his father's naval career to Halifax, Digby, Nova Scotia and Victoria before settling down in Vancouver. "I joke that in Edmonton, at the age of five months, I turned to my mom and said, 'Let's get our butts out of this cold place,'" says Mike.

Although Mike is the author and co-author of two books about his experiences in government and the livability of Vancouver, he hadn't expected to write his third book, *Plan B: One Man's Journey from Tragedy to Triumph*, in 2004.

The book details Mike's 2002 fall from a six-metre high cliff at his Pender Island cottage, and the resulting injuries, recovery and partial paralysis.

"I didn't expect to do a swan dive at low tide off the cliff in front of my house," says Mike.

After several months at Vancouver's General Hospital and G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre, Mike made a remarkable recovery, despite doctors' predictions that he wouldn't walk again without assistance. "I shifted from tender loving care at VGH to tough-love care at G.F. Strong," he says.

"I was doing a double dose of physiotherapy and occupational therapy," says Mike. "And there was a Qi Gong [exercise] group using one of the amphitheatres at G.F. Strong, with an amazing fellow as the key teacher. So, I was also taking those courses every Saturday."

Today, Mike is still left with some residual paralysis. "I'm about 80 per cent recovered, but it's had its impacts. I've got some numbness in certain parts of my body and some results from that on my system," he says.

Rather than letting his injury slow him down, Mike felt a need to continue working on issues that were important to him. "I had been appointed to the National Round Table from 1996 to 2005, and I was on the Board of Directors for the Vancouver Port Authority and the Vancouver Airport Authority," he says. "I was doing a lot of my work over the phone from my hospital bed, quarrelling with psychologists who said I had to put more time into rehab."

Mike believes his positive attitude helped him move on. "I spoke to a large group in London recently and asked how many people had never experienced any adversity in their lives. No hands went up. And that's really the issue. It's not adversity. It's how you handle it," says Mike. "Do you remain stuck in self pity and or do you say, Plan A is over, get on with Plan B?"

Mike believes attitude also influences how people look at aging and retirement. "Attitude is all. And that applies to the so-called getting old and becoming a senior. Do you see it as decaying, and becoming useless and retired? Or, do you look at yourself and say, hey, adversity happens - even a freak accident?"

Looking back at four decades of public service, Mike is thankful for the opportunity to see change happen. "The reason I got into provincial politics, and left the comfortable niche as mayor of Vancouver, was to create a new relationship with First Nations people," he says. "And to do what I was able to do, which was to sign the first modern treaty agreement, in principle, with the Nisga'a."

Mike hopes his work has made a difference. "My goal is having sustainability not only preached, but practised in the mainstream, so that we really can tread this fragile earth in a more sustainable way."

Married for almost 38 years and the father of one son, Mike says although he can't walk the streets in anonymity, he enjoys public life. "I'm naturally a garrulous sort of person, so I enjoy meeting people."

What others might be surprised to learn is that Mike considers himself tough-minded and competitive. "People look on me as 'Moderate Mike,' very pleasant and low-key," he says. "But I'm very strong-willed about making things happen. I have a real hard edge that would surprise some people."

If he had to do it all over again, Mike says he wouldn't change a thing. "A do-over? Well, it certainly wouldn't be the decision to marry Becky. That was the best decision of all," he says. "I guess I would have built a railing around my deck. And I have one now, so don't ask."

In fact, says Mike, there's a new verb making its rounds on the Gulf Islands since his accident. "People come up to me on the ferry ride to Pender Island and say: 'Hey, Mike, guess what? We Harcourt-ized our deck.'" 





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Showing 1 to 1 of 1 comments.

I am sure hoping this reaches Mike Harcourt, former Premier. I would really like to get an email from him. I would like him to check out my blog site, and contact me as I have a pdf file I would like to send him. I could really use his advise. If Mike gets this himself, I am so glad you're not giving up. I sure hope you're feeling better after your horrible accident. When you were voted in as Premier, I thought to myself, "Finally! Someone decent, who will look out for the little guy." I was ashamed of the way they treated you. The public didn't even give you a chance to investigate the Bingo Scandal. If this goes to someone else, please try to get this to Mike himself. Thank you very much.

Posted by Yasmin Freeman | July 29, 2012 Report Violation

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