It’s been an interesting two years in office for Port McNeill mayor Gaby Wickstrom, and she is excited to lay down some concrete plans for the town in 2021.
Wickstrom agreed to a phone interview with the North Island Gazette to discuss her two-year anniversary as mayor.
Looking back, how was 2020 overall with the eight-month logging strike and then the pandemic?
It was unlike anything we ever thought we would encounter and not like anything we had ever been through… Being elected into a municipal position puts you in the public eye, you greet people in the shopping centres, on the streets and in other activities. With the strike we could still get together, find out what their needs were, and we could see on their faces if they were doing okay or not… The most difficult thing with the pandemic has been the lack of connection. I’m a volunteer, I always have been, and that part has been difficult because you can’t connect with people on the same level right now that you could before.
Looking forward, what does the town have planned for 2021?
As a small municipality, we’ve always been very prudent with our funds, so I think financially we were prepared for this (COVID-19). I’m not sure if we will be doing any large infrastructure projects because we are in the midst of an OCP (Official Community Plan) process. It’s really important for us to understand what the community wants, where they want to go, and what they want the future of Port McNeill to look like… I feel we will be set up for big things at that time.
What are some things you’re proud of accomplishing so far two years into your term?
We’ve finally tackled the Official Community Plan… if it’s done well and updated and fresh, it will attract investment. It’s one of the first things that people who want to build and invest in a community look at. It’s such an important piece and if you understand the complexity of it, you’ll know it’s a worthwhile document to focus on.
We’re also doing some much needed upgrades to the marina that should be done in the next couple of months, and we are doing major upgrades to our swimming pool as well. When I was on council 10 years ago the pool always seemed to get deferred, and now it’s gotten to a place where we couldn’t defer it anymore. Those are some of the larger projects we’re doing, but if you’re talking about things like a multi-use recreation facility, those kinds of plans are on the horizon.
What probably gives me the most pride is the way we have been able to work with others, in particular the business community. Bringing Roger Brooks (consultor) in to give us a glimpse of what our community could look like and what it could be, and to see people actually picking up some of those suggestions on their own, that really fills me with a lot of pride. It can never be just the municipality doing something, we do our part, others do their part, and collectively the town feels better, looks better, and moves in a good direction.
What does being a North Island politician mean to you?
I think it’s less a position of power and more a position of influence… What I find being a politician does is really help draw attention to Port McNeill. Being able to tell the North Island story to people and actually be listened to is really great… being able to use whatever avenue you have to generate a conversation and draw attention to what we have up here is what I like to use to my advantage as a mayor.
What are your thoughts on responsibility to the taxpayers in the community?
From my past experience on council, we’ve had more committee of the whole meetings and more open transparent meetings than I can ever recall. Information flows very well to council from staff. We don’t always agree on everything, but we have really good discussions.
From the day I was first elected to council a number of years ago, my benchmark has always been the same, did we do the best decision with the knowledge we had at the time, and I still use that now.
Let’s talk fish farms. What do you want to see happen for the industry?
Our business community benefits from aquaculture, so that’s why we are involved… I am for First Nations consultation and reconciliation. I don’t believe that as municipal people we should have a seat at their table, that would be inappropriate.
For me, before decisions are made, it’s important for us to be able to sit down and have the hard conversations. All we would like is an opportunity to be at some sort of table before the decision is made… We’re so tired of being reactionary. We’re always reacting to things, wouldn’t it be awesome if we could actually be part of the solution going forward so that we don’t end up in crisis mode.
Port McNeill is tree farming country. What do you want to see happen for the forest industry?
We want to be part of the conversation going forward. We know there was an old growth strategic review, we know there will be a strategy formed, and I’ve already started talking to Michele Babchuk (North Island MLA) saying it’s very important for us to be a part of the conversation moving forward because it’s going to effect us. Our communities in the North Island are predominantly invested in forestry, so it’s crucial for us to be there having those conversations.
Anything you want to say to the community?
There’s been some good days and some hard days. I’ve enjoyed it, and I really want to communicate to people that mayors are normal human beings who completely understand how our constituents are feeling. We get it.
We get how hard the pandemic has been, we get how you’re feeling, and we are all trying to do our best.