Nurturing roots and wings

by Aaren Madden. Photo by Tony Bounsall. July 2010

Bringing people together to create positive change for youth at risk, and others, is the practical, ethical path for Helen Hughes.

Since the day Helen Hughes decided to study Home Economics at the University of Saskatchewan (class of ’54) rather than pursue her dream of singing the lead in Carmen, it was clear she had a practical streak. It’s hued with a desire to help others find their way and pursue their dreams, and her ideal Victoria—not just the city, but the region—is built with that same approach: creating opportunities through collaboration. 

In the 1970s, back in Saskatchewan, Hughes sought ways to help First Nations adapting to city life after leaving reserves, and soon landed a seat on Saskatoon’s city council. “I just feel that it’s important that we, the fortunate, who have had opportunities in life, help other people who don’t have much of a start. So I ran, and that was that,” says she matter-of-factly. She organized committees and implemented their recommendations on housing, education, employment, and recreation. The immediacy of city politics—“you can help Mrs Jones down on the 1200 block of 5th Street and get some answers for her”—appeals to her more than policy discussions at the higher levels, though no less than three provincial parties in Saskatchewan invited her to run. 

Hughes was bestowed with the Order of Canada for her efforts in Saskatoon (her husband Ted, BC’s first Conflict of Interest Commissioner and former chair of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, holds the same office). They moved to Victoria in 1980, and the many honours and citations they have accumulated through years of service to social causes likely fill a rather large wall in their home. 

She sat on Victoria City Council from 1990 to 2008, still serves on the Greater Victoria Public Library Board, and founded the Lifelong Learning Festival. Her many volunteer roles include spearheading the Souper Bowls of Hope fundraiser for the Victoria Youth Empowerment Society (VYES). Since 1997, it has raised about half a million dollars. “She’s kind of like our fairy godmother,” says Pat Griffin, executive director of VYES. Her efforts reflect causes closest to her heart: youth, family, and education. Creating foundations physical and mental, nurturing roots and wings, are thus major elements of her dream city. And the trick to it, she says, is to work together. 

Eighteen years on city council have brought highs and lows, points of pride and disappointments, like the fizzling of the downtown location for the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Gains, though, have generally outweighed frustrations. “There was always some forward step,” she assures, pleased, for instance, with burgeoning development in the core. “One of the things I wanted to do was encourage downtown living, because, otherwise, your city dies,” she warns, noting Detroit’s decline and subsequent efforts at rejuvenation. “It is tough to bring it back if you lose it.”

The same goes—even more so—for a social foundation. So what disappoints her the most is the paucity of opportunities for youth at risk in the city. She elaborates: “The Youth Empowerment Society had a very good Hospitality Training Program [in the old Taj Mahal Restaurant and B&B]. Morning was for life skills, and in the afternoon, chefs from various hotels or restaurants taught how to work a kitchen and deal with people.” Pat Griffin, who noted that Hughes was key to the program’s swift success (she literally brought all vital parties to the table), saw that it made enormous impacts on the lives of 133 kids, placing many in the hospitality sector and helping those who were in school remain there. But the economy turned, and a variety of funding sources dried up, so Pat Griffin regretfully suspended the program after only a year and a half—though it will return in some form. Of the 36 kids who went through the residential component, 33 went on to find permanent housing. “You know how difficult it is to get housing for anybody,” Hughes laments of its loss. 

On that note, Hughes believes there are practical, collaborative solutions for affordable housing. “There has to be better cooperation or consideration between the provincial government, the municipal governments and the school boards. That has not happened, and in my dream, that would happen,” she says. Of school board land that becomes available, she argues, “There could be a greater concerted effort to make sure those lands are utilized to their highest and best use.” At such sites, she is intrigued by shipping containers and their potential as housing, having seen research that puts their conversion to liveable space at a doable $6500. She appreciates their scalability, adaptable for growing families. Greater stability across all incomes “is only going to help everybody,” Hughes argues.

Major projects of all kinds happen when all parties work together. Unfortunately, among municipalities, parochialism can stifle centralized endeavours that benefit the whole region. “That’s one of the difficulties that will keep Victoria from becoming what it could be,” Hughes warns. 

Part of its greatness could be a central library that is a social, cultural and architectural anchor. Centennial Square, she envisions, would be the ideal place for what “really should be seen as a repository for the region,” making rare treasures accessible to the public in a way not possible in the current location due to temperature and humidity control issues. Retaining the ambience of the atrium entrance, where the lilt of a guitar often floats overhead, Hughes adds a vibrant coffee shop and formal and informal venues for local talents, including writers, musicians—heck, even acrobats. A place for people to gather, to share and to shine. 

She doesn’t search far for a model to emulate. “The Cornerstone Café. That to me is one of the greatest inspirations for a city recreation facility,” she says of Fernwood’s honorary living room. When the Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group organized work parties to convert the building’s upper floors into affordable housing, Hughes was there, pulling nails. “ It was just a wonderful thing. Everybody worked together,” she recalls.

It was in that spirit, while on city council, that Hughes proposed a five-dollar affordable housing levy on property taxes when the same was put through for parks. It never went through, and if she could go back, it would be to see that passed. “They did eventually start the affordable housing fund,” she says, “but I thought the levy was more fair, in that everybody contributed, and knew what they were contributing to. That’s important, to build into people’s thinking that this five dollars would go toward housing for other people.” 

She concludes, “Everybody has their own ideas, and that’s what makes us all unique; that’s what makes a city. But I like to make things happen, and see how we can work together to accomplish an end that would be helpful to everybody.” As she continues on her quest, listen. You may hear her humming “La Habanera” all the while.

While writing this article and mulling Helen Hughes’ words, Aaren Madden has been humming Bob Marley: “Let’s get together and feel alright.”