Joy Leach, Nanaimo’s first and only female mayor and a longtime school trustee, died last week at the age of 72.
Leach, who helped the community envision the city it could become, died of Alzheimer’s at Nanaimo Travellers Lodge on Aug. 25.
The former mayor, considered to be a gifted and accomplished political leader, was a seven-year Nanaimo school trustee and chairwoman and fundraiser for Malaspina College and Simon Fraser University. By 1990, she had thrown her hat into the mayoral race and defeated Frank Ney to become the first female mayor.
Her political reign only lasted one three-year term and wasn’t without controversy, but Leach laid the foundation for major and long-lasting changes in the Harbour City.
Under her leadership, Nanaimo city council introduced a new water-metering system as a source of revenue for infrastructure projects and she championed Imagine Nanaimo, a process that led to the city’s first official community plan.
Joy Leach also built consensus on a council that was ideologically opposed, according to Jerry Berry, Nanaimo’s former city manager, who says that merely being mayor doesn’t give someone any power, generally, over other council members. To exert leadership, “you have to do it through leadership skills, through charisma, through your personal energy and through a lot of hard work because it takes five members of council in Nanaimo to do anything,” he said. “And Joy Leach worked very, very hard at that.”
“She was certainly one of the most influential Nanaimo mayors that I have ever dealt with and I’ve dealt with all of them since Frank Ney,” he said.
Leach was born at Malaspina Gardens in 1941 and grew up in Parksville. Her grandfather and father had both been trustees and interested in local politics, “so she just inherited that,” said her husband, Mike Legge. By 1977, she was on Nanaimo’s board of trustees and over the next seven years, she was chairwoman three times and president of the B.C. School Trustees Association.
Legge said his wife had a deep commitment to community, which drove a lot of her decisions. She even had aspirations of being a local representative for the provincial and federal political parties, but there had been a prejudice at the time against running female candidates, he said.
Leach became Nanaimo’s mayor in 1990 for three years until she was defeated by Gary Korpan. Those who knew her say she tended to move quickly to make changes that needed to be done and had a dominant and strong personality. She seemed to be a woman on a mission, according to Bill Holdom, who served on her council. But he also said it was, in some ways, the best term in his time on council. While other mayors consider themselves as one vote on council, she saw herself as a leader, he said.
After business meetings, there was a standing invitation for politicians to gather at the Quarterway Pub.
“We didn’t decide anything there, of course, but she often inspired us there to carry on with what we were doing, especially if we were feeling kind of beaten up by the public meetings … and that was really valuable for keeping together some kind of team spirit and moving along together. Yeah, she was really good at that,” Holdom said.
During Leach’s three-year term, her council made headway on several major issues, from community planning to water metering and the Nanaimo Parkway. They negotiated to see the parkway built behind the university instead of through the Harewood community and started Imagine Nanaimo, a process that brought people together to decide the direction of the city.
“I think we are still implementing things that came out of the processes that she started,” Holdom said. “We’ve had three official community plans I guess since then, but they are all based on that same idea of consulting widely and focusing clearly and then developing a written document.”
Her council also established water metering. The city had charged for water through property taxes, but there was no way to distinguish or charge those who were using a lot and vacant lots using nothing.
“Nobody was using water metering … they weren’t using it to defer future capital, they weren’t using it to be environmentally friendly, so Joy Leach and her council brought in a system to do all of that, all of which is now seen as the gold standard,” Berry said.
The move, however, wasn’t without controversy. Holdom recalls people questioning why they should pay for water that falls from the sky.
“But she could see that first of all, we needed a source of revenue to pay for all the aging water mains,” he said. “It was also a major conservation measure because we could see even then that there were limits to the amount of water Nanaimo had.”
Holdom believes Nanaimo lost a gifted leader.
“It just made me feel really sad. I haven’t seen her for some time and certainly have missed her and you know, now missing her will be permanent, I guess.”
A celebration of life will be held Friday (Sept. 12) at 3:30 p.m. at Oliver Woods Community Centre.