Rural reeve, mayor reflect on highs, lows as both eye an end to life in public office in Manitoba

A Manitoba mayor is reflecting on all that he learned and contributed to during his nearly two-decade-long career as he eyes an exit from public office — something of a trend among rural leaders in recent months.

Irvine Ferris will not be run for re-election this fall after eight years in the mayor’s chair and eight as a city councillor.

“Been a privilege of my working life,” Ferris told CBC Radio Noon host Marjorie Dowhos. “It’s been an honour to serve them as mayor, and I will certainly miss doing that … but you know what, there’s a lot of ways to contribute to your community.”

To that end, Ferris says he plans to get into volunteering with some local groups. 

He spent months talking with loved ones before making the decision not to run. A conversation with Brandon Mayor Rick Chrest this spring also helped him make the call.

“He said, you know, you should probably leave while you’ve still got gas in the tank,” said Ferris, who turns 67 next week. “I laughed at that, but it’s so true.”

Portage la Prairie is one of several rural communities that will soon have a new mayor or reeve.

Chrest announced earlier this year he plans to retire. Dauphin mayor Allen Dowhan died last fall during his term and the community election to find a replacement is this fall. Winkler Mayor Martin Harder announced in March he, too, will not run for re-election. Altona Mayor Al Friesen won’t either.

Morris Olafson, reeve for of the rural municipality of Stanley, is also checking out after eight years.

“I’ve got a little bit of age to me,” said Olafson, suggesting 70 was around the corner.

Reflecting on the highs

Reflecting on his time as a councillor and mayor, Ferris recalls a number of accomplishments that stand out.

That includes the construction of an indoor recreation centre, Stride Place, complete with gyms, hockey rinks and the largest indoor wave pool in the province, said Ferris.

“It was a huge project,” he said. “It’s being used a lot and it really contributed to our community.”

Ferris said his team also helped reduce the city’s infrastructure deficit, provide more reliable services and make the city more walkable.

He’s also proud of Portage la Prairie attracting larger industries to the area, with Roquette’s pea processing plant and Simplot’s expansion of its potato processing plants ranking high on the list.

Portage la Prairie has also become more welcoming and diverse, said Ferris.

“Celebrating our diversity … when we do that, I think that really allows us to progress as a city,” said Ferris.

“We’ve just started the journey of reconciliation, we’ve got lots of work to do on that, but I am very proud of the community.”

Time for curling

Olafson is one of half a dozen family members to serve the municipality as a councillor or reeve over the years. Also a farmer, he felt his time as reeve of Stanley made a positive impact.

After eight years, Morris Olafson won’t be seeking another term as reeve of the rural municipality of Stanley in southwestern Manitoba. (RM of Stanley)

Looking back, Olafson is happy his administration managed to get a six-hectare park built in Reinfeld and upgrade another popular Stanley park.

He’s glad a major paving project through all the villages in the community is near complete, and that his team managed to strike recreation deals with Winkler and Morden.

He regrets that he won’t be reeve when a suite of upgrades to Boundary Trails Health Centre get underway, but he also knows life after politics will keep him busy, including tending to the family farm.

What he’ll miss most is the people and relationships he formed. He won’t miss the demands of leadership and how they got in the way of leisure time.

“Even a simple thing like going curling on Wednesday. You want to go curling one day a week. You don’t know if you’ve got a meeting that day or not. You can’t schedule anything that’s permanent,” he said.

Personal lessons learned

On a personal note, Ferris said one important thing he learned as mayor was the value of patience and working together.

“You don’t accomplish anything on your own,” he said. “I’ve had really good partners, I’ve had just really good staff and tremendous council to work with, and that’s something you really don’t have much control over.”

Looking back, Ferris said one of his big regrets relates to the loss of local provincially employed jobs, including through the coming closure of the Manitoba Developmental Centre and the Agassiz Youth Centre.

“That’s a real concern that a lot of mayors in Manitoba have: the huge exodus of provincial government jobs leaving the rural areas and going to Winnipeg,” Ferris said.

Advice for next mayor

His advice to the next generation of prospective councillors and mayor is to talk about the implications of political life with loved ones, and be clear on why you’re getting involved.

“Don’t run if you want to build a new road to your business. Don’t run if you want to become popular. Don’t run if you want to make a lot of money,” he said. 

“If you want to contribute to your community, if you want to learn about your community, if you want to have a voice at that table.… It’s very gratifying.”