In speaking to former mayor James Atebe about his 12 years on Mission’s council one thing becomes immediately clear — this is a man consumed with a passion for his community.
“Serving in public office is a privilege that is only given by the people and a privilege that always will be taken away by the people,” he said.
The 53-year-old father of four and grandfather of four has more than 27 years of experience in municipal planning and politics, receiving his master’s degree in city planning from the University of Calgary after moving to Canada from Kenya as a teenager.
“When I came here at 19 years old to pursue my post-secondary, I never dreamt I’d become a leader in a community.”
Atebe was just 20 when he roomed with now-prime minister Stephen Harper. The two have led different career paths, but Atebe says they both had similar ambitions to contribute to society and public policy.
When he first ran for office in 1999, his motivations were modest. As a soccer coach and referee, he felt the community’s sports services lagged surrounding areas and Mission children were embarrassed by that.
Since then, Mission has built the Sports Park, Leisure Centre and youth facilities, something that makes Atebe proud.
In fact, he can’t help but rush breathlessly through the changes he’s overseen in Mission, his excitement clearly tempered by the disappointment of not being any longer at the district’s helm.
One of Atebe’s greatest dreams for Mission — downtown revitalization and the waterfront development — is only in the beginning stages.
“This initiative had been talked about for many decades but no previous municipal government made a commitment of resources to plan it.”
He said no single developer could manage something of this magnitude, and that it requires a coordinated effort with government.
“I feel that’s a legacy that, if it’s properly done, will be for decades and generations a destination in the Lower Mainland.”
As a city planner, Atebe said he looks at a community’s well-being from four pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic and social development, and the preservation and promotion of heritage and culture.
“My original intent was to try to facilitate the community, and lead the community towards what I call a complete community,” which Atebe described as giving residents a single place where they can live, work, shop and go to school. Bringing a Wal-Mart to Mission recently was one part of that plan, by keeping consumers spending money here instead of Abbotsford.
Atebe says he couldn’t have done the things he did without the will of the people, and the integrity of council and municipal workers.
“Those are the people who made these achievements and accomplishments possible.”
But Atebe’s political life hasn’t been a bed of roses, and he blames his recent electoral loss on the Public Inspection Safety Team that fined residents for suspected marijuana grow-ops.
“It’s unfortunate that it led to my undoing, it became the biggest issue in the election, but it’s a program that’s working,” he said, adding it was misrepresented in the media. “If they want communities to have safe neighbourhoods, nobody wants a grow operation next door.”
Nevertheless, Atebe is proud of his time in office and says his accomplishments were the democratic will of the people.
“Achievements can’t come unless someone sees something special in you.”
Atebe says he was a kid who came from humble beginnings.
He grew up with four brothers and four sisters in the village of Ekerenyo, Kenya. His father, Livingstone Atebe Marita, was a Kenyan MP for many years, and had a great influence on his views.
“I am very proud of my roots. I feel very fortunate because I have two homes.”
Canada is a very generous country in that affords the privilege to put a career on hold to serve the community, he added.
So, what does the future hold?
Atebe says he never plans ahead in his political ambitions. He ran for municipal politics for specific reasons and would need similar inspiration if he considered provincial or federal office. Those thoughts haven’t crossed his mind.
“I enjoyed planning and I still have a passion for that profession,” he said, adding he may consider continuing that career.
For now, his hectic pace has slowed, and he’s going to take some time to enjoy the Christmas season with family and friends.