Two women hard at work! Victoria’s first female mayor, Gretchen Brewin and I planting a Garry Oak tree in Gretchen’s honour. More photos below. Most photos by Derek Ford.
The Mayors Grove was established in what is now called Beacon Hill Park in the Heywood meadow area east of Arbutus Way, during a 1927 convention of western mayors in Victoria. Nine mayors planted trees to begin the grove. In the following years, visiting dignitaries were invited to plant trees, among them Winston Churchill (a hawthorn in 1929), the King of Siam (an oak in 1931) and Lord Baden-Powell (an oak in 1935).
Historian James Nesbitt has noted that in the 1920s and 1930s, it was popular for the mayor of the day to take distinguished visitors to Beacon Hill Park and have them plant a tree in the Grove. The Grove fell into decline during the 1950s. Mayor Richard Wilson had it restored in the 1960s.
In 1963, a refurbished Mayors Grove sign was erected on steel posts northeast of Goodacre Lake. Listed were twenty-five dignitaries, the tree species they had planted – oak, maple, fir, ash, beech, copper beech, linden or hawthorn – and the dates. Identification numbers matched stone markers at the bases of the trees.
In all these decades, there were no women represented in the Mayors Grove. That changed last weekend.
In addition to being the site of the Mayors Grove, Beacon Hill Park, or Meegan as it’s known in Lekwungen is a place of historical, cultural and sacred significance to the Lekwungen People. For thousands of years they have actively stewarded and cared for the beautiful, life-giving environment that flourishes there.
Through my reconciliation journey, I have come to a deeper understanding of the sacredness of this site to the Lekwungen people. I’ve also learned about the profound cultural importance of ceremony as well the importance of listening to, learning from and honouring elders.
It’s fitting that we gathered together in this sacred place in ceremony last Saturday to celebrate a leader and elder in our community. As the first woman mayor in the City’s history, Gretchen showed courage, tenacity and she inspired many. The native Garry Oak tree we planted in honour of Gretchen’s service will thrive for generations, just as as her legacy as a leader has.
Gretchen began her political career as a member of the Scarborough School Board when she was in her twenties. After moving to Victoria from Ontario in 1973, she went back to university and completed a Bachelor of Arts in political science. She was elected to Victoria City Council in 1979.
Gretchen was Mayor of Victoria from 1985 to 1990 when she was the first woman elected to this office. In her time as mayor – and based on her interest in community development – she brought the first heritage planner as well as the first social planner to City Hall. She was also responsible for the building of the Victoria Conference Centre as well as playing a key role in bringing the 1994 Commonwealth Games to Victoria.
After serving as mayor, Gretchen was elected as the MLA for Victoria Beacon-Hill (NDP), serving two terms from 1991-2001. She was the province’s first woman Deputy Speaker and then Speaker. She also served as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Social Development and Economic Security, and as the Minister for Children and Families.
Whether as Mayor, Speaker of the House, Minister, leader and advocate for women, children, and seniors, Gretchen’s lifelong ability to bring people together and unite people in positive action was visible last Saturday in the diversity of people who came together to witness the tree planting.
It was an honour to be with the crowd gathered, to celebrate Victoria’s first female mayor and – equally importantly – to celebrate a mayor who started a tradition of the open-hearted, collaborative spirit that we strive to continue today at City Hall. It’s important to celebrate a leader who helped to shape Victoria’s position as a resilient, world-class city and region, where both tradition and innovation are embraced.
A special thanks to my colleagues Councillors Marianne Alto and Charlayne Thornton-Joe for initiating the celebration, and to city staff who once again shone at event planning and execution.