Phillip Steenkamp

by Marianne Meadahl
Photography: Gregh Ehlers/TLC

The 2010 Winter Olympics became a defining lifetime experience for Philip Steenkamp, Simon Fraser University's new vice-president of external relations.

As president and CEO of the B.C. Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games Secretariat, he found inspiration not only in the determination of the athletes, but in how communities across the country became engaged by the unifying effects of the Games and the preceding torch run.

In his new post at SFU, taken up in July, Steenkamp has set the goal of furthering the ways and means that the university engages with its communities as a top priority. That has meant getting a sense of all the ways SFU is present in those communities. He hopes to see the university establish an institutional framework to support existing and new initiatives that advance those relationships.

He is also developing an agenda for government relations – with Surrey campus growth on top of the list – and another that will move international relations forward. "At the same time," he says, "we need to work toward raising SFU's profile nationally and internationally, spreading stories of the amazing things that are happening here."

Steenkamp comes to SFU after a 17-year career in public service that includes a number of posts as deputy minister in B.C. and Ontario. In B.C., he served as deputy minister in the ministries of regional economic and skills development; tourism, culture and the arts; Aboriginal affairs; and most recently advanced education. In Ontario he was deputy minister in both the ministry of education and the ministry of training, colleges and universities.

Born and raised in Botswana, Steenkamp completed his Bachelor of Arts degree with honours in history and English at the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa. He completed his master's and PhD at Queen's and taught African history there. He later went on to teach African and South African history at the University of Victoria.

His attraction to SFU is its excellent reputation, its penchant for innovation, and its current envision process. "The job means working with a dynamic leader and team, and I saw the envision process as a compelling vision to advance," says Steenkamp. A strategic plan and further consultative process are among the next steps. "People really feel a sense of ownership and excitement about it."

Steenkamp recently settled into new digs in UniverCity and hopes to further the sense of community atop Burnaby Mountain. "One of the main reasons I decided to live up here is that I wanted to make a commitment to the university and community and really get to understand the campus," says Steenkamp. "This is a showcase of sustainability and urban living, and I hope to see over time more integration between the university and the community being built around it."

That may mean more events like the spring's enthusiastic Vancouver Canucks playoff gatherings. But on the hockey front, don't look for a jersey on Steenkamp; instead, check his shirt sleeves. He wore a special pair of Canucks cufflinks through every playoff game last season, a routine that meant sitting at home watching games in his French-cuffed shirts. "It's a superstition," he admits. "I am a fan."

Hockey – and attending the Canada-Russia men's game – was the competitive highlight of the Olympics for Steenkamp. But the Games' bigger picture also had its impact.

"While we celebrated the athletes' achievements, I was equally touched by how communities like those in the far North were awakened and engaged by the torch run, exemplifying the Games' inclusiveness. And how the city of Vancouver came alive through a common bond of sport.

"There was much to celebrate, as communities. These are also lasting moments," he says.