History, Urban Studies, Alumni

Alumni in the Community: Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read and New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Cote

January 29, 2015

In November, municipal election results came in across BC, and Nicole Read unseated two-term incumbent Ernie Daykin as Mayor of Maple Ridge, while Jonathan Cote defeated four-term incumbent, Wayne Wright in New Westminster. Read and Cote both have undergraduate and graduate degrees from SFU: Read with a BA and MA in History and Cote with a BA in History and Political Science and an M.A. in Urban Studies.

Both alumni have reached remarkable goals since graduating from SFU and taking on their present duties as leaders two of the biggest municipalities in the GVRD: Read is founder and president of her company, The History Group, a private archival research firm whose clients include government, law firms, and aboriginal bands in civil litigation process. And as the youngest mayor in Metro Vancouver, Cote pursued a career as a claims adjuster for ICBC after his undergraduate degree; he made the leap into politics in 2005, at the tender age of 26, when he first joined New Westminster’s city council.

When you ask the two newly seated mayors what drew them to SFU for their undergraduate and then graduate studies, their stories are quite different. Read’s path was atypical. At 16-years old she quit high school after her father passed away and finished her diploma by correspondence a year later.  When she went back to school at Capilano College (now Capilano University), Read explains she wanted to be a medical doctor, but after taking standard breadth courses, found herself drawn to history “I think the skill of reaching back for information to understand where I need to go forward fit really well. By my third semester, I was hooked.” By the time Read transferred to SFU, she intended a minor in Criminology but ended up taking only history courses for the duration of her BA.

Mayor Jonathan Cote

Cote, like many undergraduates, enrolled in university directly after high school and says there was some slight “nudging” toward SFU from his parents who had both studied here. Cote says it took him some time to figure out what to major in: “You know, you finish high school and somehow you’re supposed to know what direction you want to go but I had no idea. I took a whole range of courses from economics, philosophy, and history.”  History and political science were where Cote found his interest and passion, and he served on New Westminster city council for several years before beginning his Masters in Urban Studies. He was motivated towards a deeper understanding of urban development and to be able to address the city’s planning and transportation issues.

Urban Studies was a great fit, Cote says, and the flexibility of studying part-time in the program was a big draw. The program drew a dynamic mixture of working professionals, which, Cote says, provided a unique opportunity for applied study: “I was exposed to much of the theoretical background on important urban issues but also, and I think other students experienced this too, I saw what others had to say from the perspective of their own professional backgrounds: whether they were in planning, engineering or coming from the not-for-profit sector. All the classes had really great discussion and we were all committed to and invested in raising the level of discussion.”

Mayor Nicole Read

Unlike Cote’s experience, Read says at the time she was completing her MA in History, working while you completed your academic requirements was not necessarily encouraged. And among family or friends, pursuing a graduate degree in history was seen as a precarious move, with Read facing criticism that she would not be paid well should she get a job in her chosen field.  The concern moved her to get a job doing contract work on Indian Residential Schools litigation. To balance a 70-80 hour work week consulting in litigation while completing an MA thesis on the Balkans (Yugoslavia) and the Tito-Stalin split during the Second World War is no small feat. She read massive amounts on Soviet, British and American foreign policy, and Read says she simply could not have finished without the support of her committee, led by André Gerolymatos.

Read’s experience consulting proved extremely valuable. The History Group, is now one of the largest providers of historical research in the country. The basis of the company grew out of seeing a real need for historians who could locate complex archival material and manage research projects.  “I created the History Group in 2003 but I had been working since 2000 in the area. I had a pretty decent lay of the land in Aboriginal affairs and had identified the work that needed to be done. So, I immediately began staffing. We ramped up to do litigation surrounding residential and day school litigation and now hospital litigation. The History Group has resources engaged in those cases even today.  We’ve been around for over a decade now and represent over 80 bands in the province.”

Both Read and Cote agree that their graduate careers helped prepare them for civic politics. For Cote, the evidence is concrete. A report he wrote for an Urban Studies class on affordable housing, “Worth Saving: Changing the Economics of Rental Housing” was endorsed in June 2012 by New West City Council. That policy went on to win an award from the Planning Institute of BC in 2014.  “It’s been incredibly rewarding to see the paper come to Council,” he says “to turn it into a city policy, and then to see the results: 1500 new rental units and development applications in the last two years since the policy has been in place.  Most students wouldn’t get that opportunity to study something, to apply it, and then to see directly if it actually worked or not in practice.”

Read says the integrity and accountability required of doing primary research for the crown and for aboriginal bands has a big impact on her commitment to civic responsibilities. “You need to be willing to dig to the point where you feel you have a fuller understanding to guide the way forward through the next steps because you owe that accountability to someone.”  As a researcher or historian, she is naturally inclined to “seek out and get all the information I need to make an informed decision and to make that information available to people and put it in a manner that can be synthesized.”

Going forward, there is no shortage of work to be done for Mayor Read and Mayor Cote.  Read says her goal is to “build the Maple Ridge that is in the hearts of its people.” The city has amazing media personalities, musicians and athletes but many neighborhoods of urban sprawl lack the services and infrastructure required to build social cohesion. Focusing on open government, homelessness, and transportation, Read says another priority is economic development. “We need to diversify our revenue; we’re too dependent on property taxes.”

Cote says his biggest challenge ahead is staying on course with the issues he campaigned on, including transportation, affordable housing and the economy related to the Royal Columbia Hospital Expansion. “New Westminster has come a long way and now I think we’re facing some really difficult policy questions. Transportation is a really big issue and while we have this transportation plan, we haven’t done an Official Community Plan since the mid-1990s so we’re starting that process.”

When asked what advice they can offer to undergraduate and graduate students early in their academic and professional careers, Cote says, “Get involved. Follow where your passion and interests lie. I started with my resident’s association and getting involved opened up other doors. Take advantage of opportunities to meet people, make connections and build community.”

Read reminds students that while education is vital, practical experience is important and that includes experience failing: “It’s important to get really comfortable with that feeling in the pit of your stomach when something goes wrong. You know you’ve really gotten experience when you’re comfortable enough that you know that that feeling is going to go away and something good is going to be on the other side of that.” She explains: “I built confidence while at SFU. That confidence gave me the ability to advocate. All of these years, working in the area of aboriginal relations, that is an area where a lot of people want to tell you 'no'. If you’re going to be a strong advocate, you have to have the courage to make the right decision. And it’s I think the same in [municipal politics]. You need to have the courage to make the right decision even if the right decision isn’t going to seem immediately clear, or maybe won’t be the most comfortable.”