Trent Ernst, Editor
The District of Tumbler Ridge has given three readings to a motion that would see Founders Street become Iles Way.
The three block street which connects Northgate to Southgate in downtown Tumbler Ridge runs past the Fire Department, The RCMP station and Town Hall before crossing Southgate and ending at the clearcut behind the Tumbler Ridge Inn.
Councillor Rob Mackay says that Iles deserves to be honoured in this way. “We’ve had a lot of good people in town,” he says. “Look at the Hartfords. There are a lot of things around town named after them. Clay fits the bill. Had it gone the other way, Tumbler Ridge would look a lot different. This is to recognize the impact Clay had at a crucial time in Tumbler Ridge. Clay would be first person to say there was a council and CAO Fred Banham, but Tumbler Ridge could look completely different. We want to honour the dedication that Clay showed at the time.”
The “It” that Mackay is referring to is the housing crisis in the early 2000s, after Quintette and Bullmoose shut down. Councillor Don McPherson says that Iles got the ball rolling. “Up until he met with [Minister Alphonso] Gagliano, there was this knot. CMHC was fighting with the town and with the mines. Comparing now to then, the issues were a lot bigger. You didn’t have a bank. You had to go out and get a bank. Just trying to get things in town, or to keep services and companies from leaving…”
McPherson says that one of Iles’ most enduring qualities was his ability to talk to people. “He never talked like a normal politician. He spoke from the heart. People would stop and listen. Everybody listened to him, even if he said a few words that you’re not supposed to. He could do that and people would listen. If I tried speaking like that, I’d get kicked out.”
Mackay agrees. “Even now, we’ll go to have a meeting with a Minister or politician, and they always ask how he’s doing, then they’ll chuckle and tell a story about him. He liked to get involved in all that stuff. Yes, he was mayor, and he was supposed to do it, but Clay would go that extra distance. How many times would you go by town hall at two in the morning back then and the lights would still be on.”
McPherson says that some have argued that it’s better to honour a person’s memory like this after they’ve passed on, but he disagrees. “I like to see it done when the person is still alive; when you do it after the fact you’re honouring their memory. But if they are alive, you honour them.”
One of those people who thinks it’s better to wait until after the fact is Fred Banham. Banham is former CAO of Tumbler Ridge who worked with Iles. He said the council of the day actually considered renaming a street in town after George Hartford, but in the end decided against it. “They looked at it, and hummed and hawed,” says Banham, “but at the time, George was still around with us; it was thought maybe it was too soon.”
Still, says Banham, Iles did have his moment. Banham says Iles was a first-time politician when he ran for mayor. “He beat Paul Keely in the election in 1999,” he says. “He had a huge learning curve to even learn the roles and responsibilities. What you could do and what you couldn’t do. It probably helped him as much as it got him in trouble. Sometimes it worked for him and sometimes it worked against.”
But, says Banham, Iles certainly could connect with people. “He was an everyday person, and he’d just talk with people straight up. His ability wasn’t in front of the gallery doing a big speech; his strength was one-on-one conversations, which always seemed to happen at the back door. Most of his business was done just outside the door of where the meeting done, standing outside having a smoke and shooting the breeze with people.
“It was frustrating, because I wasn’t a smoker, and I didn’t understand what happened at the back door. So he’d come back with these deals, and so I’d have to go and track back, because, while he was a great talker, he was only half a listener. He’s the only guy I knew who could use a profane four letter word talking to the premier or a minister, and nobody took offence to it.”
Iles moment came in a meeting in Vancouver, which he drove to, as he refused to fly. Quintette has made the announcement in May of 2000 that they were closing the mine. “We had always had an ongoing battle with CMHC [Canada Mortgage and Housing],” says Banham. “We were always battling with them about buying lands, about the fact that they had a rubber stamp on the town saying that Tumbler Ridge was a place they wouldn’t put a mortgage.. It went back to the Dennison Mine days. Dennison had a buy-back policy, so when Teck bought Quintette, the mine came with a bunch of houses. Teck wasn’t really interested in being a landlord, and they used the houses to finance equity to buy nickel bonds. The houses were owned by a conglomerate of businesses that held the mortgages on the houses. That was the cash that got Quintette moving.”
Teck focused on mining and left the houses alone, but the houses themselves were not doing well. Many of the mortgages were defaulted on, even before the mine closed, and there was a strong likelihood that Tumbler Ridge would become a ghost town. “Nobody had ownership of the town,” says Banham. “We worked really hard to get the stigma of Tumbler Ridge as a one-horse industry town and get ownership back into the community. We were getting nowhere with CMHC. We sent a million letters, but nothing. There were over a hundred houses sitting empty, and we were trying to push to get cooperation with CMHC to release the houses.”
And that’s when Iles’ moment came. Banham says he was able to make contact with an aid of then-Minister in Charge of CMHC Alphonso Gagliano, an Italian borne, Montreal-raised politician who looked like he was straight out of the Godfather.
The meeting was the turning point. “You can imagine the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre,” says Banham. “You go up to third or fourth floor, and we’re in this well-appointed meeting room, with an oval table. There’s me and Clay and two CMHC people. Then the door swings open and Gagliano and his entourage walk in.”
Clay introduced Banham, who did his presentation on the troubles the town was facing and their issues with CMHC. “After the presentation, Gagliano and Clay sat and talked, and he, in the way only he can, told his heartfelt story, using a number of four letter superlatives.
“Gagliano just sucked it down. They got chatting, and those two are talking back and forth like their long-lost buddies. After a few minutes, one of his aids comes and knocks and says ‘Mr Gagliano, your next appointment is ready.’ Everyone shakes hands, and as Gagliano and Clay are walking to the door, Gagliano put his arm around Clay’s shoulder and said ‘It’s okay, Mr Mayor. We’ll take care of it.’”
And within two weeks, says Banham, CMHC released the houses. “After that, there was no problem. Suddenly we could sell the houses. That was the leverage point to allow the community access to those homes. But just that moment with his arm around Clay…it was so much like the Godfather. They were two of the old boys, taking care of business. It wasn’t anything in my presentation, in the papers… it was that five or ten minute interpersonal relationship that was the difference between life and death for TR. There’s lots of other moments, but that one really stands out.”