Mayor Maja Tait has faced her share of crisis management issues in Sooke.
Two years ago, a tsunami warning saw residents panic and flood a disaster shelter and overwhelm emergency resources to find out officials called no evacuation. In 2017, a wildfire raged over part of Mount Manuel Quimper.
Tait now spearheads her town’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, aware that the challenges of this crisis will last longer than anything she’s dealt with before.
“You quickly realize it’s a marathon and not a sprint to the other side,” she said. “You have to kind of hold your energy in for the long haul.”
Unlike with other crises, like facing wildfires and public panic on her own, she knows politicians across the country are dealing with the same problems.
“It made me realize we’re not alone,” she said. “Other local governments are experiencing similar challenges. In some way, there was a comfort there.”
Tait got the first sense that the newly reported coronavirus was different than those from the past when she travelled to Cambodia in January as part of a Global Affairs Canada initiative on how to engage and empower women and youth in regional government.
Her first flight out of Victoria was delayed by the airline, and she was then forced to take flights through Thailand and Taiwan before landing in Cambodia.
It wasn’t long after that that things started to shift and change, Tait said. “I remember coming home and asking, ‘What is happening?’”
Back in B.C., there was one reported case of COVID-19 in January, and by the end of February, there were seven, and 1,013 in March.
Once Tait returned to Sooke, she became a front-line commander in dealing with the pandemic, as she not only had to rally the troops in her community but as a Capital Regional District director and president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities.
Brian Frenkel, a Vanderhoof councillor and now president of the UBCM, said he had confidence in her direction during the pandemic.
”Maja’s leadership style was one of inclusion. She made sure that all members of the [UBCM] board were aware of issues on the table and ensured everyone had the opportunity to speak to each topic. It was an excellent job through trying times.”
Over the years, the District of Sooke wisely spent time on resources and training for a state of emergency, and it paid off early in the crisis, Tait said.
“The foundation was put in place in terms of what happens, but at the time, it was so early,” Tait said. “We had to wait and get the right information.”
Even by the end of March, with recreation facilities, schools, and parks closed, she said the pandemic’s impact was still unknown.
Soon business began to close.
Tait was adamant she would follow the advice of provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry – wash your hands, keep a physical distance, and only go out for essentials.
“I received all kinds of advice, but in the end, it was the public health order and following it,” she said.
And while Tait was leading the charge in Sooke, she was also forced into federal, provincial and regional roles.
Her days were filled with Sooke meetings, daily briefings with the Municipal Affairs Ministry, and discussing issues with municipal officials across the country.
“It put me out of my comfort zone. There were some tough days there,” Tait said.
Tait learned early that she couldn’t answer all questions, and each local government is uniquely different. She often looked at common issues that could benefit everyone.
But, perhaps, her biggest surprise over the last seven months was the use of technology and her ability to adapt. Often she was on five different devices, and before the pandemic, she never used internet video-streaming services.
“I’m very grateful to the council for their work, and also our municipal staff, which focused on delivering services and doing their best for all of our residents and finding unique ways to continue operations throughout it,” Tait said.
“It’s been an extraordinary year, that’s for sure.”
As mayor of Sooke, Maja Tait has worn many hats over the last year.
Here is a partial list of her appointments and duties:
• Sooke mayor.
• Capital Regional District director. She’s also on the CRD’s regional parks, First Nations relations, finance and SEAPARC committees.
• UBCM president. This appointment ended last year, and now she serves as past-president of the organization. She also served on many other committees and boards connected to the UBCM.
• Federation of Canadian Municipalities. She served on this national board as the UBCM rep and has duties on international relations and environment committees.