Q&A: Catching up with the Fraser Valley’s first Black mayor James Atebe
We catch up with former Mission mayor James Atebe about his time in council, his experience as an immigrant in politics, and what advice he has for people heading into the next election.
James Atebe had the perfect pedigree for a politician. A masters degree in urban planning. A father who had been a politician for decades in Kenya. A mother who was a community organizer.
“That political DNA within the family was in my blood when I came to Canada” in 1979, Atebe said. “I always knew that I was going to practice politically or provide political leadership, either in Canada or elsewhere in the world.”
In 1999, after years as the general manager for Stó:lō Nation, Atebe ran for a spot on Mission council and won. Then, in 2005, he was elected as the first non-white mayor* in the Fraser Valley. Today, Atebe is the general manager for the Tzeachten First Nation, bringing a municipal-style of governance to one of the valley’s fastest growing Nations.
With the Fraser Valley heading into another set of municipal elections, we caught up with Atebe to talk about his time as mayor, his experience as an immigrant in politics, and his advice to others who may be wanting to run for office this year.
* Although Atebe was the first non-white mayor, he wasn’t the first non-white leader in the valley, or even Mission. In 1950, Naranjan Singh Grewall was elected to the Board of Commissioners in the Corporation of Mission (roughly equivalent to a city council today.) He was re-elected twice, and in 1954 was unanimously voted the Chair of the Board, which gave him similar duties to a mayor. You can read more about Singh Grewall, and his life in politics and beyond, here.
FVC: Tell me a little bit about why you moved to Canada.
James Atebe: Originally, when I came from Kenya, it was my desire to come and live with the “Cowboys and Indians” culture. When I was 13 years old, that was my dream. I kept on requesting my parents if I could come and… learn about Indigenous culture. And I was always, always impressed about the cowboy culture…. so I just fell in love with that. I wanted to come and just find out how these people lived. Because they had very rich cultures within those communities. So that’s what really attracted me. But when I came to university, I liked Canada. I fell in love. And then I decided I’m going to be a citizen. So I became a citizen in 1984.
FVC: What got you started on your political path?
Atebe: When I came to Mission, I believed very strongly in volunteerism… I was a soccer coach. I organized and trained youth to be referees in soccer… I began to really reach out and touch a lot of community organizations. And then the highlight for me to really get into politics was because I was involved with sports and I found that Mission was wanting in recreational facilities like sports facilities, the soccer fields. We didn’t have a hockey rink, for instance. There were no facilities that were state of the art facilities which could support that. The same thing, outdoor facilities, whether it’s baseball, soccer, drawers, there were no facilities. So I started advocating for that, lobbying for that. And then some of the groups that decided to reach out to me and said, “Why can’t you go to council?”
They reached out to me, they reached out to my wife, and then ended up persuading me to get into politics. So I think it was 1999 when I decided to drop my name in for the position on council. And I was lucky to win.
FVC: If I remember right, you had spent a couple of terms as a councillor.
Atebe: The first time, I was very surprised. I was surprised after having been in Mission for six years and there were people who were born and raised. There were 17 of us competing for six seats. And I found that I became second in terms of getting the highest vote. So that was a pleasant surprise. Then, later on when we went for re-election again, three years later, I was top there… So I was very, very humbled and honored with the community support.
But more so, it’s because you understand the needs of the community and have a very clear vision as to what the community needed, what improvements were needed in the community… They supported me for two times as City Council. Then people reached out to me and asked me whether I could try to run for mayor. It was a tall order to ask but I decided to let my name stand for mayor. And at that time, given my professional training, I felt that I could provide some leadership especially in land use planning, development planning.
Atebe went on to discuss some of his successes on council, speaking proudly about bolstering the community’s industrial and commercial property tax revenues. He also mentioned the efforts to develop local health care in Mission, build up sports facilities, and expand UFV campuses into Mission.
Atebe: I have to give credit to the men and the women who were council members with me. They were collaborative. Tough to negotiate with, but really collaborative. And we managed to make sure we shared the vision that allows us to invest without having to do any bickering or any kind of political wars.
FVC: It sounds like it sounds like you’ve had a lot of successes in your time. But one thing that I did want to touch on is whether you felt you had any struggles during your time on council?
Atebe: I don’t feel that I felt any challenges… I always felt supported. I was accepted into the community. Honestly, for most people, they felt maybe being a Black male, you would find the resistance. But… even right now, if I go to Mission, the youth, they call me their mayor. But whether it was business people, whether they were cultural people, they all were extremely receptive to me, and they’re supportive to me… I actually got elected the President of the Lower Mainland Local Government Association. For two years I was with that organization as their president, and that’s from Pemberton all the way to Hope… I’m thankful, grateful that there was that acceptance, and there was that respect from the communities and they gave me the opportunity to serve.
FVC: That touches on the other question that I wanted to ask: what it was like being the first non-white mayor—as far as I can think back to—in the Fraser Valley? But it sounds like people were really open and accepting to have you there.
Atebe: To be honest, I never saw myself as Black. I always felt that I’m bringing in a certain value, and that’s leadership. Even where I went to boarding school, they were very diverse. They were schools that accommodated people from 43 different diverse ethnic groups. So whenever I took the leadership as a student leader, I knew I was serving. Because leadership is actually servanthood. You have to serve people… You have to demonstrate to the people that you want to lead, that you’re adding value, and you are making a difference to their lives. So in that way, to me, I never viewed myself as Black. I always knew myself as a citizen of Mission. I provided the same thing when I came to the [Fraser Valley] Regional District. I saw myself as a citizen of the Regional District.
Atebe lost his re-election bid in 2011, and began working at the Stó:lō Nation the same year. He moved to his current position at Tzeachten in 2012, and now participates in Chilliwack’s local elections there as a voter. We asked what his advice was for voters leading up to the 2022 municipal elections this October.
Atebe: I think that voting is a civic right. In any democracy—good, effective, and productive democracy—people need to see voting as a civic right. And recognizing that, through your vote, you do have a say in electing effective leaders… If you haven’t voted, you can’t really challenge somebody if they are not being effective as leaders to your community.
And then for the leaders, those who are running for leadership positions, whether it’s a councillor or a mayor, they have to really recognize that through voting people entrust you with a very, very noble responsibility… You owe accountability to them… People have different perspectives as to what you should be delivering to them, or what kind of contribution you should be making, but deliver to your best capability driven by your vision of what your community needs to be. So to me, that’s what I could encourage: people should be courageous and bold enough to want to become servants to the community… I know that there are a lot of people from minority groups that wonder whether they can be elected in predominantly Caucasian communities. I think if you have something to offer, you shouldn’t be discouraged.
When I ran, I ran with an attitude that even if I don’t get in, I will be a moral [encouragement] to other minority groups, they can know that it can be done, that people can do that. So I would encourage anybody—doesn’t matter whether you’re from a minority group—be courageous, and demonstrate to the community that you are of value to them. And then try, you can try once, twice, three times. And then eventually people will see value in you to elect you.