Public service and agriculture were threads that ran throughout Harry DeJong’s life – taking him from a Matsqui dairy farmer to mayor of the community; to Victoria as the MLA for Abbotsford and minister of agriculture; to a longtime director and champion of Abbotsford’s Agrifair.
Though he enjoyed working with his hands, and could often be found out in the fields, his shop, or his garden, his strong ethics and belief that he could improve his community encouraged him through a long career in politics.
Eighty-one-year-old DeJong passed away on Feb. 6 – a significant loss to the community he served for decades.
Coming from generations of dairy farmers, he was born as Hans DeJong in the Netherlands in 1932. His teenage years were spent under German occupation in the Second World War, an experience that deeply impacted him.
After the liberation of the Netherlands, DeJong and his family came to Canada and settled near Abbotsford.
In Matsqui he met his wife Ann, also the child of Dutch dairy farmers. They married in 1954 and started farming in Deroche, having four of their children there – Joan, Colleen, Ted and Valerie. Their fifth child, Cameron, would be born years later in Matsqui.
Ted DeJong said times were tight when his father started out, and after about a year and a half of dairy farming, he considered giving up. But a local dairy field man helped his father make a deal on purchasing more cows, which allowed him to keep the farm.
After spending his teenage years in an occupied nation, where distrust among neighbours was common, the generous assistance imprinted on DeJong.
“He always told me that’s where he learned to reach out to people. It was one of his first lessons as a Canadian.”
DeJong continued farming, moving to a dairy operation in Matsqui in 1962 and he would soon begin his journey into politics.
In 1963, DeJong joined the MSA Parks and Recreation Commission. The commission requested $2,000 from Matsqui council in order to staff local pools with lifeguards. The organization was denied the money and council took over management of the facilities. DeJong later learned the council was spending almost five times as much to run the pools as what had been requested. Realizing the parks commission needed a representative on the council, DeJong stepped forward.
After four years serving on Matsqui council, DeJong saw the necessity of encouraging connection and co-operation between the changing communities of Abbotsford and Matsqui, and creating the ability to share services such as water and fire protection.
Ted said his father “cared very deeply about his community… It was his second family.”
DeJong served as mayor of Matsqui for 12 years. In that time, he oversaw the many developments, including a new city hall near Clearbrook – which currently serves as the site of Abbotsford’s government.
After more than a decade, DeJong felt that it was time for him to either step back from politics or take the next step forward.
He won a seat in the legislature, spending eight years with the Social Credit party as an MLA for Abbotsford – serving for a short time as the minister of agriculture. Known for speaking his mind, Ted says his father struggled with party politics and always tried to maintain an independent voice. As the Social Credit party dissolved, DeJong knew there was a new party emerging and thought it was time to hang up his hat at the provincial level.
His exit from the legislature corresponded with the amalgamation of Abbotsford and Matsqui into the new city of Abbotsford in 1995.
DeJong threw his hat into the ring to lead the new city, against sitting Matsqui mayor Dave Kandal and Abbotsford’s mayor George Ferguson, who ultimately won.
Ted said his father had his heart in the election, wanting to once again serve the area at the local level. But the dynamics of the city had changed, and after losing he took some time to recover. It was also when he began his first battle with cancer – an experience that Ted said made his father once again focus on working with people on a one-to-one level.
DeJong turned his energy to volunteerism, and began serving as an Agrifair director in 1995 – a position he held continuously until “retiring” to the role of past-president in 2011.
Former Abbotsford mayor George Peary was encouraged to enter politics by DeJong after working together on the police board. DeJong’s integrity, honesty and sincerity were a service to his community that inspired Peary.
“I don’t think the city had ever had a more ethical man as its mayor. He was quite remarkable,” Peary said.
He often consulted DeJong for advice on civic leadership and local history – a service DeJong thoughtfully provided.
DeJong has been well recognized for his contributions in recent years, and has been awarded with the Order of Abbotsford and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal.
He is survived by his wife Ann, his five children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He will long be remembered for his contributions to the Abbotsford community.
A memorial service will be held on Feb. 13 at 2 p.m. at Gateway Community Christian Reformed Church at 2884 Gladys Ave.
Harry DeJong, MLA, Peter Dueck, MLA, and John Smith of School District #34 shake hand over a model of a school, possibly the new Rick Hansen Secondary. Photo courtesy of The Reach.