The people’s servant: Remembering George Ferguson

Abbotsford's mayor for 33 years hailed for his common touch and 'heart and soul' devotion to his community

Former Abbotsford mayor George Ferguson died Tuesday at the age of 91. He served 33 years as mayor of the District of Abbotsford and City of Abbotsford.

Former Abbotsford mayor George Ferguson died Tuesday at the age of 91. He served 33 years as mayor of the District of Abbotsford and City of Abbotsford.

George Ferguson loved being mayor – and the people of Abbotsford, and his constituents, co-workers and neighbours loved him back.

Ferguson, who died at home Tuesday night at the age of 91, is being remembered as a people’s politician and a “prince of a man” who was a fixture in a changing city for four decades.

Ferguson was there when the districts of Matsqui and Abbotsford amalgamated, when Abbotsford Airport was purchased from the federal government, and through countless other landmark events. But as tributes flow for a man who led Abbotsford for a combined 33 years, even those accomplishments have taken a back seat to memories of Ferguson’s unique connection to his constituents.

“He could get up on a tractor and compete in a plowing contest or milk a cow. And he could meet the queen,” remembered former mayor George Peary, who served on council while Ferguson was mayor.

Ferguson would work long days, Peary said, and at one point arranged so that anyone who called city hall after the receptionist had left would be directed to his personal phone.

“People knew that if they phoned and anybody answered, it would be George.”

Ferguson had a simple mantra he frequently shared with other politicians.: “You are the servant of the people, you are not their master.”

“He was such a fierce cheerleader for the community,” said Coun. Patricia Ross, who served on council for a decade while Ferguson was mayor. “He devoted his whole heart and soul and life to this community.”

A mayor is always in demand, and Ferguson was famous for his willingness to attend functions large and small.

When he wasn’t on the clock, he was still ever-present and willing to engage with fellow residents, whether it be sipping a ginger ale at the Fraser Valley Inn, playing a game of cards at a local coffee shop, or watching baseball at DeLair Park.

After first being elected as a district of Sumas alderman in 1969, he ran for, and won, the top job in the District of Abbotsford three years later. He was re-elected three years after that, and three years after that, and so on until 2002, when he finally lost to Mary Reeves. Three years later, Ferguson was back, defeating Reeves and re-assuming his mayor’s chair for a final three years.

During his long career, he also served as president of the organizations representing B.C. and Canadian municipalities, and in 2011 received the Order of Abbotsford and was named Citizen of the Year. Flags at city hall were lowered to half mast Wednesday after news of his death broke.

Ross was among the many people who hailed Ferguson’s ability to put people at ease and to welcome debate.

“You always felt the freedom to have a difference of opinion,” she said. “You never had to worry that if you didn’t come around to his way of thinking he would be vengeful.”

In 1995, after the amalgamation of the districts of Abbotsford and Matsqui, Ferguson faced one of his toughest political challenges. Both Ferguson and his Matsqui counterpart, Dave Kandal, wanted to keep their job. Kandal had been popular enough to win two previous elections, and his community had contributed the vast bulk of the new city’s voters.

It was a contest between two men who had known each other for decades and would remain friends until the end despite occasional “fierce” disagreements. And it was Ferguson who prevailed.

“Whether he was an opponent of yours or a friend, you always got the straight stuff from him,” Kandal said. He remembered that during the election, Ferguson “didn’t say anything bad about anybody. He was just typical George. People gravitated toward him and that was it.”

Those who knew Ferguson said he would listen to his constituents and often follow them to a decision. When amalgamation was being proposed, he remained quiet on the issue for some time before quietly giving his acquiescence, if not full-throated support. But that was all it needed to create the present-day city.

“If he had opposed it, it would not have succeeded,” Kandal said.

Mayor Henry Braun said Ferguson’s eagerness to engage with his fellow residents was integral to his political success and popularity.

“He was a man of the people,” he said. “He could relate to people because he didn’t coop himself up in the mayor’s office.”

In later years, he remained engaged and interested in the goings-on at city hall. And he never lost his touch with his fellow residents. After news of his death broke, stories poured in from voters.

Among them, was Chris Bonin, who told of introducing “the mayor of Abbotsford” to his awestruck young daughter four or five years ago.

“He made you feel important, listened to and worth recognizing,” he said. “He will be dearly missed. It is amazing what can transpire in the simplest gestures.”

Ferguson is survived by his wife Ria, 11 children, 17 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren. A funeral is planned for Saturday, March 18 at 11 a.m. at Tradex.

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His family issued the following statement Thursday:

“George suffered a massive heart attack Feb. 28. He went to hospital where he was later visited by friends and family.

“He returned to his home on his farm, where he lived for more than 85 years. On the evening of March 7, 2017 he passed peacefully and pain-free into the presence of the Lord surrounded by his wife, Dr. Jonathan Burns and people he loved.

“This was made possible by Dr. Burns, who provided exceptional care and home visits. George’s niece Andrea assisted by carrying out his instructions.

“Special thanks also to Dr. Sayeh his cardiologist and his friend and long-time GP Dr. Pawlovich.”

Also see: Readers remember George Ferguson