Yesterday I posted my cover story from the spring issue of Fine Lifestyles Regina, an interview with Regina businessman Paul J. Hill. Today, I’m posting my cover story from the spring (and premiere!) issue of Fine Lifestyles Saskatoon, an interview and Saskatoon Mayor Don Atchison. Enjoy! The summer issues of both magazines are just around the corner…
It’s a joke, of course, and yet there’s an element of truth to it. She was the one who encouraged him to run, first for city council and then for mayor, and Atchison makes it clear that if it weren’t for her support, he wouldn’t be able to continue to serve as mayor today.
In fact, if there’s one thing that shines through a conversation with the mayor more than anything else, it’s his love and appreciation for his wife.
Don met Mardele Assaly in high school, at Walter Murray Collegiate. “My brother (Doug) was a real charmer,” he recalls. “She was more interested in my brother than me. But he moved away afterward. Mardele and I met again one day, one thing led to the next, and we ended up getting married. It’s been wonderful.”
Mardele, Don says, basically raised their five children, Jason, Carrie, Don Jr., Brielle and Aria. They’re all grown now—the youngest is 25, four are married (and have given Don and Mardele five grandchildren) and Aria is getting married in August. “Mardele is a wonderful parent,” Don says. “She is very good. She’s the one who was really the guiding principle with the kids.”
It seems clear she’s also been a guiding principle for the mayor. “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Mardele, I know that. She is just a wonderful person, a great wife, and a great friend.”
But Don also pays tribute to his parents, Frank and Martha. When Don was born, Frank was working with CN as an engineer, and his Martha was in real estate. But Frank had been in menswear just after the war, and in the early ’70s he returned to it. Today, in their mid-80s, Frank and Martha continue to run Atch & Co. at 214 21st St. E. (a store Don was very involved with up until he was elected mayor), and continue to campaign for their son when election time rolls around.
“A great childhood”
Born and raised in Saskatoon, Don says he had “a great childhood.” Not only did he have “a really good family life,” along with his brother Doug and sister Debbie, “I got to play most of the sports in our city. I had a wonderful experience.”
“When I was in Grade 8 I got to play in the East Side/West Side All-Star Hockey Game, the last one ever held in Saskatoon. The rink was full.”
He played pee wee hockey, midget hockey, juvenile hockey, and eventually played for the Blades. “I also played for the Saskatoon Macs, which became the Saskatoon Quakers, and played in the first-ever Canada Winter Games, held right here in Saskatoon.”
And, he adds proudly, “Either my Mom or my Dad were at every hockey game I ever played in Saskatoon. They always came to watch, one or the other.”
He also played golf and football. At Walter Murray, in four years on the team, he was rookie of the year one year in senior football and captain as well. “I think that was another great learning experience,” he says. “I was really fortunate in all my sports to have wonderful coaches.”
From the Blades, Don was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League, who put him into their farm teams. “I played in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and I played in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and I played in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on the team the movie Slapshot was about.” (And in case you’re wondering, Don says “a lot of that movie was very factual.”)
He was eventually called up to the Penguins as a backup goaltender, but he never actually played in an NHL game. Still, he says, “I was really lucky to have experienced all of that.”
Farewell to hockey
After a while, though, he had to choose between continuing to play hockey, and potentially spending his entire career in the minors, or hanging up his skates. “I didn’t want to spend a lot of time in the minor leagues, so I left hockey and came back to work in the store.”
Not that “leaving hockey” meant leaving it entirely. He soon became involved with the junior Quakers, coaching the team and eventually owning it. He took the team to Europe twice, and even coached it in the Canada Winter Games, a nice bit of symmetry since he had played in the first-ever Canada Winter Games with the same team. Later on, he coached goaltenders for the Blades.
Everything, though he didn’t think of it that way at the time, was preparing him for being in politics. “In a lot of ways sports and retail experience gives you a good mix,” he says. “Harry Truman was a clothier as well, and there have been other leaders that have also come from the clothing industry. It’s all about the customer service. It bodes well for getting into public life.”
And having been at various times a goaltender, a coach and a referee, he says with a laugh, he’d gotten used to something else that goes with political life, “people always second-guessing what you should have done.”
Don’s first taste of politics actually came in high school, when he ran for the SRC at Walter Murray Collegiate. “I never thought I’d ever be in politics. I did that because I wanted to be involved in the school. It was quite interesting.”
“You should run for city council”
The fateful decision to actually run for elected office as an adult came up almost out of the blue. “We were sitting at home one night watching television, I think it was on a Monday night, and they were saying that nominations closed on the Wednesday. Mardele said, ‘I think you should run for city council. I think you could do a really good job.’” They talked it over, and the next day he went and got the nomination papers and found 25 people to sign them.
“We always hear about the business community talking about how things should be done, but never getting involved in the political end of it,” Don says. “I just wanted to bring a business point of view to council. That’s why I ran, and I said I would work hard.”
He was elected, and continued to be elected for the next nine years. “The first term you had to learn how things function in a municipal government as opposed to the private sector,” Don says. If you own a business, he points out, you can simply show up one morning and say, “This is how it’s going to be. “In government it works more on the basis of consensus-building,” he says. “I had to learn to understand all of that.”
In the years he served on city council, he used to say to himself, “If I was the mayor, I would do it this way or that way…and then one day after nine years I decided that it was time to run for mayor.”
The result? “The citizens of Saskatoon were really kind, and they’ve given me the opportunity to be the mayor for several years.”
He’s proud of the way the city has developed over the past few years. “We had 19 years of consecutive GDP growth,” he points out. “2009 was the first year we were either at zero or slightly below, but this year looks like it will be a very positive year. We’ve had the best overall GDP growth in Canada.”
But don’t call it a boom. “I don’t like to use the word booming,” Don says pointedly, “because people think there will be a bust,” and he doesn’t believe that will happen, in part because Saskatoon has such a balanced economy.
He recalls the Conference Board of Canada investigating Saskatoon because it couldn’t understand how the city could keep growing during a time when the farming sector was in the doldrums. The reason, he says, is that although Saskatoon is a prairie city and certainly services the surrounding farmland, it’s got a lot more going for it. “We’re mining, transportation, education, manufacturing, processing,” he says. “People don’t realize we’re the largest steel manufacturing centre west of Toronto. The largest piece of mining equipment in the world is manufactured in Saskatoon.”
Mining, research, education and more
He lists other assets of the city, starting with the mining industry, “billions of dollars are going to be invested into potash alone in upgrades and new mines.” Saskatoon also serves the nascent Saskatchewan diamond industry, plus the north’s gold and uranium mines and, of course, the oil industry.
The university is a big part of the Saskatoon economic picture as well, Don says. “We do 30 percent of all the agricultural biotech research in Canada in Saskatoon at Innovation Place,” he points out, and there are many other developments at the university that contribute to the city’s success, from the Canadian Light Source to the new International Vaccine Centre. “The university is a big, big part of our community as well. We have worked very hard to make sure the city and the university have a good relationship with each other.”
He’s proud of the fact that the city of Saskatoon, unique among all the cities of the world, gave $2.4 million toward the construction of a facility intended strictly for primary research, the Canadian Light Source.
Saskatoon has done other unique things. “Our Land Branch is unique for selling residential property,” he points out. “We run it as a business. We need to get a return on our investment.”
And yet, Don notes, even while he strives to apply a lot more business practices to the way the municipal government does things, it’s important to be mindful that there is a social side that has to be cared for as well. “It’s a combination of putting both together. Coming from the private sector, I think I have a good understanding of both sides of the story.”
“When I was first growing up almost everyone knew everyone in the city,” he adds. “We’ve tried to keep a community-type flavour, but as you get larger it’s harder to get to know everyone in your community, especially now when we have around 225,000 people.”
Social and cultural achievements
On the social/culture side of things, Don is particularly proud of the Shaw Centre, “the number-one aquatic centre in North America, if not the world.” The city partnered with the public school board, the separate school board, the provincial and federal governments and private donors to build the Centre, located between two new schools in Blairmore.
Another “truly remarkable story” is Persephone Theatre’s new facility, “the first actual business” on River Landing. “The theatre opened up with no mortgage, and it’s focused on culture. It’s not a private-sector business and it’s not a government institution. I think that’s exceedingly important.”
Don attributes part of his appreciation for the importance of culture to his upbringing. “My first introduction was taking piano lessons when I was younger,” he says. He eventually reached the Grade 8 level.
“I took lessons because I had to (as a condition for playing hockey), not because I wanted to. But when I look back on it, I think it helped shape my outlook on life.
“In government, they always talk about sports and culture as one department. I think they really do belong together. I have a better understanding of both today because of my parents insisting that I participate in a variety of cultural activities.”
As mayor, Atchison keeps a busy schedule, and once again he pays tribute to Mardele for making it possible for him to do so. “I don’t take much time off work, off the role as the mayor,” he says, and as a result, he and Mardele agreed that they would only go on a holiday every second year while he’s mayor.
“We’ve been going to Europe, since being mayor. We’ve travelled most of Europe now on different tours. We’ll go to Palm Springs now as well for a few days.” But basically, he says, “I spend most of my time in and around the city and just travelling on city business.
“Mardele is just wonderful,” he says again. “She’s very understanding, very, very understanding about the number of hours I put in. I travelled to the Olympics, saw a bit of figure skating, and worked at the pavilion. There are a lot of trips to places I’m sure Mardele would love to go as well, but it just doesn’t make any sense because it’s business. She doesn’t say anything about that, just ‘Get home as soon as you can.’”
Family, friends and fun
Within the city, they like to spend time with their family (four of their children remain in Saskatoon; one, Jason, is in Calgary). As well, “We enjoy going golfing together, certainly enjoy fine dining, going to a movie, going to plays.”
They like to dine out, but diplomatically, Atchison refuses to name a favourite restaurant. “They’re all my favourites,” he says. “Saskatoon really and truly has great restaurants. As our community continues to diversify, we continue to have more and more different ethnic restaurants in our community, which is reflective of the community as a whole.”
As for plans for the inevitable day when he is no longer mayor of Saskatoon, Atchison says he doesn’t have any at all.
“I’m the type of person that stays very focused on what I’m doing at the time,” he says. “When I left professional sports, I just left it behind. There’s no point in having regrets, what’s over is over.”
“I coached hockey. When I was finished, people wanted to know if I had regrets. No, that was just another part of my life. The same is true of retail. One stays focused on what they’re doing today.”
Which is not to say he doesn’t look to the future. He does; but for Atchison, thoughts of the future are focused on what he’d still like to achieve as mayor. There’s the ongoing development of River Landing. There’s work to be done on the city yards. “We need to look at moving our buses out of Caswell Hill. A North Bridge needs to be accomplished as well. We still need to stay focused on affordable housing and good-paying jobs. The list goes on and on.”
“Can I do a better job? Of course! You can always do better.”
Striving for perfection
Atchison recounts a time when he was coaching future NHL star Tim Chevelday during his time with the Saskatoon Blades. “One day he had a shutout. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you can’t say anything to me today, I had a shutout.’
“And I said, ‘Well, what about this pass? What about that play?’ He said, ‘You’ll never be satisfied.’ I said, ‘No, when you play a perfect game I’ll be satisfied.’
“We always strive for perfection, and strive to do better all the time. You reflect back and see how you could have done a better job.”
Ultimately, Don Atchison’s philosophy is the same one that he and Mardele have tried to instil in their children: “Work hard, and be kind and understanding to other people.”