She has spoken out on all matters of small-town politics, including big-business bullying and indigenous rights — and she’s only 85. Meet former Hazelton mayor Alice Maitland. Tell her to shut up, and she’ll probably tell you to do the same. By Amanda Follett Hosgood.
If you believe Alice Maitland, she ended up as British Columbia’s longest-serving mayor because no one else wanted the job. “I know it’s sort of a huge thing to be mayor for 42 years, but nobody cared,” the 85-year-old shrugs as we sip tea in her Old Hazelton dining room. An unwavering smile and self-effacing laugh belie the strength in her character: tough words with a warm delivery. Perhaps that’s the key to her political longevity.
Her staying power is in itself a feat of strength and endurance—especially as her tenure began at a time when few women served in politics. Maitland says she often stood alone in defending the interests of the tiny northwest British Columbia community of Hazelton. The job wasn’t always easy, and Maitland was a pioneer when it came to combining politics and environmental causes. She often fought what she saw as unfair forestry practices without the support of other municipalities, though she had a good relationship with the local Gitxsan Nation. In the years leading up to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1997 decision in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, which redefined Canada’s Indigenous land claims, Maitland loudly objected as local logs were trucked to mills five hours away in Prince George. She often joined her Indigenous neighbours in blockading. “If I could, I was there,” she says.
More than a decade after the blockades, the mayor of nearby Smithers, Jim Davidson, publicly apologized for not backing her efforts. She tears up thinking about it, “That was huge. It felt terrible at the time we were standing alone.”
Maitland’s career was shaped by Polly Sargent, a woman two decades her senior who rallied the Village of Hazelton to incorporate and became its first mayor in 1965. Maitland served on council with Sargent until leaving in 1971 for a stint in Prince George. In 1976, Maitland was acclaimed as Hazelton’s mayor. In fact, until her defeat in last October’s municipal election, she only ran one campaign, in the 1980s, against a resident looking to stir up some local political action. Maitland won by a long shot.
Maitland, a recipient of the Union of BC Municipalities’ Long Service Award, the BC Community Achievement Award, and a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, is encouraged by the new breed of politician: people willing to champion the environment. It’s a testament to her determination that the current provincial minister of forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development, Doug Donaldson, names her as a mentor.
Maitland’s mayorship doesn’t just break records provincially, it puts her on the map nationally as the country’s longest-serving female mayor. Still, her gender seems like one facet of her journey rather than its defining feature. And what might that defining feature might be? “Well,” she smiles gently, “it’s never shut my mouth.”