The 600-person community of Sointula on Malcolm Island has no municipal government, but if it did, BC Community Achievement Award winner Wanda Laughlin would probably be mayor.
With her seemingly unlimited energy and take-charge enthusiasm, Wanda gets things done. For more than 40 years ‘Aunty Wanda’ or ‘Granny’ as she’s known, has given her time, knowledge and creativity to help procure and operate services normally run by municipal government, including parks, sewer systems, museum, nine community buildings, and many annual cultural, sports, and entertainment events.
Growing up in West Coast logging camps for the first nine years of her life, Wanda learned early the importance of connecting and working together in a small community.
The family then lived in Mitchell Bay for a few years before settling in Sointula in 1967 when they bought the village restaurant. She has spent her life there, raising four children, assisting with her husband’s fishing business, working as a census canvasser and then census commissioner for the area, and dedicating herself to building her community’s services and morale.
When she became a founding member of the Sointula Recreation Association in 1972, which acts as the community’s local government, one of the group’s first ventures was a public pool.
“We bought a pool from Sears and set it up and people had swimming lessons and enjoyed it for two years… until the health inspector came along. I know the rules apply to everyone, but I’m glad when they catch us later,” she laughs.
By 1980, Wanda was the chair of the Rec Association. In 1982, when the community hall needed renovations and an addition, elders told her it wasn’t possible to fund-raise enough.
But Wanda was part of a group that went door-to-door and received enough donations and a few interest-free loans to expand the building.
Another example of her resourcefulness was in the late ‘90s, when the federal government started limiting fishing licences. Wanda remembers going into the café and not one person was smiling. She resolved to change that, and initiated what has become an annual team-building, morale-boosting, inter-generational Treasure Hunt. A six-week, fact-finding mission filled with local historical clues that incorporates all ages and leads them to an eventual ‘treasure’ and a $500 cash prize.
She says her most significant accomplishment though, was the development of the Arnold Grosenick Memorial Park ball field. Completed in 1996, it is the largest in the North Island region, and now hosts baseball tournaments, Salmon Day, the farmers’ market, soccer, and other community activities.
“It’s our everything,” said Wanda. “A huge project that everyone helped with. There wasn’t a person in the community that didn’t volunteer to help with something.”
Even sewer contractors from Victoria helped out moving soil, digging ditches, and joining in a fund-raising baseball tournament in their free time.
She praises the incredible community spirit of the people of Sointula. “Volunteering here is huge,” she said. “Sointula has ‘sisu.’ – ‘determination’ in Finnish. You need leaders. But more than anything you need the doers. They quite often don’t get enough credit.”
She calls her children the real heroes. “Right from the time they’re little, we’re dragging them to halls to set up or clean up. They learned to help early.”
Wanda stepped down as chair of the Rec Association Board in October 2013, but is still an important resource. She has a new passion now, working toward developing assisted-living housing for the community’s aging population. Wanda has the sisu to get it done.