Photo by Chung Chow
On his 80th birthday, Harold Steves is busy planting beans.
A historically late spring means Steves and his wife Kathy have been busy trying to make up for lost time.
“We grow plants to raise seeds,” he explains. “Kathy and I got involved because (local seed retailer) Buckerfield’s went out of business. We had to start raising our own seeds.”
It’s not the first time Steves has had to adapt. It defines his life.
Like his great-grandfather Manoah Steves, one of the first settlers in the village named after him, Harold has persevered.
B.C.’s longest-serving politician, Steves has been a Richmond city councillor for 47 years. True to what got him elected in the first place, he remains as feisty as ever.
“I’m having too much fun (to pack it in),” he laughs. “But It’s all health-related. I never say one way or the other (whether to seek re-election) until a few weeks before an election.”
Steves says his plunge into the political arena was very much unplanned.
“I wasn’t political at all,” he explains. “I was going to UBC and taking agriculture. I was going to take over the (family) farm. Then one day, in 1959, my dad came in saying we were going out of business.”
Harold Sr., had learned that the farm had been rezoned residential without his knowledge. This led to a desperate attempt to save the farm and from there a lifetime in politics.
The original Steves’ farm, 400 acres in all, was purchased by Manoah when he and wife Martha arrived in 1877, attracted by the rich delta soil and tidal flats similar to his former farm in New Brunswick. They also imported the first purebred Holstein dairy cattle into B.C.
Harold was encouraged by a friend at university to talk to the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation which later became the New Democratic Party.
“They were basically a farm party and that’s why I joined. To promote saving farm land. I’m still fighting that,” he said.
The dilemma also led Steves to lobby for what would eventually become known as the Agricultural Land Reserve. Today, nearly 5,000 hectares (12,000 acres) or 39 per cent of Richmond’s land is within the ALR.
“A friend of mine, who had a farm next to the old Steveston High, and I went to a big farmer’s meeting at the old Brighouse race track,” Steves recalls. “There were 200 or 300 people there. We got (together with) a number of people in various parts of the Fraser Valley, who were also concerned, and formed a committee.”
A few years later, Steves was able to get the land bank proposal, which he drafted, onto the NDP convention floor. The resolution passed.
Determined to have a policy enacted at the government level, Steves, by then a Richmond city councillor, decided to seek a seat as an NDP member of the legislature in 1973. He was elected, and the ALR became reality.
As he was getting his feet wet in the political arena, a young Steves—facing an uncertain future in farming decided to become a school teacher. It was a career that helped support himself, Kathy, who he met at UBC, and their five children. Ironically, all but one of the kids wound up with careers related to agriculture.
It wasn’t trying to save farmland, but rather stop the potential dumping of raw sewage into the Fraser River, that prompted him to pursue civic politics.
“(Longtime Richmond activist) Lois Carson Boyce got me involved,” he explains. “We got about 1,000 names on a petition saying the city should build a (sewage) plant. We ran a slate of candidates in the 1968 municipal election and I got elected.”
That led to forming, eight or nine months later, what Steves believes was the first environmental group in Canada. Carson Boyce chaired the group and Steves was its vice-chair.
“It was amazing when I look back,” he says. “We got our sewage treatment plant.”
Steves’ zealous nature ultimately led to yet another innovation—the first trail system in the province, while he was fearing a possibility of supertanker port on Sturgeon Banks.
“I’m proud of that,” he says. “My neighbour had just come back from Sturgeon Banks. There were orange stakes in the ground all the way to Garry Point.”
Today, Steves spends much of his day (when he’s not busy attending to a community or city-related function) working on the family farm. He retains a few acres, which is still zoned agricultural. That includes the 100-year-old Steves home, being restored close to its original state. He and Kathy raise Belted Galloway beef cattle, which graze on a grass pasture on the property and on the salt marsh outside the dike. The seeds they save from the produce grown on the farm are part of the Heritage Seed Program, which preserves heirloom and endangered seeds, fruits, grains and herbs. This practice dates back to his great uncle and grandfather, Joseph, who started the first seed company in B.C. in 1888.
Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie says, “Harold Steves has been a great contributor to the city for decades,” he says. “His input and contributions have been far too far numerous to mention. His actual contributions are far wider than that.”
Brodie says ‘agriculture’ is the first word that pops to mind when one thinks of Steves, “but I think that’s only the surface.“
“He has a very practical approach to issues, and his knowledge of the history of our city adds a great deal to any discussion or debate,” adds Brodie. “Harold is strong in his beliefs, and I heard him say one time he is in favour of anything he thinks will make for a better planet. I think that kind of sums up his approach.”