Canada

Henry Braun: The right mayor at the right time during a crisis

Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun has been a reassuring presence during the Fraser Valley floods

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It’s one thing to be the mayor of a city in normal times; it’s quite another to be the mayor during a crisis.

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In Abbotsford, Henry Braun has risen to the challenge. Braun has become the face of his community during the continuing Fraser Valley floods, calmly delivering the latest updates in daily news conferences.

Seemingly unflappable, the 71-year-old seems to be informed on every issue that comes up.

“He’s certainly proven himself to be the right man at the right time for this job, to lead us through this crisis,” said longtime Abbotsford Coun. Patricia Ross. “He’s just been absolutely hard-working and dedicated.”

Indeed. Braun said he’s been waking up at 2 a.m., tending to the 40 animals on his 40-acre farm, then going to the office about 5 a.m.

“The first week I probably had about three hours of sleep (per night),” he said Tuesday. “My wife says I was on adrenalin, but I actually feel quite good. That moved to about four, and this last week I’ve been getting five, five-and-a-half (hours of sleep).”

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Braun’s background is in railway construction, and he knows there’s nothing like seeing problems first-hand.

Tuesday he was out checking on “localized flooding” in Matsqui Prairie and Clayburn with Abbotsford Chief Const. Mike Serr. He also made in-person visits to the Sumas and Matsqui First Nations’ administration offices “to check how they are faring through these latest weather events.”

But he stresses that battling the flood is a team effort, not a one-man show.

“The kudos really belong to the staff,” he said Tuesday. “I just happen to be the talking head, representing and trying to unpack what are very complex things in simple language so that the average person on the street understands it, and why we’re doing it that way.”

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He said key to Abbotsford’s response has been its emergency operations centre, where 70 employees are handling the flood response.

“They’re critical people and they know their stuff,” he said. “I’ve learned over the last seven years to have confidence in them. So I don’t question when they tell me, ‘This is what we need to do.’ ”

It seems to be working. After a hectic race to shore-up dikes damaged in the “atmospheric river” of rain and flooding that hit Abbotsford in mid-November, the repairs seem to be holding up.

Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun, left, shows Prime Minister Justin Trudeau maps during Trudeau’s visit to the flood-ravaged city Nov. 26.
Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun, left, shows Prime Minister Justin Trudeau maps during Trudeau’s visit to the flood-ravaged city Nov. 26. Photo by JENNIFER GAUTHIER /REUTERS

Braun’s management style was honed when he was co-owner and CEO of the Abbotsford-based Pacific Northern Rail Contractors Corp. During his tenure it grew from a Fraser Valley company to a cross-Canada one, expanding from 40-to-350 employees. It was sold in 2002, and Braun focused on managing the properties his family owned.

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Family is important to Braun, the son of Mennonite immigrants who fled Ukraine during the Second World War. After periods as refugees in Poland and postwar Germany, both his parents moved to South America as teenagers.

“They met on the ship going over,” he relates.

“I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Mennonite Central Committee, but they arranged for 5,000 Mennonites to go to Paraguay. Because you couldn’t come to the United States or Canada at that time unless you had somebody to sponsor you.”

Braun was born in Neuland, Paraguay, on June 28, 1950. When he was three, the family was on the move again, settling in Abbotsford. His parents wound-up with seven kids, two born in Paraguay, five in Canada.

His father worked his way up from “a labourer to a foreman to a superintendent and eventually a general manager” at a railway contractor. In 1960 he started his own railway construction company, which four of his sons purchased in 1979.

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His dad’s work ethic rubbed off on Braun, who says that even before the floods his “body clock” had him waking up at quarter to five in the morning, because that’s when he got up during his construction days.

“What I’m doing now is get up at two — I wake up, and my mind starts going,” he said. “After 10 minutes I go, ‘I’m not going back to sleep, I might as well go out.’ ”

He got into politics at the urging of former Abbotsford mayor George Ferguson, running for council in 2011 before winning the mayoral race in 2014. He was re-elected in 2018 but hasn’t decided whether he’ll run for a third term.

He thinks rebuilding the infrastructure damaged during the flooding may be an even bigger task than dealing with the floods. But he has no complaints about the help his city has received from the provincial and federal governments thus far.

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“I’ve been asked many times, ‘Are you getting what you need from the province and the federal government?’ ” he said. “And I say, ‘Yes, everything I have asked for.’ All of a sudden I had all the personal cell numbers for (provincial) ministries, the ministers, the premier, the Prime Minister’s Office.

“And they meant it. I took them up on it a couple of times, where I needed help at 10 o’clock at night, or five o’clock in the afternoon. ‘We’ve got a logjam here — somebody has to make a call, because we can’t just keep having meetings.’

“And they say, ‘Yep,’ and within 30 minutes or an hour my staff would come to me and say, ‘Wow, that was a good phone call, because we got what we needed and we’re off to the races.’ ”

One final question — why does he pronounce Abbotsford Abbot’s Ford , instead of the usual Abbot’s Ferd?

“I always pronounced it Abbotsferd when I grew up, and for most of my life,” Braun said with a chuckle. “But when I became the mayor, George Ferguson, our mayor going way back, he served for like 33 years, said, ‘Henry, you say Abbotsferd, you should say Abbot’s Ford, that’s the right way to say it.’

“I said, ‘OK, George, I will try to convert.’ You do hear me once in a while slip back to Ferd, but I try hard to say Abbot’s Ford.”

And usually he does.

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Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun, third from left, tours areas that have been braced against the flooding with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, second from right, on Nov. 26.
Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun, third from left, tours areas that have been braced against the flooding with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, second from right, on Nov. 26. Photo by JENNIFER GAUTHIER /REUTERS

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