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After a life of twists and turns, Butland still bullish on politics

Longtime Sault politician says to get young people involved in the war on drugs. 'Make them a part of the solution. They will give you very good advice'
20160411 Ward 1 Councillor Steve Butland KA
Steve Butland. Kenneth Armstrong/SooToday

Most people in the Sault will recognize Steve Butland as a former city councillor, mayor and MP.

Though out of the political fray for a few years now, he still keeps tabs on local current affairs.

One of the most pressing issues is the opioid crisis and the call for a safe injection site.

“I think the mayor’s got a good handle on what has to be done and I have a lot of confidence in this young fellow. I think what he’s proposing is the way to go,” said Butland.

He said it is essential to get young people involved in the war on drugs.

“Make them a part of the solution. They will give you very good advice. Let’s get the young people involved in as much as we possibly can.” 

Butland said he’s taken a personal wait and see approach to the city’s downtown plaza project.

“I haven’t studied it in great detail because I’m on the outside now, but I get a lot of negative reaction to it. People say ‘they’re spending a lot of money on it, we already have this, it’s a duplication of other things.’ Will it work? I don’t know. Time will tell. It may not have been my strategy or approach.”

Butland's journey to the political life had a lot of twists and turns.

Many probably don’t know he was briefly a broadcaster delivering late night sports updates on the Sault’s CJIC TV in the early 1970s.

“I was ‘Steve on Sports.’ I was so bad,” Butland said with a chuckle.

“I had absolutely no training. You watch some people do it for a while and then you’re on. I always wanted to be a sportscaster but I wasn’t meant to have that adventure in life.”

Butland said he made 100 appearances on television and was paid five dollars for each one. 

“The school board wasn’t happy because I was principal of a school and they said it doesn't look good that you’re on TV, people are going to think we don’t pay you enough,” Butland recalled.

Born and raised in the Sault, Butland attended William Merrifield Public School and was a Sault Collegiate graduate.

He became a schoolteacher after studying at North Bay Teachers' College.

“It proved to be the most wonderful turn of events in my life that I became a teacher. I found my niche,” Butland said.

Butland became a teacher at 21 and worked as a teacher and principal in the local Catholic school system for 34 years.

“In those days there were very few men teaching in elementary school. The nuns were the principals at the schools,” he said.

Butland and a group of fellow male teachers banded together and successfully pushed to get involved in school administration.

He eventually became a school principal, working at Catholic schools across the city throughout his career.

The school board started giving one-year paid sabbaticals in 1976.

Through his studies at what was then known as Lake Superior State College, Butland became friends with a director of education from the Caroline Islands in the western Pacific Ocean.

Butland took a one-year sabbatical and spent four months teaching on Pohnpei, an island in the eastern Caroline Islands.

“It was a rough go,” Butland said.

“We survived the cockroaches. This was a tropical island so it rained for 10 days and nights in a row, then you’d get the heat.” 

Butland said he made friends on the island but had more pleasant experiences after Pohnpei, spending four months in Australia and another four in New Zealand before coming back home to the Sault.

That time abroad led to Butland getting involved in politics.

“I learned that Canada is the best country in the world and I’ll give back to the country. I thought maybe I could go into the political world.”

Butland was elected as a Ward 1 City Councillor in 1980.

“I thought I really like what I’m doing here and maybe I could go upward in my political career.”

As the riding’s NDP candidate, he was elected Sault Ste. Marie MP in 1988, defeating Conservative Sault MP and International Trade Minister James Kelleher.

“It was one of the tightest races in Canada. Not everybody was happy with the results. Some said they had a cabinet minister and now we’re going in with a third party guy. It was popular with some and not so popular with others.”

Butland served one five-year term as the Sault’s MP in Ottawa.

“Every day when I would walk up to the House of Commons I would pinch myself and say ‘Steve Butland, how did you get here?’ Every day in the House of Commons is an adventure. It’s an event.”

“In the beginning it was overwhelming, because it’s the House of Commons and that’s where it’s at. You had to learn a lot. It’s a crash course on everything. If you’re not on your game, it’s a tough road. You’re on the job all the time. I’d start in the morning and sometimes I’d get home at eight o'clock at night.”

Butland said his duties as MP - both in Ottawa and meeting with constituents in the Sault - were demanding.

“You’re always in transit. Family suffers and you don’t see as much of them as you should have or could have if you were at home. People always knock politicians and I can understand in some ways but 90 per cent of the people that I met in Ottawa, from all parties, were good people who cared about their communities and cared about their country.”  

The hottest issue at the time was the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney’s signing of a free trade agreement with the U.S.

“Free Trade was on the table. Our party at the time was opposed to free trade. Free Trade was passed and in retrospect it probably was a good thing because the world requires trade, but at the time we were opposed to it very strongly,” Butland recalled.

Butland lost his seat as Sault MP to Liberal Ron Irwin in the 1993 federal election.

“I licked my wounds and came home and after a year I ran for mayor.”

He served as Sault mayor from 1996 to 2000.

“The local political world is very different from the federal political world. If I was in the grocery store someone would come up and say ‘Mr. Butland, what about this and what about that?’ You’re never off the job. Local politics is very personal. You’re on the spot every day and you meet a lot of people. If you help people, they don’t forget it and they're most appreciative.”

Butland lost to mayoral challenger John Rowswell in the 2000 municipal election.

“I’ll say this. I was successful many more times than I was unsuccessful and it’s much easier to deal with when you’re the winner. The first time I lost I had a hard time and I thought ‘this is tough,’” Butland said.

He made another return to politics in 2003 and served again as a Ward One city councillor for four terms from 2003 to 2018.

Butland lists his efforts to bring indoor soccer to the Northern Community Centre, the creation of the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre and green energy initiatives as the successful highlights of his years as mayor and city councillor.  

“I got involved in energy and that’s probably the thing I became known for. Wind power. Solar power. I thought we’ve got so much alternative energy, maybe we should take on a title so I had them declare us at council as the Alternative Energy Capital of North America.”

“We’re still proud that we’re a steel city but we’re more than a steel city. We’re much more diversified,” Butland said.

He said he also enjoyed working with former Sault mayor and CAO Joe Fratesi to secure funding for continued operation of the Huron Central Railway. 

Butland, now 82, is a married father of three and grandfather of seven, living a quiet life and enjoying some occasional travelling.

He retired as a schoolteacher in 1996 but still enjoys meeting up with some of his former students around town.

Butland would encourage anyone who's interested to get involved in politics.

“You can’t jump into the upper level of politics on your first blush but get started on the ground. Serve on a board. The political world is most gratifying. If you can make a change in people’s lives, there’s nothing better than that.” 

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Darren Taylor

About the Author: Darren Taylor

Darren Taylor is a news reporter and photographer in Sault Ste Marie. He regularly covers community events, political announcements and numerous board meetings. With a background in broadcast journalism, Darren has worked in the media since 1996.
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