HOW TO BUILD A COMMUNITY
DEBRA BUTTON HAS A GIFT FOR LEADERSHIP
When Debra Button talks to elementary school classes, she asks the kids to imagine the school’s playground equipment has been removed. She then says a meeting will be held the next day in the gym, but only the boys will be allowed to choose new equipment. The girls are always in an uproar over the scenario.
“If you don’t run,” Button tells them, “if you don’t think, when you get older, the boys are going to pick the playground equipment. We need to make sure that we’re there giving our voice.”
Button likes to share what she’s learned during her two-decade-long career in politics. She speaks frequently in classrooms, from ages seven to 15, about civic governance. She also speaks on behalf of municipalities across the province.
In February, she took the stage at Saskatoon’s TCU Place to address delegates at the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA) convention. She’s the association’s first female president in its 110-year history.
Her rousing and enthusiastic oration on community building and working for the people of Saskatchewan was not a political move. It was authentic. With Button, what you see is what you get; a more honest, virtuous leader is hard to find.
When Button decided to enter city politics in Weyburn in 1996, she had never spoke in public.
To prepare, she practised her speech every Sunday for seven months in an old auditorium. And, every Sunday, her husband Greg would give her feedback while their two-year-old son Ryley ran around and played.
“It was probably one of the best things that I did for myself. I was (comfortable) that night, standing in front of a room full of people and you’re not sure what the questions are going to be,” she said.
Eleven people ran for the six seats. Button, 27 at the time, just wanted a seat; she ended up topping the polls.
“We worked really hard to get that and I was quite proud of that.”
She sat for two terms as a councillor, then ran for mayor of Weyburn in 2003 but was defeated. She won the 2006 election handily (and is now in her third term).
She wouldn’t have gone into politics at all if it weren’t for encouragement from her friend Gail Mehler, who saw Button’s potential.
“She has always been a really good, genuine person. She tells it how it is but she’s still got that old soul about her. I don’t know where her wisdom comes from. She knows how to get things done and she’s really good with people,” said Mehler, who has helped with all of Button’s campaigns.
SUMA was in need of a new president in 2013. Regina’s mayor, Michael Fougere, was convinced Button would be the perfect woman for the job. She had impressed him by the way she dealt with flooding in Weyburn and spoke on behalf of her community (the city issued a state of emergency in June, 2011).
“She handled herself with remarkable clarity and really took charge of the situation. As a leader, she demonstrated her skills right there,” Fougere said.
Those leadership skills are what made him encourage her to run for SUMA.
“She’s definitely a welcome addition, and brings a voice of clarity and strength to the position.”
Fougere said that Button has become a role model for other women — something Mehler agrees with.
“She gave me something to believe in when I thought all politicians were corrupt. She’s one of the few people that, when it really matters and she tells people that she loves Saskatchewan, I believe it. She’s not doing it because she’s a politician.”
Alison Hamilton, Mehler’s daughter, said Button’s appointment as SUMA’s first female president gave her hope — for her own career and for gender equality.
“I think the world is still lacking. When I see (Button) step up in nontraditional female roles, it really does renew my spirit.
“It’s given me that confidence to think there’s roles in my career that I didn’t really think I could strive for but now I think I can,” said Hamilton, a change manager for SaskEnergy who travels to offices around the province to help employees with organizational changes.
“A lot of the roles at SaskEnergy are very technical and fairly maledominated. So when you’re dealing with a bunch of other males in that kind of environment, you need to have that self-confidence and know your worth and that you’re worth being listened to.”
As SUMA’s president, Button made headlines last month when she defended the current revenue sharing policy with the province and called for an improvement to northern and southeastern roads in Saskatchewan.
The other major issues on her plate are diverse — everything from keeping up with infrastructure costs to implementing a multi-material recycling program.
“Recycling is something Saskatchewan is lagging behind on across the country. We need to get moving on it and start to be responsible to the environment,” she said.
Button also represents Saskatchewan at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, where rail safety is a big topic.
Once a year, she goes on the “SUMA roadshow” to meet with partners across the province at regional meetings. In getting to know the people who run the communities, she can say with confidence that no one wants to raise taxes or do something that’s not in a town’s best interests. And it’s a sentiment she knows she must return.
“I know people who run the grader in their small village. They do it for free because they love their community. To give them anything less than my whole heart wouldn’t be fair when they’re working for next to nothing.”
It would be hard to find anyone who loves their job as much as Button, but it’s still her second love. First is her family. She and her husband Greg have four children, Ryley (19), Kyla (12), Dakota (10) and Annie (5). All were adopted; they waited seven years before they were able to bring home Ryley. The others came to them via Social Services.
After Button lost the mayoral race in 2003, she and Greg decided to become foster parents.
“Everyone said, ‘You can’t do this, Debra.’ My sister said, ‘You can’t give away a kitten. How are you going to let kids leave?’ She’s kind of right.”
They fostered several different children and teens over the years, one of whom got married last summer.
“My husband was fighting tears watching her walk down the aisle,” Button said.
A brother and sister would change their lives forever though. Kyla and Dakota were only meant to stay with the family for a few months. Then they were going to be sent to separate homes. The couple decided to adopt them, not wanting the siblings split up.
Meanwhile, Button won the next election and became mayor of Weyburn in 2006.
Then, a call came from the hospital. A foster home was needed for a baby for 30 days.
“I said, ‘You get her out of my house in 30 days or after that, you won’t get her back,’” Button laughed. Annie turns six in May.
“She is the most independent little girl I’ve ever met. We’ve got an age gap of 20 to six. The kids at daycare one day said, “Annie! Your grandma is here!’ ” Button laughed again.
Button’s playground equipment analogy is a comparison everyone can understand. She wants to see more women in politics and making decisions for the broader populace.
“It’s that simple. You need to be in the gym. More and more, I think women are starting to get into the gym, but we’re not even close to meeting the United Nations standards (on gender equality for women).”
She was part of a five-year gender diversity and local economic program in Ukraine, funded by the former Canadian International Development Agency. She and other delegates travelled to Ukraine to mentor and give women tools to help them enter business and politics.
Button gave a talk titled Keeping Your Head Above Water as a Woman in Politics — referring to the 2011 Weyburn flood.
One woman in the crowd stood up and said that although they fundraise (through bake sales) to help repair aircraft carriers and buy helmets and bulletproof vests, every day they also bury another dead body.
“I just sat there thinking, ‘My flood story is nothing.’ How many cakes do you have to bake to repair an aircraft carrier?”
I know people who run the grader in their small village. They do it for free because they love their community. To give them anything less than my whole heart wouldn’t be fair when they’re working for next to nothing.
An older man in the crowd gave a patriarchal speech, questioning the need for women in politics and business while affirming their place was in the kitchen taking care of their men.
“After I quit laughing, I thought maybe this is the stuff my grandma heard. It made me realize: Whose shoulders am I standing on?”
She would like to see more women in politics but thinks the negative aspect (the bickering and personal attacks) is dissuading.
“It turns a lot of women off and they don’t see that they can come and really make huge impacts. (Women) bring a different perspective and you get a better outcome.”
There are downsides to being in the public eye.
Last year, someone made a mock Twitter account, complete with a picture of Button that had been defaced.
It’s a hateful page with just a few posts, all attacking Button’s physical appearance or her adopted children. When she saw the posts, it hurt her deeply.
“When my husband got up in the morning, I had hardly slept and had actually written my letter of resignation. I said if (my job) ever started to affect my kids, that’s when the line was crossed.”
She slept on it and decided not to resign, thinking instead about how to turn the experience around.
Shortly after, a Weyburn restaurant was investigated for alleged abuses of the temporary foreign worker program. Two employees claimed they were fired and replaced by temporary workers from outside Canada. The entire program was evaluated and new rules for hiring workers implemented.
Button said it was a difficult time in her city.
“There was some awful things being said on social media. One of the comments on Facebook said: ‘Go home, preferably in a pine box.’
“How do you get up every morning and feel that that’s OK to say to anybody?”
She was asked to attend staff meetings at several businesses that employed temporary foreign workers. She addressed bullying in the community by sharing her Twitter experience.
She also uses the Twitter example when she talks about the effects of social media in Grade 2 classrooms.
“How is it that a (grown) woman can be brought down to her knees? And I’m a fairly confident woman. How would I expect my 12-year-old (to deal with it?).”
When Button’s dad died four years ago, she told Greg she had lost her biggest cheerleader.
“No, you didn’t. I’m sitting right here,” said Greg, the husband who has supported all of her political moves, and the many days she spends on the road.
Her absence has given her kids independence — they all learned to pack their own lunches at an early age. More importantly though, is the role model they have in Button.
“My boys and my daughters both see a working mom who works for her passion, who believes in what she’s doing,” she said.
When Button doubts herself or feels like a bad mom for missing a school event, she reflects on the powerful lesson she’s teaching them.
“I hope my boys support their wives just as well as they see me being supported, and my girls aren’t afraid to step outside the society norm.”
I hope my boys support their wives just as well as they see me being supported, and my girls aren’t afraid to step outside the society norm.