The Civic Leadership of Charlayne Thornton-Joe
Updated: Mar 7
On a cold, snowy night in 2004, Victoria city councilor Charlayne Thornton-Joe found herself questioning where the city’s homeless could go for shelter. Her husband, who was a bus driver at the time, had come home with distressing news. He said his night had been difficult because it was so cold.
“people were on his bus just to keep warm”.
Thornton-Joe’s husband felt bad telling them this was his last run and people would have to get off the bus. Thornton-Joe asked her husband where they would go, and he didn’t know. For Thornton-Joe, who is dedicated to caring for people in her community, this was a horrible and upsetting thought. She needed to take action and ensure that these people were going to be safe. Like many leaders, Thornton-Joe wanted to help people; ultimately, she was instrumental in establishing a shelter. This is how she did it.
Driven by a sense of urgency, Thornton-Joe immediately began sending out emails. To her surprise and despite the late hour, she immediately received a response from Constable Rick Anthony. From him, she learned that, at the time, there was only one shelter, which was always full. They began brainstorming what would be needed to open another shelter. Thornton-Joe and Anthony thought of using Silver Threads, an activity center which was closed for the season. When morning arrived, they contacted the mayor who supported their idea, although questions remained about how they were going to pay for it.
Undeterred, Thornton-Joe forged ahead. They met with the fire department who made recommendations to make the activity center safe and accessible for homeless people. Then, Thornton-Joe reached out to a homeless woman she knew, who was well connected within the community. Word spread quickly. By nightfall, the shelter was open.
To financially support the initiative, Thornton-Joe also offered to do fundraising. But, Thornton-Joe says, after the story “hit the front page of the paper … the province stepped in and paid for it and has continued since 2004.” Today the initiative is known as the Extreme Weather Protocol. It became a provincial program which assists people experiencing homelessness when temperatures drop.
Thornton-Joe believes that helping people is an important aspect of being in a community and is part of her advice for aspiring leaders:
“We can all do small little things to make a difference in our world.”
She adds that, “community, can be defined [in] different ways, whether it’s broader Greater Victoria, … whether it’s the Chinese community, whether it’s a group of women friends that I
have.” Everyone has different communities that they are part of and can assist. Thornton-Joe believes that everyone has the capacity to be a leader, provided that the small things they do are “good for the community or good for someone else,” although sometimes taking the first step can be scary.
For Thornton-Joe, one of these daunting acts was running for office. She describes how several people asked her if she would consider participating in an upcoming election. For Thornton-Joe, taking this step was risky: “it was the scariest thing I ever did”. Taking this action paid off, however. Nineteen years later, Thornton-Joe is still on city council.
Thornton-Joe’s childhood and youth prepared her for this role. Born and raised in Victoria, Thornton-Joe was part of the Chinese community. Every autumn, her family attended the Lantern Festival, where she saw members of her community volunteering. “I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by fabulous role models,” says Thornton-Joe, “that made me want to learn more and do more and encouraged me.” She also loved music and performed at several functions with her siblings. Thornton-Joe loved extra-curricular activities. She was involved with student council and the school newspaper.
At this time, Thornton-Joe is not sure about the future of her involvement with the city council, but she hopes to write a book with her dad’s stories of growing up in Victoria’s Chinatown. Thornton-Joe would also like to continue enhancing the Chinese community and is exploring the possibility of opening a museum in Chinatown someday.
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