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Mayor-elect Geoff Orr bringing an engineer’s mind to politics in North Saanich

They grew up together in the same Calgary neighbourhood. Geoff Orr and Bob Hunter lived three doors apart. Stuart O’Connor was a couple of blocks away. There was a basketball hoop, a ball, hours spent together on the makeshift court.
North Saanich mayor-elect Geoff Orr: Closer ties with First Nations "a real important [goal] for me."

They grew up together in the same Calgary neighbourhood. Geoff Orr and Bob Hunter lived three doors apart. Stuart O’Connor was a couple of blocks away.

There was a basketball hoop, a ball, hours spent together on the makeshift court.

Forty-five years later, O’Connor is the only one left in Calgary. Hunter lives in Dundas, Ont., and Orr is in North Saanich, where last week he was elected mayor for the first time.

But despite distance and the passage of time, the three childhood pals are still as close as ever. Each year, they get together with a group of friends somewhere in Canada, or occasionally outside the country, to play golf and reconnect.

It’s such an important part of Orr’s life that he took a break from campaigning last month to attend the 36th annual gathering in Nanoose.

“This group was single at the start, and then families and kids,” Orr said. “We have people all over the place now. Houston, Calgary, Vancouver, Ontario, and every year we’ve gotten together to do different things.

“That’s just a connection back to a real solid group of people that are doing different things professionally, but there’s a strong bond there.”

Hunter and O’Connor say the fact that Orr has maintained those connections for so many years says a lot about the new mayor of North Saanich.

“He values traditional, long-lasting friendship,” Hunter said.

“He is a decent guy and those kind of people, they don’t come along every day,” O’Connor said. “So, if you can develop a friendship with someone like that, you maintain it at all costs.

“My point really for you guys is you guys are lucky to have him out there on the West Coast.”

Orr, who has been living in North Saanich since 2002, earned a decisive victory in the mayoral race last week.

After topping the polls as councillor in 2014, he beat Dorothy Hartshorne 2,592 votes to 1,415 and will replace Mayor Alice Finall, who is stepping down after three consecutive terms.

Finall described Orr as a “diligent” member of an effective council and believes his community profile likely helped him against Hartshorne, who last served on council in 2005.

Finall said it’s hard to know how Orr will fare in the top job. “Having served as both a councillor and a mayor … it is a very different role,” she said.

Coun. Murray Weisenberger, who endorsed Orr for mayor, has no doubt that he will succeed. “I think it’s a good group, and because of his collaborative nature, he’ll do just great,” he said.

Orr, 57, brings considerable business and community leadership experience to the job.

He graduated from the University of B.C. with a degree in mechanical engineering before getting into business with his brother, who was starting a software firm with a couple of partners.

Orr became a part-owner and stayed with the firm for the better part of 15 years until it was sold.

“That’s where I sort of cut my teeth in terms of all things business,” he said.

The job took him and his family to Perth, Australia, for three years before they returned to Canada, settling in North Saanich.

Orr led the local residents’ association for eight years, coached hockey and served on the executive of Peninsula Minor Hockey. He still plays with the same group of old-timers every Tuesday morning and golfs with another group of regulars on Mondays.

He took up the saxophone late in life in what, he jokes, might have been a bit of a mid-life crisis. “I wouldn’t say I ‘play’ the sax, but I have an interest in it,” he said.

His three children — two boys and a girl — went through Deep Cove Elementary, North Saanich Middle School and Parkland Secondary.

All three helped out with his election campaign along with his wife, Susan, and Orr’s brother, sister and parents.

“I was just so thankful to have the whole family and then extended friends just take part in this whole thing,” he said. “That’s the most rewarding thing of this whole exercise.”

Orr hopes to bring that same focus on strong relationships to council.

One of his main goals over the next four years is to establish closer ties between North Saanich and the Pauquachin and Tseycum First Nations.

“That’s a real important one for me,” he said.

He also wants to see council step up the fight against climate change, provide more affordable-housing options for low- and middle-income people, and improve communication with the district’s residents.

John Kafka, who heads the North Saanich Residents Association, expects Orr will employ the same respectful, thoughtful style that was evident during his time with the association.

“I don’t think you’ll probably find him being very positional on items,” he said. “He’s very sort of analytical in his approach. He deliberates extensively.”

Hunter, who has known Orr since they were 12 and 13, makes a similar point.

“I don’t think he’s like a Democrat or Republican or a Conservative or a Liberal,” he said.

“He thinks like an engineer. If there’s a problem ahead, let’s work our way through it and figure out how to solve the problem.”

He’s definitely not your typical politician, O’Connor said of his longtime friend. “He’s in politics for the right reasons. That’s why I say you guys are lucky to have him out there.

“He really will make the right call for the right reasons.”