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Helen Hughes, former Victoria councillor who devoted her life to helping others, dies at 89

“Social justice was really her thing. She really worked hard to ensure those that did not have a voice had a voice."

Helen Hughes, a former Victoria councillor who spent her life helping others, has died at age 89.

“Social justice was really her thing. She really worked hard to ensure those that did not have a voice had a voice. She worked hard to make sure those who needed help got help,” former Victoria mayor Alan Lowe said Sunday.

Hughes was outgoing, energetic, enthusiastic and determined. She loved socializing and had a ready smile. When she made her point around the council table, she spoke with conviction and clarity.

A dynamic organizer, Hughes was the originator of Souper Bowls of Hope for the Victoria Youth Empowerment Society, which has raised close to $1 million to help to provide programs and services for at-risk youth. Hughes organized and supported many causes but had a particular interest in helping young people.

She was born in Vancouver and moved to Saskatoon in 1950 when her father, an Anglican minister, accepted a position in that city. It’s where she earned a bachelor of science degree in home economics from the University of Saskatchewan, said a biography prepared by Royal Roads University, which gave her an honorary degree in 2012.

In 1954, she married Ted Hughes, a former Saskatchewan judge and B.C.’s first conflict-of-interest commissioner, who led several inquiries into matters such as child protection and sexual discrimination. They often worked together in the capital region to make the community a better place.

In 2009, they were given Leadership Victoria’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Ted Hughes was co-chair of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness at the time.

Helen Hughes said then: “A leader must have other people with whom to work towards a goal and Victorians have shown their concern and compassion. Being involved in a diversity of activities and causes makes life easier and better for all, and leads to a better quality of life for citizens of all ages in Greater Victoria.”

A representative for Cool Aid charity said the couple were involved with the organization both as generous donors and directly in fundraising for more than 15 years.

Ted Hughes died in 2020. Helen Hughes, who died Friday, had been living at Mount St. Mary Hospital.

While living in Saskatoon, Helen Hughes served on city council. She was involved in many organizations and worked to support the interests of urban Indigenous people.

Through the Consumer Association of Canada, Hughes advocated for improved labelling of food and was a key figure in setting up the Saskatoon Big Sister Association. She was among the founders of Saskatoon’s crisis intervention services, the University of Saskatchewan said in a statement when granting her an honorary doctor of laws.

She was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1982.

Hughes and Lowe were elected in 1990 to Victoria city council and both stepped down in 2008. They continued to be friends and socialized with their spouses and other friends.

“She did a lot of things behind the scenes and never wanted to take credit,” Lowe said.

In the days when city council would have lunch provided, Hughes would collect what wasn’t eaten and take it to young people or others in need in the city, he said.

Hughes illustrated her proactive attitude one time by announcing to council that she was fed up with a Vancouver property owner who had let his downtown Victoria building become rundown. When she was in Vancouver with her husband, she insisted he drive to the owner’s home. She knocked on the door and proceeded to lecture the man about the poor condition of the property.

Hughes was a guiding force behind the regular 60-minute downtown scrub-up dedicated to cleaning the city’s core and would don orange-coloured overalls for the job.

Victoria Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe said Hughes encouraged her to run for council. “She was such a role model for me and a cheerleader for me.”

The two became close friends. “She just had such a positive spirit.”

On their final visit, the two sat in Hughes’ room singing songs. “I was just so amazed how she remembered all the words and planned to return with song sheets. It was lovely.”

When Hughes turned 85, Thornton-Joe arranged to have a special card filled with messages from her friends.

Thornton-Joe has spoken with one of Hughes’ sons who lives out of town and said the family is making memorial plans but did not have details yet.

When the Hughes moved to Victoria in 1980, Helen Hughes worked in the ombudsman’s office for five years and served on the B.C. Council of Human Rights.

She sat on the Victoria library board and launched the Lifelong Learning Festival staged on International Literacy Day. She worked with medical health officers to organize the capital region action team on sexually exploited youth.

Helen Hughes and Ted Hughes each received an honorary degree from the University of Victoria in 2005. In 2009, Royal Roads presented the couple with the Chancellor’s Community Recognition Award.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com