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New Port McNeill mayor used hockey cards to campaign

James Furney replaces Gaby Wickstrom

Handing out faux hockey cards with his photo paid off for James Furney — son of longtime Port McNeil mayor Gerry Furney — who toppled high-profile incumbent mayor Gaby Wickstrom during Saturday’s municipal elections.

James Furney, who has a business called Furney Distributing and served as a Mount Waddington Regional District director, pulled in 573 votes, beating Wickstrom’s 404.

The cards showed Furney, 55, in hockey gear, describing him as a “utility” player who “shoots straight” and citing penalties including “poor dresser.”

“People just love them,” Furney said, adding some even asked for signatures.

Port McNeill on northeastern Vancouver Island is small — with a population of just 2,356 last year — but is known for its outsize influence in B.C.

The late Gerry Furney, who sat on council for 46 years and was mayor for 39 until retiring in 2014, was influential at the provincial level, supporting the resource sector and advocating for economic opportunities on the north Island.

More recently, Wickstrom has called for solutions as emergency health-care facilities on the north Island — including in Port McNeill — implemented repeated short-term closures due to lack of staff.

Wickstrom created a coalition with the mayors of Clearwater and Fort St. John to lobby for improvements to medical care in small communities.

“We were able to go to the table and put quite a lot of pressure on the province to deal with some of these issues,” Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell said this week.

Wickstrom’s biggest strength was “being an incredible community advocate. I mean, her voice was heard across the province,” he said. “She was a tenacious leader and that’s a really hard thing to find these days.”

Just last month, Wickstrom was elected as a director-at-large for the UBCM — nominated by none other than James Furney, who said if he wasn’t elected, he wanted to see Wickstrom in the UBCM.

Furney, 55, said he, too, is concerned about medical care and wants to see the north Island have more of a voice in hiring health-care workers in the community.

When it comes to local issues, Furney is unhappy about Port McNeill’s new zoning plan, saying it wasn’t needed because the town is so small and that more community consultation should have been carried out. The zoning plan sparked several meetings before it was eventually approved.

Wickstrom initially served six years as a councillor and was then defeated by Shirley Ackland in a race for mayor. In 2018, Wickstrom ran against Ackland again and won with 598 votes. Ackland ran in Langford in the recent election, failing to win a seat.

Wickstrom said council’s accomplishments in the past four years include updating the Official Community Plan after 26 years, approving the zoning plan, and upgrading the swimming pool, sidewalks and fire hall.

“If I look back on the last four years, I believe my job as mayor was to lead this community through some extraordinary hardships and I believe I did that very well.”

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