By Dorothy Isted
Special to The Pioneer
The namesake of Athalmers provincial park is more than simply a former politician hes living proof that a high school dropout from Quebec can persevere to become an important figure in provincial politics.
James Chabot served as the Social Credit party MLA for the Columbia River Revelstoke riding for seven terms from 1963 to 1986, and held multiple cabinet roles including Minister of Labour and Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum. He was instrumental in spurring commercial development in Athalmer, getting train infrastructure built in Golden, and helping to develop industry
Despite reaching lofty heights, the hard-working politician never lost his common touch a trait his friends and family recall fondly nearly 30 years after he died of a heart attack at age 62, during his seventh term in office.
I know he escorted the Queen and rubbed shoulders with people in high positions on a daily basis, but he could talk to the farmer, people on welfare, people on disabilities, said Davene Dunn, a former employee of James in Golden, where he had worked for CP Rail. (Mrs. Dunn later served as his campaign manager.)
Rudyard Kipling said you, could walk with kings yet not lose the common touch, she added. He was kind, warm and was just that kind of person.
James known to his friends and family as Jim was born in Farnham, Quebec, and dropped out of school after Grade 9 to begin working. The family moved to Invermere, where Jim got a job as an agent for CP Rail.
He had next to no education but he was smart, said his wife, Grace, who met Jim as a result of a natural disaster.
In 1948, a huge flood in the Fraser Valley put 50,000 acres of land under water and forced the evacuation of 16,000 people. James volunteered to come out and help, as he was a telegraph operator and would go out to railway lines and keep an eye on both ends of the flood, and report back if they needed more people there.
In the course of those duties, he met his future wife Grace, who was then a teacher in her first job in North Bend, in the Fraser Canyon. There she taught Grades 3 through 6 in a two-roomed school house.
After the flood, James returned to Quebec, but five months later he was back. Grace said their dates consisted mostly of going for walks, as going out for dinner was not affordable back then.
James began his career in politics by serving on the District of Invermere council before entering provincial politics. The Social Credit Party was the only one that made sense then, said Grace. He took a leave of absence from CP Rail while serving his seven terms in office, as his party dominated B.C. politics for four decades.
Though lacking in formal education, James Chabot excelled at his job, said Mrs. Dunn. Hansard reports, which record the speeches in the legislature, showed that James could stand up against any of them in his speaking and arguments, she said. Whenever there were town hall meetings, she recalls sitting on the edge of her chair because he was such a charismatic speaker.
He would go to great lengths to help advance our area, she said. He played a large part in securing the coal car repair facility at the rail yards in Golden, and Mrs. Dunn said she recalls people all up and down the valley loved Jim.
He was a tireless advocate for the little man, she said, and she saw it in action during a trailer court visit on the campaign trail.
Jim got there, and my plan went down the tube, because one of the people who had campaigned for him for years was sick in the hospital and Jim dropped everything and went to visit him, she said.
Making time for family
Jim was away from his Columbia Valley home a lot, but was able to raise a family of six kids with Grace,
described as a strong woman, very warm and kind, by Mrs. Dunn.
She totally anchored Jim and supported him, she said. She stayed in the background encouraging him, always sat at the back of the room talking to the constituents.
Grace was born in 1927 in Kenville, Manitoba, and grew up amongst seven siblings, as her mother had been widowed twice before marrying a third time. Her father was a good hunter and provided for those who couldnt hunt for themselves.
When she was in Grade 4, her family moved to Chilliwack, where her dad farmed, logged and built roads. Grace wanted to be a teacher, and graduated at age 18 after completing Grade 13. After one year of normal school and two more summers of schooling, she was accredited as a school teacher.
Life in the valley suited her and Jim well, said Mrs. Dunn.
It was a time when they knew everybody in the valley, she recalled. People identified with them. They made conversation easily. She was very intelligent and sensitive to the needs of others. Both were always so grateful and humble about any help they got in campaigns or otherwise.
Grace had such strength, she handled the family so well, added Mrs. Dunn. You could tell they had such love and respect for each other. Jim loved that life, theres no doubt, and Im sure the pressures were fantastic but he never had
much time to enjoy it.
James son Allan recalls when he was a teen, he and his siblings used to take turns going to Victoria and spending time with their dad. It was a real treat for a kid from a small town to stay at the Empress Hotel, watch how the legislature worked and go out for supper. Sometimes the restaurant owner would know whom he was serving and insist Jim did not have to pay for the meal.
He hated being put in that position, said Allan. After we left, hed say were never going back there.
Grace recalls a businessman who tried to offer Jim money. Jims response was that he didnt take bribes. The man said, Oh, this money isnt for you. Its for your children. Jim replied, My children dont take bribes either.
Later, when James was ready to retire after the sixth term, a party official in Victoria told him the riding would likely go to the NDP if he did not run.
We were going to go travelling and were really looking forward to it, said Grace. We turned around and went back to town and he said okay hed run one more time. I probably could have talked him out of it but I didnt know I needed to.
A swamp becomes a park
While raising her family in the valley, Grace continued to substitute teach. She, Jim and the family spent time at the beach at what is now James Chabot Provincial Park. But in those days, a drive through a swamp was required to reach a swimmer-friendly gravel bar located further out.
He managed to get unwanted clean fill dumped there, said Grace.
In the 1980s, the District of Invermere wanted to diversify the local economy and have more high profile tourism development. James aided in the provinces efforts to assemble land in Athalmer around what became the Lakeside Inn and Pointe of View condominiums.
Dad worked on that for a good number of years, said Allan. A&W and other things were built, and that type of density contributes to the community in taxes.
The land, then called Athalmer Beach Park, was made in a provincial park in the 1960s. After James death, the District of Invermere made the request to rename the park in recognition of Mr. Chabots efforts in building the park and serving the constituents of his riding.
When contacted, the Ministry of Environment advised that naming a park after a person is uncommon. But the ministry recognized that James was instrumental in securing funding to improve the area and organizing some of the work, in the 1960s as an employee of CP Rail. The 14-hectare provincial park was re-named in 1979.
The next time youre down at Jims beach
enjoying the amenities, take a moment to remember the
extraordinary politician and his school teacher wife who made it happen.