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Fiona From the Mayor’s Chair

Mayor Brian Button (far right) and councillors walk through East End to check out the damage on Sept. 27, 2022. — © René J. Roy / Wreckhouse Press Inc.

By Jaymie White Local Journalism Initiative Reporter — with files from René Roy

PORT AUX BASQUES — Before this current term, Brian Button served as mayor for the town before, but in the last two years, his experiences have been completely different than his first term, including two major weather events, a worldwide pandemic, and post-COVID Come Home Year celebration. “I had just gotten sworn in the office in October (2021), and then in November we had the washouts where we had the rain event and it cut us off from the rest of the province, and there were multiple issues around that. So we started off with a little bit of a bang to get started and we mustered through that and took care of that,” said Button. “My predecessor (John Spencer) was dealing with COVID but we were still dealing with the COVID as well, and we had come in, we still weren’t past the COVID protocols, the provincial protocols, so we were still dealing with COVID and we had the floods. So it was kind of getting re-baptized by fire, in with a bang, and so it started off with saying, ‘wow, what a good time to come back and to get involved,’ and after that it settled. We said, ‘well, you got through that and then you’re just trying to deal with the rest of the things that go with being mayor’.” After COVID and the floods, Come Home Year was a nice change of pace, something positive that the town could focus on. “We got past the floods and then we did the summer (2022) event where finally, I guess, as Come Home Years got cancelled for COVID reasons and then we finally got to have a Come Home Year, so it was a bit of a celebration and we tried to bring people back and get used to being around groups again somewhat,” said Button. “We found this Come Home Year was different, different in the fact that people were finally getting home and being able to travel, but yet still a little bit cautious because of the old COVID thing.” Despite lingering wariness surrounding the pandemic, the event turned out to be a positive one. “We got lucky. It was a good night and you might not have noticed it last time, because the one that was prepared on the last Come Home Years got cancelled due to the rain and stuff, and it ended up in the arena,” said Button. “So that was a good news side of it. We mustered up and tried to just get everybody coming together again, so we enjoyed that.” The celebration was somewhat short lived. A little over a month later, Hurricane Fiona struck the Southwest Coast. “We finished Come Home Year in the first week of August, got time to settle back, got everybody finishing up their summer events and things like that, and then we went into September. The hurricane season was starting and then we got word that we had a hurricane that was heading towards us and stuff like that. We spent a full week just talking to provincial emergency centers, trying to find out the path and what the storm entailed and right to the lead up, right up to it, like everything,” said Button. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say we prepare always for the worst. Right up until the day before, you’re preparing for that, but then on the night before, the story of everything went on and then you’re preparing for even that much more. We’ve mustered through storms before and we’ll see some losses on some things, maybe stages, wharves, alarms, those type things and that, but nothing to the magnitude of what we have faced.” This past year has been unlike anything Button could have imagined. “This has been probably, not only as being mayor of the town, this has been probably the most challenging year of my life, probably for fellow councillors as well. But for myself, speaking for myself, there’s been nothing in my life that has posed a challenge the way that this has in the last year, because it has changed everything. It’s changed my everyday activity. It’s changed my home life. It has changed me mentally. It has changed me in so many ways that when I say me, it’s me that it has changed and it’s residents of the community have been impacted,” said Button. “So I know that when I speak about it and I talk about it to media sources or whatever, I know what I’m saying is coming from deep inside because I can anticipate when they ask me how the community is doing, I’ve only got to reach in my own soul and know the way I’m feeling.” Hurricane Fiona impacted more than homes and property. “I’ve always said, and you’ve watched a lot of the live updates back in the day when everything was going on, and I’ve always said in those things, I talked about protecting your mental health, and I know personally with myself, it’s been a struggle at times with trying to deal with the aftermath of everything that went on,” admitted Button. “People see we deal with the residential piece of it, which was the most important piece, so you deal with that as the priority, but there’s multiple things that have been involved in this and it’s taken the time, countless hours of every day. For all of us who signed up to do this job, no matter which town you’re from, this is not your full time job. You need to have a job to have income, so you do this for one of two reasons. You either love your community, to get involved in it, or you love the challenges that it holds and those type things, but it’s not what brings you income. So you’re trying to balance your work life, this life, and it was always generally easy to do that, not easy, but it was always able to be balanced, and now it’s been that it’s hard to balance work because now your eight hour day is no longer eight hour day. It’s trying to catch up in the nighttime. Your family members, your wife, and stuff has gone to bed, and you’re still sitting up and you’re still trying to catch up from what’s going on in all aspects of everything, so it’s been difficult.” Maintaining a regular schedule was impossible in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Fiona. “As mayor, I would always try to know your Monday to Friday. I will always try to take a couple hours a day. You come down to town hall, some days might be a couple of hours that you came down. Some days might even been an hour that you came in. You always came down to see what was happening, if there were things in the office that day, if needed,” said Button. “And then there’s meetings, so you throw in your regular council meetings, or you’ve got to meet with this group that’s coming to town or whatever, which is another hour, but that’s not constant. That’s not every day. So as a mayor in this community, you might have the run of a week. You might have an average of maybe three meetings a week that might be on the go and your daily activity that you’re checking in out of town. As mayor, you’re here more than any of the councillors because you’re involved with everything from media to everything else, signing cheques, and you’re part of the administrative part of it, but when Fiona came, it became a whole… it was lucky because I was able in a position where my work is a seasonal type work. I was here in the days in the beginning, right up until January. It was seven days a week.” Button can’t precisely how much extra work stemmed from the hurricane and its aftermath. “There were days during Fiona where it wasn’t an eight hour day, it was 10 to 12 hour days. That was going on every single day. You were at it, and then you would go home, eat your supper late, and then you would do live updates, and it was go to sleep and back down here sitting on the end of that table again, and that went on until January,” said Button. “You tried to cut it down to making sure that it would only be five days a week, and that it continued right till the day that I went back to work again. And now it’s trying to… like today, I came here this morning at 8:30, and I got to work today at 4:00 until 4:00 tomorrow. So it’s just that being mayor, you always had activities. You always had the things that were ongoing in your town, whether it was someone from the residential piece that someone needed, or someone wanted to come to see you, or you were dealing with issues, or you were dealing with applications, or you were dealing with municipal capital work stuff, whatever. You always had that piece that you dealt with. When Fiona came, it’s just come with a big beast of its own. It’s like, as mayor for the past year, even though you deal with some of this stuff and you’re trying to fit in there, it’s been like Fiona has been taking up everything from 75 per cent to 80 per cent of your time, and sometimes the Fiona piece rides into some of the other stuff because you’re trying to intertwine some of it. It’s crazy.” Even though he was spending countless extra hours in the office, Button deliberately took the time to ensure live updates were continuously provided to residents. “If I’m making posts every day and you got these big, long-winded posts, they would come to the point where people might read them the first couple of times, then go, ‘oh, jeez, you got another big thing on there,’ and then it just becomes one of these things they’re not paying attention to, but people would tend to sit back and listen to that stuff. I felt it was more personable. It was more of giving what was happening, giving as much of the updates, as much as the information of what I could give them,” said Button. “It took down the volume of messages that I was getting big time. If I weren’t doing updates, I would be getting messages that I couldn’t tend hands to it. There’s no way I could answer everybody, but if I did a live update, it seemed like that petered off a bit, even though there were still a lot there, and there were still a lot of people I could not get back to. I think people appreciated it. I think people felt that it was more they could see and hear and they could sit back, and the minute I didn’t do one, I would get messages from people, ‘you haven’t done a live out there’. People were expecting it, and then I got a following into it, which was good for me because it was great for getting the messages out.” In February 2023, Button dialed back on the number of live Facebook updates. “I didn’t do them so often. I might have done one a week and might have went every two weeks. If there was something that came up that needed to get out, I would do one, but other than that, I didn’t see the purpose.” Being at the forefront of the Fiona efforts, serving as the face of the Town and the first contact with media, government, and non-profit organizations, definitely took its toll. “I’ve had to reach out and sit and talk with people. It’s weighed and tolled on me about for ten months. I heard everybody’s story. I’ve carried everybody’s story. And I take things a little bit… not personal, is not the right word. I don’t take when people get mad or anything like that personal. I take the fact of trying to help a little bit personal. It’s changed my life,” said Button. “I had Mayor Danny Breen in St. John’s talk to me about being mayor and he’s, you know, probably got it worse than I have it for responsibility. Obviously Mayor Breen’s got a larger responsibility and he’s in a different type of position than I am, but in a small community, you know everybody, you’re accessible to everybody, everybody knows what you know.” Trying to hold in all the emotions that come with living through something so traumatic as a hurricane doesn’t work for Button. “It’s affected me from a mental health aspect where you feel that you’re strong, and you feel that you can handle it all, but somewhere along the way, you’ve got to talk some of this stuff out, because we lost a lot of homes. We lost a life, saw a lot of ups and downs in that. It hasn’t all been rosy,” said Button. “Every time you sit around this table, whether it’s a resident that’s been upset about an issue or whether it’s been you’re on a call with the province or the federal government or whoever, and it’s been a confrontation where it’s been an argument, we’re all trying to meet the ultimate goal, but every call hasn’t been rosy, and you go home with that. I used to always say I was a good sleeper. I always sleep good at night. I always go to bed and get a good night’s sleep, ready to start the day. I couldn’t tell you the last time I have had a good night’s sleep because your mind is always in gear of thinking about your work, your home life, what’s going on at the town, what’s happening in this place.” To this day Button is still getting calls from residents dealing struggling with the aftermath of Fiona. “I just got off the phone with a resident that is not making any headway with what they’re doing, and my job as mayor and as the council that sits around the table is to advocate on behalf of the people here. I don’t have and we don’t have the resources to take care of everything that happened in Fiona, not even close. Only thing I can do is to continue to advocate and if it doesn’t happen, I’ve had a lot of positive stuff and a lot of support from the community, and I really appreciate that, because if it wasn’t for the community support, I don’t think anybody could probably keep going in this job and you’d be questioning yourself every day, but there’s always that other piece where someone is really attacking you and saying you got to get this done, and one of the worst statements that I ever have and hear from people is, ‘well, you don’t know what it’s like if you was in my shoes’, and that statement goes right over me just because I have been in your shoes for the last ten months, of trying to do for twelve months almost now.” There are still days where everything becomes too overwhelming. “There’s days I sit and I break down about it because I feel that my hands are tied. I can’t help people, and then there are other days I just say that you’re trying your best and you’re trying to muster through it,” said Button. “For all the years that I’ve sat and served here to do things in the community, there’s been nothing compared to the last two years. Nothing. And the last year has been nothing compared to anything in my life. Nothing.” Sometimes the conversations that would be running rampant were difficult for Button to listen to, especially online. “I took about a week, two weeks that I didn’t even open it (social media) and I didn’t even go and look because there’s a lot of times I read the negativity that people put on there — and everybody knows all the answers to everything — and I’m not faulting them. I’m not upset with them or anything like that, but there are times I read things and I know it’s not right and I’m not going to comment on it. I know there’s… sometimes there’s things put on there because it’s a thrown debate and they want to bait you in to talk about it, but Fiona has been personal too. There’s a lot of personal stuff that comes too. It’s people’s lives, and there’s things that I see that gets written up on that and I know it’s totally wrong what they’re saying because they’re not here,” said Button. “That’s absolutely false what you’re saying, and I’m not going to get in a debate with them because I can’t win. I will not win by getting into a debate because everything else will get thrown in there, and so I read it and it just frustrates me and I’ve got to suck it up and walk away from it.” The past year has definitely been a huge learning experience. “I guess in the last year, with all the positives, you see all this negatives and it’ll eat away at you. It’ll tear you down. It’ll bring you down. It’ll make you question why you’re doing what you’re doing. I play hockey. I play floor hockey. I did none of it last year. The hockey bay got brought from the garage to the bottom of my basement and it went from the bottom of my basement back to the garage attic. It never saw the boys or put the skates on. I was too tired,” said Button. “At the end of the week, to do it, I just couldn’t do it and risk that I would hurt myself. It’s not easy after seeing what we just went through. Stuff can happen. Shit does happen, and when you’re going to have people that are going to come in here and the only job that anybody sitting around here, whether it’s you, me or anybody gets it is that you’re trying to help out, you’re trying to help, you’re elected, it’s almost like just a committee you’re trying to help and who’s going to want to take it and take all the abuse, take all what’s thrown at you? One day you’re top of the world, next day you’re an S.O.B. and you’ve got to roll with the punches. That’s part of being in the political world, but the difference between a politician and a person who signs up for council is that they’re just your neighbour and this is not their paid position. They’re doing it because someone’s got to run a community, and I just want the people who are probably going to fall in here in the future down the road, this town cannot run without having good people. We’ve got great people that are elected and are trying their best and there will be future people, will be great people that will put their names in and will try and come and do their best, but we can’t always get out there and bring people down to the lowest because no one’s trying to hurt anybody. You’re forced to make decisions and they’re not always popular, but you’re forced to make them. Somebody’s got to make them.”

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