– Words by Angela Cowan Photography by Lia Crowe
For as far back as she can remember, Sonia Furstenau has had a deep love of the West Coast and an irrepressible drive to make the world a more fair and just place, and both have been guiding stars that have led her to a life of hard work, incredible connectedness and a lot of love.
Though born and raised in Edmonton, Sonia’s family tree has expansive roots on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.
Her great-grandfather, Gerald Payne, was one of the original settlers on Saturna Island in the 1890s, and built a house—which is still standing—on what is now Payne Road.
“He had four children, one of whom was my grandmother,” says Sonia. “She met my grandfather, who also grew up in Victoria. They got married, became teachers and eventually settled in Comox, and that’s where my mom was born.”
Through childhood, Sonia spent practically every summer either in Campbell River with her grandmother, or later at Ravenhill Herb Farm in Saanich with her aunt.
“I always dreaded the end of summer,” she says. “It always felt like I was leaving home when I went back to Edmonton. I felt like I belonged here.”
After graduation, Sonia took herself out into the world and travelled for a year, and when she came back, she realized she didn’t want to spend any more time away from her heart’s home.
“I packed up my little car and found a new place to rent in James Bay, and I started a new life here,” she says.
At 21, Sonia entered UVic where she would attain bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, as well as an education degree. Sonia entered the teaching field while continuing to be involved with a wide variety of non-profit organizations, including Results Canada, Citizens’ Climate Lobby and Oikocredit, an international microcredit organization.
When she moved to the community of Shawnigan Lake in 2011 to teach, she discovered the provincial government was in the process of granting a permit to a company for a five-million-tonne contaminated landfill site close to the community’s water supply.
After working for two years with the Shawnigan Residents’ Association and the wider community to protest and appeal the permit, Sonia was elected as a director for the Cowichan Valley Regional District.
“When I ran to be area director, it was so I could be an effective voice for the community,” she says.
After years of tireless efforts by Sonia and countless others, the permit for the contaminated land was revoked in February 2017—the first and only time an environmental permit has been revoked, adds Sonia—and shortly afterwards in May, she won her seat as MLA for the Cowichan Valley by a decisive win.
Now, more than halfway through her second consecutive term as the Green MLA for the Cowichan Valley and the elected leader of the BC Green Party for two and a half years, it’s a little surprising to learn that going into government was never on her radar as a younger woman.
“It had certainly never been a plan of mine to get into politics,” she says. “It was really driven by what was happening in Shawnigan, and the need to represent the community and best serve what we were trying to achieve.”
Now with an ambitious list of goals on her plate—including sustainable housing, environmental protections and the ever-growing challenge of combating climate change—Sonia leans on her support system more than ever.
“What’s always, perpetually and for the last 28 years, closest to my heart is my children,” she says. “Them, my husband and my family: they’re the support that I am so dependent on for keeping going in this job, and getting up every day and fighting for what I believe in, for that sense of fairness and justice and wellbeing. They really keep me rooted in what’s real and true, and what I would want for everyone in BC is to have that same sense of connection and love and safety that comes from having a really wonderful, supportive family.”
The 7 Sins
Whose shoes would you like to walk in?
Before I got into this job, I would have said Jacinda Ardern, because I admire her so much. But now that I’ve seen what she’s gone through, and what other women leaders go through, I certainly don’t feel envy. We have a lot of work to do to make these shoes much less painful—the shoes that women in politics, and especially women in leadership roles in politics, have to wear.
What is the food you could eat over and over again?
The salmon that Jared Qwustenuxun Williams has smoked on the banks of the Cowichan River.
You’re given $1 million that you have to spend selfishly. What would you spend it on?
A bus. I’d spend money on a really luxurious bus with an excellent espresso machine, massage seats, Wi-Fi and pastries. That bus would run between Cowichan and Victoria. It would be free, and it would mean that I—and people in Cowichan—could selfishly avoid having to drive over the Malahat.
A government saying one thing and doing another.
Where would you spend a long time doing nothing?
In a giant bubble bath.
What is the one thing you’re secretly proud of?
I’m actually funny.
What makes your heart beat faster?
A live Corey Hart concert.