Anita Hagen’s legacy will live in New Westminster and across British Columbia.
Hagen, who was the city’s Citizen of the Year in 1999 and New Westminster’s MLA from 1986 to 1996, passed away from cancer on June 5 at Vancouver General Hospital, with John, her husband of 53 years, and sons David and Joel at her side. She was 84.
Born in Sydney, Nova Scotia in 1931, Hagen graduated from Dalhousie University in Halifax in 1951 and moved west three years later, settling in New Westminster. After joining the Y Wanderers outdoor club, she met John and they married in 1961.
Hagen worked as a high school English teacher in Surrey, later teaching at night school after her sons David and Joel were born. Hagen, who recognized the value of kindergarten at a time when it wasn’t part of the public school system, was involved with a preschool society that operated the Sixth Avenue Coop Preschool.
“That was her first foray into public service, starting at the ground floor with her own views about education, early childhood education. That was her starting point, I think, for all her community life,” son Joel told the Record. “She spread her wings later on.”
Along with a keen sense of community, Hagen also had a desire to contribute to the betterment of society.
“She was intellectually strong. She grasped the complexities of issues and would forge ahead with policies and solutions. That’s a rare but very important skill set,” Joel said. “I think that’s something that everybody who came into contact with her professionally really remarked upon.”
Hagen later worked as executive director of the New Westminster Seniors Bureau, where she identified a need for a comprehensive list of housing options for seniors.
“Back then, some of those places existed but there was no single clearing house for knowing where they were and who to talk to. That was her big early initiative,” Joel said. “Mom was the director, but she was often out doing the case work as well. It exemplified the kind of approach to her community work. She was a good organizer, but she was also a good doer.”
Long before entering the political arena, Hagen was advocating for issues she felt needed to be addressed.
“She was upset that New Westminster didn’t have teaching assistants. She said, ‘I am going to have to mount a campaign about this,’” recalled her husband John. “At that time there was a lot of noise out there about teaching assistants and what a good addition they were to the classroom. She started advocating in New Westminster. When she made a presentation, the superintendent realized the value of what she brought forward.”
Hagen worked as a constituency assistant for NDP MLA Dennis Cocke and worked for NDP MP Pauline Jewett. In 1976, she ran for a seat on school board, was elected and was a trustee until she set her sights on representing New Westminster in Victoria.
Elected as New Westminster’s MLA in 1986, Hagen served one term in Opposition and one term in government. Hagen served as deputy premier, minister of advanced education, minster of multiculturalism and human rights and secretary of the cabinet.
In addition to work that led to the creation of a Human Rights Act in British Columbia, Hagen was particularly proud of her work to help bring the Justice Institute of B.C. to New Westminster.
“After they had said this was the perfect site, the member for Langley tried to get it away from us,” John recalled. “She fought it tooth and nail. We were successful in keeping that from happening.”
Former MLA and MP Dawn Black said Hagen has left a “huge legacy” In New Westminster.
“Family and community came first to Anita. She lived that throughout her entire life, right till the end of her life,” Black said. “Anita was someone I went to for advice. It was always thoughtful, considered advice. I counted her as my mentor.”
Hagen also made her mark in Victoria, Black said.
“Very respected. Very straight forward. Very competent. I think she showed that women could enter public life and be elected, and not change the way they operate. She did it her own way. She didn’t change who she was in political life,” Black said. “Even since she’s retired, she’s been active with the food bank, mentoring ESL, Monarch House.”
Hagen was particularly proud of her role in chairing the committee that raised funds to establish Monarch Place, the city's first transition house for women and children fleeing violence.
“She was always proud of her work,” Joel said of his mother. “Her philosophy around her political work remained the same no matter how high level or low level the job was – it was to be someone who consulted. She was political savvy but she always wanted it to be a collective, collaborative effort with the outcome being the best public policy for everybody. There was no self-aggrandizing. There was always this common sense background to whatever she was working on.”
The family is planning a public memorial for Hagen in September, with details to be announced at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family is creating a community service award at New Westminster Secondary School in Hagen’s name.