Mayor Ken

A mayor, a nun, and a special Red Deer friendship

Born worlds apart, brought together by a shared drive to make Red Deer a more welcoming place

When Mayor Ken Johnston moved to Alberta from a small town in Newfoundland, he may have had a little culture shock.

“It was a much faster pace, more populated, and quite foreign to me,” he says.

Luckily, many people in Red Deer helped him get settled — many of the first people he met offered to connect him to the community. It had a big impact on him, and he’s tried to offer the same kindness to other newcomers over the years.

“I’ve always had a heart for people who are trying to become more connected, more visible. Destiny or fate has landed me in this position as mayor where I’m able to plug a lot of people in. I believe the vast majority of a mayor’s responsibility is to build community,” he says.

So when, a few years ago, he felt a gentle tap on his shoulder from a unique nun during a visit to the Central Alberta Immigrant Women’s Association (CAIWA), he was open to the connection — whatever it might be.

The nun, Sister Mary, had a problem, and she believed Ken Johnston was the person to help her solve it. Ken was a City Councillor at the time, and didn’t really have the jurisdiction to help, but Sister Mary has a persuasive optimism. And she’s often right.

“To my shock we were able to get it done for her!” Mayor Ken laughs.

Proud to be your Neighbour

As part of their Anti-Racism Campaign, the Red Deer Local Immigration Partnership is helping build new relationships, and celebrating cross-cultural friendships like the one between Mayor Ken and Sister Mary.

Sister Mary was born in Nigeria and studied Philosophy and Theology at John Lateran University in Rome before being sent to Alberta on a missionary trip. She moved to Red Deer in 2012, and continues to work as a missionary and social worker. After meeting Mayor Ken at the CAIWA, the two built a friendship around their shared passion for community building.

“He is a man of good conscience, honest and respectful. He’s accommodating, and believes in others to understand them,” she says. “He’s careful and patient. He listens to understand others perspectives. He’s non-judgmental to serve and proffer solutions in a collaborative manner.”

“Sister Mary is extremely dear to me,” Mayor Ken says.

Together, they plan events and programs that benefit new immigrants to Red Deer, and talk about ways to continue improving the city. They’re both well-connected community leaders, and the bridge-building goes both ways.

“She invited me to a party to celebrate the 40th anniversary of her calling to the sisterhood, and she showed me off to everyone there! We had a great time,” Mayor Ken says.

Finding common ground

Inviting newcomers to community and cultural events is one way that Sister Mary builds community in Red Deer. Other tips she has for long time residents looking to build stronger bonds across cultures?

“Be sensitive to their cultural backgrounds; appreciate them for who they are and are not. Share foods, ideas, educate, engage and communicate to increase a wealth of understanding, and build trust,” she says.

“Red Deer is generally a welcoming place where we celebrate difference as a strength. But too often, people are mistreated because of their race. It’s up to all of us to learn and perform the work of antiracism. Not only is it the right thing to do, it helps to create communities that are more prosperous, safe and just for everyone,” says Kristine Bugayong, Interim Program Manager with the Red Deer Local Immigration Partnership (RDLIP).

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READ MORE: Red Deer Local Immigration Partnership: Finding Value in Community