Politics

Port Alberni mourns former councillor who died in New Zealand crash

Helen Poon served on city council and ran unsuccessfully for the B.C. Liberals in the Mid-Island Pacific Rim riding in the 2020 election. She died Jan. 4

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A former Port Alberni councillor described as a cigar-smoking, single-malt-scotch-drinking, car enthusiast is being mourned after her death in a car crash in New Zealand.

Helen Poon, 34, who served on city council for one term and ran unsuccessfully for the B.C. Liberals in the Mid-Island Pacific Rim riding in the 2020 election, died Jan. 4 after suffering critical injuries in the two-car crash on Dec. 30.

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Mayor Sharie Minions said the councillor left an indelible mark on the community, not just as a member of the female- ­dominated council from 2018 to 2022 but as a community ­member and “consistent voice for progress.”

Poon was instrumental in the city’s $5-million acquisition of the 17.5 hectare waterfront Somass Lands — the former site of the Western Forest Products mill, equivalent to about 17 average city blocks that had sat empty since 2017 — and several other key projects that set the course for “transformational change” in Port Alberni, the mayor said on social media.

Poon, who was from Vancouver, visited Port Alberni and Ucluelet with an auto club in 2017, fell in love with the city’s potential, and purchased a house and the Kingsway Pub and Hotel for restoration in 2018.

She ran into controversy as a city councillor with that same pub when she didn’t get the proper development permits for further renovations.

“Helen was a person who can only be described as iconic,” said Minions. “She was indescribably unique, incredibly funny, and deeply caring.”

Poon’s belief in the potential in Port Alberni was “unparalleled,” the mayor said.

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The first transgender person on Port Alberni council, Poon was elected in 2019 as one of four city councillors on Vancouver Island to serve on the executive of the Union of B.C. Municipalities.

During her campaign speech, she said she was in a unique position to serve as a UBCM director because she had both urban and rural experience, noting she was born and raised in Vancouver, and trained as a lawyer in England.

One of her many interests was classic cars — she had owned a 1970s-era Lincoln Continental Jaguars, Bentleys, a 1937 Rolls-Royce, a Mercedes-Benz 300SL, an Austin Mini, a 1938 MG TA convertible, a 1960 Lotus Seven convertible, an emerald green Dodge Viper, a Ferrari Mondial and a Porsche 930.

Poon’s passion for classic cars was not just a hobby — “it was a reflection of her zest for life and her love for connecting with others,” said Minions, who called Poon a friend. “Her loyalty, kindness, and unwavering support were a source of strength for many, including myself, during difficult times.”

Poon told one driving publication that you have to drive as many cars as possible to find the ones you want to keep.

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Dave Hord, co-founder of Classic Car Adventures, a collective of classic car enthusiasts who meet for car events, said anyone involved in the organization’s events knew, or knew of, Poon and her “eclectic” car collection.

“She would have been driving a fantastic choice of vehicle — though, perhaps not the ‘correct’ choice for route and weather — likely dressed in a fur if the weather was chilly, and for sure offering you a whisky or cigar if it was the end of day and we had arrived at the hotel,” Hord wrote to clients.

In her memory, Hord asked members to call up a friend they’ve promised to spend more time with “when life slows down” and share that glass of whisky, wine or water and “have a toast to Helen Poon.”

Hord said he knew Poon for a decade and that she worked tirelessly in her business and political life for those less fortunate.

“I know that I’m a better person for knowing her.”

Poon’s parents and family were by her side in New Zealand when she died, he said.

B.C. United Leader Kevin Falcon called the news of Poon’s death “devastating.”

Falcon said on social media site X that he always enjoyed talking cars and whisky with Poon, whom he called a passionate supporter of B.C. United, a successful ­entrepreneur and an accomplished elected official.

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“She will be deeply missed by our entire BCU team,” he said.

Poon had promised that if elected in Mid-Island Pacific Rim she would donate her $100,000-plus MLA salary to charity, but she ended up losing to the NDP’s Josie Osborne.

Poon, who had been involved in advocacy work for affordable housing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, said at the time that she wanted to give back to the community. She was reportedly independently wealthy after success in the Vancouver real estate market.

As part of her advocacy work, she it was essential to challenge the status quo and pursue one’s vision with absolute conviction, grit, and skills.

Poon was visiting friends in New Zealand at the time of her death.

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