Since 1976, Blair Peden has been at the forefront of social reform in Vernon, B.C. It can be said, Vernon would not have the social support structure it has today if not for Blair’s involvement in the community.
His underlying premise for all he has done over the past 44 years is simply put, “if you want to make a community healthier and safer for everyone, you must take care of that community’s most vulnerable citizens.”
Born and raised in Ottawa, only blocks from the Governor General’s grounds, Blair moved to Vancouver days after graduation from Lisgar Collegiate in 1968.
However, it was his move to Vernon in the late ’70s to pursue a career as a probation officer that catalyzed his efforts in the community.
Shortly after moving to Vernon, through his work, Blair was introduced to the-then John Howard Society (now Turning Points Collaborative Society). Blair became a board member and continued to serve on the board until April 2020 — nearly 45 years.
The society’s role in the community has evolved over the years, something Blair has been an integral part in helping to accomplish, but at its heart, the society works with individuals who would be considered vulnerable: people experiencing homelessness, people with substance abuse disorders, people living with mental health disorders, people experiencing poverty, people recently incarcerated.
During his time on the board, Blair served in several roles including president on multiple occasions. Most notably, as president, Blair guided the society through a period of great change and struggle.
In the 1990s, there was a strong community backlash to a housing program in Vernon designed for people experiencing homelessness.
Many people in the community, including the-then Mayor, were calling for the closure of this facility. However, through community collaboration, the creation of a special task force and an extensive education campaign, Blair and his fellow board members were able to help change the public’s perception of the facility. Because of his actions, that facility, known as the Howard House, continued to operate for another 20-plus years; effectively changing the lives of countless community members.
Blair’s leadership in these times of change and struggle laid the groundwork for what the Society would eventually become — what it is today: An organization operating multiple services and programs ranging from supportive housing to addiction recovery and sober living, even employment programs.
“Blair was there when the organization was on the point of collapse and was one of the ones who worked hard and never gave up on the vision of providing safe and supportive housing for a population in dire need,” said Turning Points Collaborative Society executive director Randene Wejr.
In recognition of Blair’s service to the board, in 2015, Turning Points Collaborative Society dedicated its 39-unit low-income housing complex to Blair, simply known now as Blair Apartments.
As dedicated as Blair was to the society’s board, he was equally as dedicated to his career as a probation officer; in particular youth justice.
As the president of the British Columbia Probation Officer’s Association for two terms, Blair pushed hard for reform in youth justice. In the late ’90s, through reasoned constructive criticism, Blair helped in the creation of the provincial Integrated Youth Services system of service delivery.
His activism for social change did not stop there; in the 1970s & ’80s, Blair was an amateur Formula Ford racing driver who promoted the provincial “Counterattack” program aimed at promoting safe and sober driving, especially among young drivers — it was possibly the first racing team in North America to promote a social cause.
The team’s vehicle was adorned with drinking driving counterattack logos, which helped to promote the cause in communities throughout British Columbia, Alberta and Washington State.
His love of driving and social reform activism came together in a larger community way for a period of time.
As silly as it may seem, Blair created a go-kart racing series where organizations would create teams. Probation, RCMP, court registry, social workers, Realtors, lawyers, reporters, even members of his beloved John Howard Society participated.
It became so popular that two nights of teams were created and lasted for several years. As a result, bridges and friendships between public and private sector citizens were formed — something that may never have happened without this kind of mixer.
Forty years later, people still reminisce about that series, the fun they had, the friendships made and what they learned about each other’s professions and businesses.
“Years later, I was often told that Vernon does things differently, that what works in Vernon may not work everywhere else. I can’t help but feel go-karting may have had something to do with that,” Peden said.
Upon his retirement from Turning Points, another long-time board member, Cheryl Schmidt, stated that Peden’s absolute and focused commitment to the organization and to social justice was, and still is, his defining quality.
“His life as a probation officer didn’t make him cynical, it just made him more aware of the challenges people face in life and how much support they often need in order to get themselves back on track,” wrote Schmidt. “I will really miss his common-sense approach, his easy laugh, and the history and perspective he brought.”
For Blair, his retirement from TPCS board marks the final chapter in a long and storied relationship with social justice, but not with the community.
Peden remains active in the community sitting both as a director of the BX Community Association, who are actively trying to create a multi-use agricultural park where young farmers can get a start and as an alternate director for Area B with the Regional District of the North Okanagan.
“As my dad used to say, ‘You need to all be rowing in the same direction or you go nowhere,’” Peden said. “Teamwork is a Vernon hallmark. I think we have something here to be really proud of and I am proud to have played a small part in helping create it.”