'It's been tremendous': Grande Prairie's longest-serving councillor reflects on 4 decades at city hall

Helen Rice remembers the doubts flitting through her mind before walking into one of her first meetings as a city councillor, nearly four decades ago.

'I envy the new people starting on council because all of this is all ahead of them'

'It's just been fun': Four decades at city hall

4 years ago
Helen Rice, 73, looks back on more than 38 years as a city councillor in Grande Prairie, Alta. She's one of the longest-serving municipal politicians in the province. 1:32

Helen Rice remembers the doubts flitting through her mind before walking into one of her first meetings as a city councillor, nearly four decades ago. 

"I was terrified that I wouldn't fit in, I wouldn't belong, I wasn't worthy," Rice recalled. "I got there and I found out that the elected people in Alberta range from the sublime to the ridiculous and I fit someplace in the middle."

The elected people in Alberta range from the sublime to the ridiculous and I fit someplace in the middle.- Helen Rice, former Grande Prairie city councillor

Now 73, Rice first won a seat on Grande Prairie city council in a 1979 byelection. Her supervisor at a local radio station had entered her name into the race without her knowledge, Rice said. She was elected by acclamation.

In the following months, Rice spent every morning with Grande Prairie's city manager at the time, learning the ropes of municipal politics.

"It takes you a while when you're first elected to realize you're not going to please everybody, so you have to grow that thick skin," Rice said.

"Obviously there were sacrifices," she added. "The time commitment is huge but it's satisfying.

"It's always in a state of evolution and it's challenging and exciting."

Helen Rice retired in 2017 as Grande Prairie's longest-serving city councillor. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

By the time Rice retired from city hall in 2017, she had become an icon in regional and provincial politics. After more than 38 years, she left city hall as one of Alberta's longest-serving councillors.

In Grande Prairie, a plaza is named in her honour. A book at the local museum chronicles Rice's contributions to the city.

Her work has also been recognized with countless awards and honours, including a spot on the 2014 Alberta Venture list of the province's 50 most influential people.

Most recently, she was named as one of Grande Prairie's "women of influence" for International Women's Day on March 8.

Being one of a minority of women at city hall never bothered her, Rice said. In fact, she voted down a recommendation to include a minimum of two women on each city council, she said.

"I don't want to sit here, with you guys treating me as a token one of two," Rice recalled telling her fellow councillors. "I'll earn my spot here just the same as you do.

"If someone is a bit of a chauvinist, I have no problem putting him down."

'She was a rock star'

Lorne Radbourne worked alongside Rice for three terms, from 2007 to 2017. His father, Ernest, also served two terms with Rice in the early '80s. 

Rice's reputation preceded her, Radbourne said.

"She's quite a lady," he said. "She's very intelligent, she values relationships, she is a straight shooter and speaks her mind and she's loyal to the community."

The two often disagreed in council chambers, Radbourne said, but formed a strong friendship over coffee after their debates at city hall.

"She said, 'It's OK if we disagree with one another, but it's never OK to be disagreeable with one another.' "

He recalled helping Rice campaign for the presidency of the Alberta Urban Municipality Association, which she won in 2013.

"She was a rock star," Radbourne said. "We were colleagues helping her get around and talk to people, but really that wasn't necessary because people came to her. They gravitated to her ... because everybody knew her already and engaged her and they trusted her."

Radbourne and Rice still regularly meet for lunch, even after they both retired from city hall last year.

"For me leaving council was one thing, but for her leaving council ... it was such a huge part of her life, it was more of a challenge for her than someone like myself."

Helen Rice was elected to Grande Prairie city council by acclamation in 1979. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Rice said leaving city hall was a difficult decision.

She walked away with decades of memories, including dinner with the Queen and a meeting with Ronald and Nancy Reagan. In 1998, she ran for mayor but lost. Rice was re-elected to council the following term.

"It was all just tremendous opportunities and I sometimes think I didn't appreciate them as much as I should have at the time," Rice said.

She continues her work in politics as manager of the Grande Prairie Downtown Association and chair of the local John Howard Society. 

Rice also sits on two provincial agencies, the Energy Efficiency Alberta Board and the Society of Local Government Managers of Alberta.

Rice said she's slowing down but won't leave politics.

"It's been tremendous," she said. "I envy the new people starting on council because all of this is all ahead of them and they've got some tremendous experiences coming up.

"I didn't want to be one of those people that stayed too long at the fair," Rice added. "You have to recognize that you've made your contribution and now somebody with more energy deserves that slot."



Zoe Todd

Video Journalist

Zoe Todd is a CBC video journalist based in Alberta, filing videos and stories for web, radio and TV.