Don Scott: MLA & Family Man
October 18, 2010, 9:00 p.m: A gaggle of us were gathered around the television watching the election results roll in. It was a large slate of names in Ward One, 15 people for six seats around the regional council table.
I was getting my most up-to-date results from Don Scott, who was positioned at the returning office. He was in a comfortable lead in 5th place while I was in a neck and neck battle with Christine Burton for the 6th and final spot. He texted my lead, which started tiny and slowly got bigger as the evening went along. We were both successful that night and joined a team that began governing a short while later.
December 23, 2014. 10:30 a.m: Don and I were settled into a comfortable booth at Ms. B’s restaurant to talk about his fascinating political journey that has taken him from being a novice and soft-spoken municipal councillor to a confident and respected minister in the Jim Prentice cabinet.
“How did it happen?” I asked. “How did you end up making the leap into provincial politics? I’ve always wanted to ask.”
“It was former councillor Sharon Clarkson,” he said. “She took me out to lunch to ask if I would consider going for the nomination.”
“He is, and always has been, a man of strong convictions, incredible ethics and an unwavering belief in the prospects of this community,” said Clarkson. “I know Don to be a dedicated and committed individual and when the opportunity presented itself, it seemed a natural progression for him to take the next step to continue to be a tireless advocate, in an even bigger arena, for the community he so dearly loves.”
It must have seemed like a grand adventure at the time. How it has turned out is very different from his original vision.
“I thought I could come home every night,” he laughed. “Boy, was I wrong about that one.”
The life of a provincial politician, especially one that plays an integral role on cabinet, is not for the faint of heart. A closely managed and packed schedule means that you are traveling more than you are not. The work is hard, and the demands on your time, in Edmonton and in the constituency, are constant.
How does he manage it all? How does he balance the needs of the job with those of his family and a dynamic region? Don credits many of the mentors in his life - particularly his father, Keith Scott, a conservationist, author of 14 books, and former professional basketball player – with the way he approaches life and leadership.
Keith travelled down to Florida in the 1950s to try out for the House of David, a professional touring basketball squad, recognized at the time as being one of the best teams in the business. In the 1970s he toured with a different team – the Harlem Aces.
“I used to bring Donny with me from time to time,” he shared, during a delightful phone conversation – he and his wife Frances still in New Brunswick. “He was a very good basketball player, and could spin the ball on the tip of his finger. In fact, he was able to spin two balls at the same time.”
“My dad always encouraged me to punch above my weight,” he said. “He often says to ‘try things that are beyond your reach.’ I’ve never been afraid to do that. I also believe in hard work.”
“I told him not to be afraid of trying anything,” Keith recalled.
Don tried a lot of things in his early years, from working as an assistant manager at Wendy’s to slugging furniture with a moving company.
“At some point he came to the realization that he didn’t want to do this for the rest of his life, and decided to get an education.”
Don attended the University of New Brunswick, intent on earning his law degree. It was in this point in his journey that things could have turned out very differently. But it was another mentor who inspired a fundamental shift in thought that continues to serve him many years later.
“I had a philosophy professor named Dr. Larmer,” he said. “I’m not sure what he did, but all of a sudden the light switch turned on. I suddenly loved learning. I wrote him a letter after I became a lawyer to let him know the impact he had on me.”
It was while working for the Court of Appeals that he met William Hoyt, Chief Justice of New Brunswick. He was one of three appointed to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry in England, which set out to establish a definitive version of the chain of events that happened on January 30, 1972, when 26 civil rights protesters and bystanders were shot by soldiers of the British Army.
Convinced to cross the big pond, Don pursued his Masters in Law at the University of Cambridge, and spent much of his free time working on the inquiry.
“It was a truly remarkable time in my life,” he recalled. “I got to be a judge in a moot trial between Oxford and Cambridge. It was unreal place, with evening lectures by global celebrities and presidents of countries. I ate the British version of Kraft Dinner every day – we were so incredibly poor.”
Cambridge was also special as it was the place where Don met his bride to be. Janey was studying education and living in the same residence. They knew each other in passing, but a chance accident brought them closer together.
“I fell down some stairs,” he recalled. “She was there to help, though she was nervous to talk to me because I was bald.” Convalescing and conversing, their friendship blossomed and grew into something deeper. They wed in Taiwan, where Janey had grown up and where much of her family lived.
Married, educated, and ready to take on the world, they literally took out a globe to figure out where to go next.
“A friend was living in Fort McMurray at the time,” he said. “He suggested that I come and join him at his firm. We decided to jump at the opportunity. It was one of the best decisions we ever made.”
Arriving in Fort McMurray in 2000, Don and Janey started from nothing and grew a life, business and reputation for being a family that believes in the value of community and giving back.
“We arrived here with just a pile of luggage,” he recalled with a chuckle.
Frances, Don’s mother, recalls that the move back to Canada and the booming community of Fort McMurray was not without reservations.
“He felt like he was going to the end of the world,” said Frances. “He wasn’t sure what it was going to mean for his career.”
Little did anyone know that throwing caution to the wind would lead to a thriving law practice, a successful run at municipal council, and ascendency into the upper echelons of the PC Party in Alberta.
Keith and Frances were there when Don was sworn in as Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education. They both expressed understandable pride in watching their son, who has grown into an amalgam of the two of them.
Frances choked up as she recalled watching him take his ministerial oath.
“I was just so proud,” she said, struggling with her words as she was overcome with emotion. “Donny used to write me these beautiful cards on Mother’s Day and other occasions. He probably doesn’t remember, but he used to always write in the cards that all he wanted to do was make me proud. I still want to cry thinking about it. It was such a humbling experience.”
“It felt real good,” said Keith.
Hard-working, determined, authentic, Don has a mix of qualities that make him perfectly suited to leadership.
“Perseverance,” said Frances, when asked what quality rises above the others. “If you fall down, you get back up. Donny has developed such a strong work ethic.”
“He’s capable of anything,” said Keith.
“Don speaks from the heart and a position of knowledge,” said Sharon Clarkson. “As a true leader he does not feel it necessary to always be in the spotlight, but works hard behind the scenes to get things done. That passion and belief in his community shines through and makes people listen.”
One thing that is certain is that Don can’t do it all alone. Standing behind him is his wife Janey and two daughters, Jeya and Jenna. They are often at his side as he attends community events, smiling and fully engaged in the community.
“Without question, his wife and daughters are his biggest supporters, fans and cheerleaders,” said Clarkson. “They unselfishly and without complaint make the many sacrifices of quality time spent together and missed special occasions, allowing Don to serve his community and represent his constituents.”
“I love Janey,” said Frances. “She is the biggest hearted person, and has that quality of being able to be at ease in any situation.”
“I don’t think he could’ve picked a better wife than Janey,” said Keith.
As an observer, it appears that Don has developed a broad set of political instincts that have served him well, though he doesn’t seem to view it that way. Instead, he falls back on hard work, determination, and integrity.
“I never make a decision based on what will get me re-elected,” he said. “I’ve always believed in hard work, and truly enjoy helping people.”
A lot of the real work of an elected official happens far away from the cameras, whether that means reading through background documents, policies or legislation or spending hours behind closed doors in committee meetings or citizen engagement sessions. But, it is being able to be of use to constituents that really drive Don.
“I love to help people,” he said. “I try to look for solutions and explore the options. There is so much to be done.”
He also genuinely loves being out in the public, attending events and meeting with people. Even as an ex-politician who attended my fair share of public gathering and special events, I don’t know how Don keeps up the pace. He seems to be everywhere, all at the same time.
“Going to events is a great opportunity for me to find out what’s going on,” he said. “People tell me what the issues are when I’m out and about. I really enjoy the people part (of politics).”
Over the last five years, Don has found his voice as a political leader, and has incrementally grown his sphere of influence. For his parents, on the other side of the country, the boy who used to spin basketballs and flip burgers at Wendy’s has found his stride.
“He was home at Christmas,” said Frances. “Many people commented on how much he has grown. He is more authoritative, and sure of himself. It was evident that he has come into his own.”
“Having an understanding wife,” said Don, when asked how he does it all. “The kids are also great. It is a challenge, but they are so supportive.”
Meanwhile, those of us who have watched the maturation and impact of this humble, hard working public servant feel a sense of pride about what he has accomplished, and a sense of optimism of what is still to come.
“What absolutely makes me proud is that his dedication, commitment and beliefs have stayed true,” reflected Sharon Clarkson. “He has always been, and continues to be, a trusted man of deep convictions, principle, dignity and honesty. I am honoured and privileged to call him a friend.”
We spent several hours chatting over an early lunch at Ms. B’s in the dying days before Christmas and reminisced over elements of our shared history, dove into the recesses of his past and explored ancient history that has greatly informed his present. He spoke with love, admiration and appreciation for his parents, his children, his wife Janey, and his community.
What’s next for Don Scott, MLA for Fort McMurray – Conklin, Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education, and Deputy House Leader? One thing he seems certain about is running in the next election. He has announced his intention to seek the nomination.
“I will serve in whatever capacity the Premier needs me to,” he said. “We need to finish the twinning of Highway 63, get the long-term care facility in the ground, and free up more space for commercial ventures. We are doing a lot of great work; but there is a lot of work still to do.”