I recently had the honour of interviewing one of the pioneers of recreation in British Columbia, Don Cunnings, or in my case Mr. Cunnings. You see, I’m from Coquitlam. In fact Coquitlam Parks & Recreation was where I got my start. Not only is Don an Honorary Life Member and former BCRPA President, but he also worked for the City of Coquitlam from 1955 -1994 and served as Coquitlam’s first Director of Parks and Leisure Services. I grew up with Don’s children and the community of Coquitlam through school and church activities and events, so when I had the opportunity to interview Don, I was delighted.

It was wonderful to hear the history which is so important to him, as well as his philosophy regarding recreation, which turned out to match much of my own. It was truly a pleasure to interview Don. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

When did you get your start in recreation?

I started in 1955, when the Community Program Branch, Provincial Recreation, was terminated. Recreation Commission’s then became the order of the day for municipalities and villages. Anyone that wanted funding from the Province had to have a Recreation Commission. I was then asked by Coquitlam’s Reeve (mayor) Christmas to leave teaching and head up the Recreation (Commission).

What are some of most significant changes that you have seen in the field of recreation?

The biggest one would be the shift in leadership from excellence to eminence; this has been a very profound change. With today’s commissions, departments, and councils there is a real focus to, “walk towards clarity.” Clarity has always been a corner stone for me.

Leadership is really the capacity to work in combination and in concert with the community and those that didn’t understand that didn’t get far. Leadership is working collaboratively with the community, but always driven by a true passion.

What role have you seen the BCRPA play over the years?

From the get go, the BCRPA breathed life into a blue print that got the attention of politicians and volunteers across the Province at all levels. In 1958 when Marshall Smith (Director of Community Centres in Vancouver) had this overarching vision of having a Recreation Association in British Columbia. He realized that CAPHER (Canadian Association for Physical Health Education Recreation) – the “R” was the last letter in that acronym – that if we were going to ride on the tail of CAPHER for much longer we were not going to have any influence with government.

That was the real visionary blue print that Mr. Smith brought to a small committee that included Professor Bob Osborne, who then fashioned the bylaws for that “boring/exciting” first conference in 1958 which was all about clauses and legal-ease. At the end of the day, we caught the attention of small commissions and big cities across BC and the Provincial government and the BCRA was formed! Even the Provincial government bought into the concept.

Acceptance was slow and gradual, but through the leadership, people patiently and quietly persisted. We are where we are today thanks to those people who were really the aficionados of parks & recreation.

Where would you like to you see recreation & parksgo in the future?

Wow, so much ground to cover! Well, certainly to remain leaders and visionaries in the community, embracing the health part of the equation as people are aging in our society. To age with a quality of life is of cardinal importance. Livability of a community is so intertwined with what a public recreation and parks department might provide.
What advice would you give to someone new in the field?

If you are not approaching the field with passion and enthusiasm, your interest at every turn, what you are trying to promote will be challenged. You need that passion to feed your audience and the atmosphere to accurately move through the difficult times. Passion inspires you to become your best in the field.

What do you view as your greatest accomplishments in your career?

Moving recreation in the City of Coquitlam and as the President BCRPA from the outermost circle to the inner-most circle. That was a challenge. We were seen initially and regarded as “fun and games” on the outermost circles of the organizations. Then, through hard work, we got to the centre and shared this with other departments and were regarded as a core function. At that point, I regarded my task as being somewhat accomplished. This occurred on both the provincial and municipal level.

What are some of your fondest memories?

Seeing this “rag tag” recreation group so splintered and disconnected come together and form a province-wide association was one of my fondest memories. I wasn’t sure if I would see that happen.

Being recently involved in the BCRPA history project with Ken Winslade was also a highlight. History is so important because an organization that understands the circumstances of its own history is an organization best equipped to influence the circumstances of its future.

What do recreation & parks mean to you personally?

On a personal basis, to have a community park-like atmosphere is important to me. To drive down streets with shade trees and beautiful boulevards and schools that are not just barren playgrounds but have some aesthetic appeal. To me, the more a community
thinks about parks and recreation and appears more park-like in its nature, that’s a community I want to live in.

What is the biggest challenge for the future of recreation and parks?

To remain relevant, and in that concentric circle, in order to cement our position in the centre. The only way that we will stay there is to talk professionally, look professional, and to be professional, and that requires continuing education and interpersonal skills.

Any final thoughts?

With recreation and parks it isn’t really what you gather but what you scatter. To scatter is wonderful. You can look out and say that in every corner of the community there are services, activities and parks that are combined, which is an all-important aspect of our success.

The field has so much ground to cover, but dreams and visions are transformational. Snowmen don’t fall from the sky ready-made, nor do recreation and parks departments. It takes people well equipped for the task, not to mention people abounding in passion. These aspects are essential in today and tomorrow’s world.

Abby Fortune, Director of Parks & Recreation District of Ucluelet. Abby has been in the recreation field for over 35 years. She has been an active member of the BCRPA in a number of different roles, including Board member and Regional Liaison. As Director of Parks & Recreation in a small community, she has had many opportunities to develop Parks & Recreation as an essentially service for the community. Abby lives in beautiful Ucluelet with her family.