How losing a sister compelled Coun. Colleen McKee to give back

Out of tragedy springs contribution

Colleen McKee recently gave some advice to a friend who is suffering.

“The finest steel goes through the hottest fires,” she offered. “The tough stuff makes you who you are, builds your character.”

For McKee, those aren’t clichéd words.

Most Flin Flonners know McKee as the candid municipal politician who has spent nearly two decades between the school board and city council.

What they may not know is that at the root of her decision to serve her community – as a trustee, city councillor and volunteer – is a painful tragedy.

The date was Aug. 20, 1984. McKee’s youngest sister, Diane Krokosz, then 15, and some friends had stopped in Cranberry Portage and asked a helicopter pilot to take them on a flight.

The pilot, part of a forest-firefighting crew, agreed, even though he had been drinking. The chopper crashed into a lake near Cranberry Portage, and although Diane initially survived, she did not live long enough to reach the hospital.

The crash also claimed the lives of fellow Flin Flonners Cheryl Evans and Sandra Antal, along with the pilot.

“You just feel so robbed,” says McKee. “I can’t even describe how robbed you feel. You feel like someone’s ripped your heart out of your chest and stomped on it.”

Particularly close

Growing up with three siblings – a fourth sibling, a brother, lived out of town in a care home due to a developmental disability – McKee had been particularly close to Diane despite being six years her elder.

Their mom was a single parent working full-time, so McKee filled something of a parental role for Diane, even attending parent-teacher interviews.

In the midst of her grief, McKee discovered firsthand just how close-knit Flin Flon is. Residents offered her and her family emotional support, financial aid and so much food that people donated fridges and freezers to store it all.

“I have never felt so safe and protected as I did with the people of this town,” says McKee. “It was a critical point for me. I decided then that I had to give back to a community that gave so much to me during the most vulnerable time in my life.”

McKee had found out early on that self-pity leads nowhere. Growing up in government housing, she and her family didn’t have a lot, but that never seemed to matter.

Her tenacious mom, Lorraine Krokosz, taught her children the value of work ethic, integrity and appreciation for the good things in life.

“She always told us that there were many others that were worse off than we were,” says McKee. “Pity paralyzes a person. It creates victims and undermines a person’s strength.”

As difficult as it was, McKee, 21 at the time of her sister’s death, found the strength to carry on.

Shortly after the helicopter crash, a friend of Diane’s, then-Flin Flon Bombers blueliner Kent McKee, drove to Flin Flon for training camp.

Kent was unaware that Diane had passed away. After her family shared the bad news, he and Colleen bonded through grief and in time started dating.

“I like to think that from somewhere above she set us up,” says Colleen.

Value of family

When things got serious between Colleen and Kent, talk eventually turned to children. Both wanted more than the standard 2.5 kids.

“I knew the value of a larger family and knew I wanted the same,” Colleen says.

The McKees welcomed their first child, son Kyle, in 1986. Son Carter followed three years later, and four years after that came son Kane.

By 1994, Colleen was an established community volunteer, helping groups such as her church and the parent council at her children’s school. That year, she decided to take a run at the Flin Flon school board.

“I thought with three kids, I needed to get involved,” says Colleen, whose wavy brown hair and youthful smile belie her 51 years.

“It seemed like a natural progression to me.”

Colleen didn’t win a seat in 1994, but that didn’t stop her from trying again, successfully this time, in 1998.

As a trustee, she often made a point of encouraging public feedback. If someone didn’t like a decision the board had made, she wanted to hear about it.

As if her plate wasn’t full enough, in 2002 Colleen had a “happy little accident” when, at age 39, she gave birth to daughter Maryn.

Juggling work, school board and four children wasn’t easy, but with the help of family and friends, Colleen managed to strike the right balance.

So much so that as the 2006 city council election approached, she opted to toss her name into the hat. In a field of a dozen candidates, she won a seat.

Colleen quickly learned that council was more like school board than she could have imagined.

“Honestly, I was looking to distance myself from the emotional part of the decision-making,” she says. “All decisions concerning children involve a level of emotion. I was wrong, though. People can be as attached to their property and their home as they are to their children.”

Against the grain

Easily re-elected to council in both 2010 and 2014, Colleen has forged a reputation as a fiscally prudent, straight-talking councillor unafraid to go against the grain.

Having held numerous jobs over the years, she has settled into a rewarding career as manager of three government-funded skills training centres in northern Manitoba.

“I enjoy working with people the most,” she says.

Career-wise, Colleen is content. Politically, she plans on staying in municipal politics and is considering a mayoral run in 2018.

And life-wise?

“Life, well, as we all know, we don’t know what will happen next,” Colleen says. “But I am sure there are many more lessons for me to learn.”

Though Diane has been gone for more than 30 years now, Colleen still wakes up to her smiling face every morning.

Resting on her bedroom nightstand is a photo of Diane, complete with brown puppy dog eyes, round cheeks and extravagantly big ’80s hair.

In some ways, Diane’s memory is what keeps Colleen moving forward when nothing else is going right.

“Bad things happen to good people, and everyone is suffering in some way,” she says. “There are gifts in every situation no matter how bad it is.

“Life is hard but worth it.”

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