It was in a Flin Flon classroom that a young Clarence Pettersen first knew he would have a career as a teacher and a politician.
The former teacher turned-MLA, known for his kind and engaging manner with students and his passionate rallies to bring improvement to the Flin Flon constituency, spent his formative years falling in love with the area.
Outside of school walls he spent his time outdoors, fishing with his father, riding his family’s skidoo and basking in the fun Flin Flon had to offer.
Inside the classroom, Pettersen’s young mind was expanding and being shaped. It was there he found a taste for politics and knew he wanted to make a change.
“It was junior high, just at the time you can be very influenced,” said Pettersen.
“I remember at the time, thinking about Flin Flon. Back at the time – in ’67 or ’68 – they were talking, ‘Oh, we are going to have a population of 80,000 or 100,000’ – stuff like that. It was all going on at the time and it never happened, and that’s where I think the politicians – the mayor, the MLAs, the MPs – that’s their job, to make sure we’re moving along.”
Around the same time, Pettersen was inspired to a pursue a career in teaching by his teachers, Dennis Ballard and Glenn Smith.
“They were both junior high teachers of mine, and I just respected their communication with kids and their love of teaching, and that’s what I wanted to be right from the beginning,” said Pettersen.
Pettersen attended Brandon University and graduated in 1975 with bachelor of arts and bachelor of education degrees. It was there where he met Judy, now his wife, who was studying for her bachelor of teaching.
The pair married in 1975. Judy graduated the following year, and in 1977, with a taste for adventure, they began travelling the world. They explored continents before returning to North America and driving from Los Angeles to Flin Flon in Judy’s uncle’s truck.
“When you travel the world, you get to know what the world’s like, but you also get to appreciate your own country and your own community,” said Pettersen.
“Flin Flon is a great place to bring up your kids. I’ve had three children, and they grew up here, and it was fantastic. I got to teach them. I got to walk to school with them. I was very blessed and fortunate to be part of their life here.”
Pettersen and Judy have three daughters; Hilary, Michelle, and Mari. Pettersen beams when he talks about his children.
“I’m very proud of them,” he said, adding that raising a family in Flin Flon was easy.
“You know the old adage: it takes a community to raise a family? Well that’s what it was.”
Pettersen spent 33 years teaching in Flin Flon, the final 10 of which he taught at Many Faces Educational Centre.
“Alternative [education] is that we’re giving [a chance to] kids that either left school, didn’t go to school, got pregnant, or seniors coming back to get their Grade 12, and I’m proud of being part of that,” said Pettersen, adding he taught students as old as 55, some of whom were his friends.
While Pettersen looks back and is proud of the work he did at Many Faces, that wasn’t his initial attitude toward the program.
“I’ve got to be honest with you – I didn’t believe in the philosophy. [Former superintendent] Dan Reagan asked me a couple of times, once when it was
just starting, and I said, ‘Dan, how many times are we going to give these students a chance?’ And right now, I believe you’ve got to give those students as many chances as they need, because we want them to be contributors to society, and not takers. And we can do that.”
The importance of an education and the opportunities it can open for someone entering the workforce is something Pettersen strongly believes in, and that belief translated into the atmosphere he created in his classroom.
“My philosophy about teaching school was I wanted to make sure anybody who came into my class wanted to come into my class, and felt good about themselves. It was my job to do that, make sure they wanted to be there and make sure they wanted to learn.”
Pettersen found that the satisfaction he got from teaching went beyond his students’ graduation.
“I’ve taught so many kids – thousands, probably. The greatest accomplishment I look at is I can walk down Main Street and people will come out of their way to say ‘Hi.’
“I just had a love of education and a love of kids. I hope I passed that on.”
Even as a young boy, Pettersen knew he wanted to be in politics.
After retiring from teaching, he ran for provincial office. Pettersenwas elected MLA for Flin Flon under the NDP banner in 2011, with 57 per cent of the vote. He admits he was likely more of a social liberal, but he knew what he wanted to do for the community, and running under the NDP was the way to get there.
“I went in with the idea that I’m going to change everything going to Thompson and The Pas, to things going to Flin Flon. That was the important thing. I’m not saying that I was a strong NDP. I was a strong Flin Flon constituent, and that’s why I went into politics. I wanted to benefit my constituency and make a difference.”
Pettersen saw significant success during his political career – he said he garnered upwards of $150 million in promises for the constituency for projects including upgrades to Highway 10 from Bakers Narrows to Flin Flon, and a commitment to upgrades to the Flin Flon General Hospital.
But alongside his successes, he also faced personal and professional struggles during his time in politics.
In 2013, Pettersen was diagnosed with cancer. He had surgery that year, but the cancer returned in 2014 and grew very slowly until last spring.
In 2014 he called on then-premier Greg Selinger to step down, concerned the premier had lost of the trust of Manitobans.
Pettersen and five other MLAs who had called on Selinger to resign were barred from caucus. Then, in 2015, Pettersen lost the NDP nomination to Tom Lindsey.
Recently, Pettersen has had to face a new reality: his cancer diagnosis is terminal. His time here is limited. Still, he is a forward thinker with many ideas about how Flin Flon should move to the future.
“I believe we will be mining in Flin Flon after 777,” he said.
“There’s McIlvenna Bay, that has a large ore body … They’re out exploring now. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Pettersen said mining is a risky business, and every five years over his entire lifetime, people in the mining industry claimed the ore was running out.
“Well, you know what? They’re still saying that. And I really believe this town has a future.”
Pettersen also believes reliable seniors housing is key in a healthy local economy.
“We had the okay for seniors housing at Hemlock [Drive], to get finished on that, and they’re still dragging their feet,” he said.
“We do need seniors’ housing here, there’s no question … it’s difficult because as people are getting older, some are moving away because they don’t have the accommodation. It would be great to have them here to help the whole economy of our town.”
Pettersen stressed the need for Flin Flon to look for other avenues to strengthen its economy, and pointed to a road north to Lynn Lake – an initiative he championed while in office – as a possibility.
“We really have to fight for that road up north, because it’s going to come, and it would really benefit us if it would come up through Flin Flon,” says Pettersen.
“We need that … to bring in another probably 10,000 people that are out there, that would stop in Flin Flon more so if they had roads like that here.”
At 65, Pettersen has garnered a wealth of life experience, both personally and professionally. He has tidbits of wisdom – “Don’t give up on people,” and “When you’re negotiating anything … there can never be losers on any side. Everybody’s got to win.” But the most important thing he’s learned has to do with community.
“What I’ve learned is you don’t have to look far to find happiness,” he said.
“I’ve had many friends grow up here and say, ‘I have to get out of here.’ But when they come back here, it’s something special. It’s great here. You don’t have to look far because … it’s a close-knit community.”
While Pettersen’s time is short, he said he is not concerned about his legacy. What he hopes is that people will be able to look back on his time here and see what he achieved for the constituency.
“I’ve led a very good life. I don’t want people to be sorry for me. I want them to celebrate my life and things I’ve done, and hopefully people I’ve touched. I sure enjoyed growing up here, and I think it was a very big honour to represent this constituency as an MLA, and I’ll never forget that – it was great … I really appreciate and thank the people of Flin Flon for giving me that opportunity,” he said.
“I was in love with Flin Flon and I always will be.”
- with files from Valerie Durnin
Working for the north: Pettersen’s political years
For Clarence Pettersen, entering provincial politics was about making a difference in the area he served.
Pettersen entered the 2011 provincial election for the Flin Flon constituency under the NDP banner, competing against candidates from the Progressive Conservative, Liberal and Green parties. Pettersen took the election with 57 per cent of the vote.
Reflecting on his political career, Pettersen said any party that talks about social justice is important to him, but he ran as an NDP candidate because it gave him the greatest likelihood of success.
“Politics, it’s about if you’re going to win, what are you going to do? I knew what I wanted to do for the community and the other avenues through other parties just weren’t there. The NDP had been here for many years,” said Pettersen.
Pettersen speaks with pride when he discusses the improvements made in the Flin Flon riding during his time in office. He’s able to show his work, and it is plentiful. It includes upgrades to the stretch of Highway 10 between Flin Flon and Bakers Narrows he lobbied for to accommodate industrial traffic from Snow Lake as well as motorist safety, upgrades to the Flin Flon General Hospital’s emergency department which is set to open later this year, and a $23 million residence for students of Frontier Collegiate Institute in Cranberry Portage. He’s proud that this makes Cranberry Portage an important centre for education in the North.
Pettersen made headlines across the province in 2014 when he asked then-premier Greg Selinger to resign from his post for the sake of the party remaining in power, and ultimately for the people of Manitoba. Selinger had lost popularity in the province after raising the PST by a point – something he had previously told Manitobans he would not do.
“I have a lot of respect for Premier Selinger – we worked together fine. It’s just at the end, I thought he should step down,” said Pettersen.
“Integrity is something you’ve always got to back when you’re talking about it, and I always told him that ‘If I’m going to tell you to step down, I’m going to tell you to your face,’ and I did.”
Pettersen, along with five other MLAs who called on Selinger to resign, were barred from caucus meetings, but were allowed to return after Selinger won an NDP leadership race in 2015.
In December 2015, Pettersen lost the NDP nomination for the constituency to Tom Lindsey. At the time, Pettersen said his calls for the premier to resign had inspired a union-backed “overthrow” as the riding’s NDP candidate.
Ultimately, the NDP lost the next provincial election. Pettersen still believes it could have been different if the party had chosen another leader.
“It was definitely the premier. You’ve got to realize that you can’t tell the people that we’re not going to raise taxes, and then lie, and raise taxes.”
Pettersen hopes today’s political leaders in the area can point to the work he has done and be proud of it. And he challenges them to continue that work.
“It was a nice five years. Hopefully we can get back to that … Niki [Ashton, MP for Churchill Keewatinook Aski] has got to step up to the plate, here. You know, it’s not just Thompson she’s representing, but a big constituency, that we’d like to see things done for all the north."
In his own words
On teaching: “I always said, if I can’t have a laugh a day, I better look for something else. I think to be a good teacher, you’ve almost got to be a good comedian. There are days where you’re flooded with work and ideas, and some days, just like some of the students, they’re not having a good day. As a teacher you have to be ready for anything, every day.”
On his time in politics: “I wanted to benefit my constituency and make a difference. That’s what I went in for. I wish I could have done more, stayed in longer, my health dictated me not being in politics.”
On Flin Flon’s future: “And Flin Flon, you know, people say we’re going through a tough time, and I don’t think so. I think the future is just around the corner. But, having said that, we can’t just sit there and wait for things to happen. We have to push forward. We have to turn the lights on and get things moving.”
“You can either shut your door and hope it doesn’t happen, or you can start doing something about it. And I’m always an action person. I don’t like reacting. I like acting. And I think that’s important.”
An ‘Ace’ of a guy
“Anyone who has met “Ace” knows that he has a wicked sense of humour. There is no shortage of laughs when he’s around. I know him to be a dedicated family man who loves Judy and his girls. Unlike most normal people, when he decided to retire he didn’t take up a hobby, he went into politics! I thought he had lost his mind. Maybe he had. Clarence is far too honest and straightforward to survive long in the political world, but I believe he worked hard for his constituency. Flin Flon is a better community because of his presence there.” — John Scott
“Mr. Pettersen, or “Petey,” as we called him, was a fun, very likeable teacher. He treated us as young adults and encouraged us in our opinions of whatever the conversation of the day was. I don’t ever remember him being angry at anyone, and he treated everyone equally well. He was a breath of fresh air from the way some other teachers were, and he used his humour to relax students, making learning in his class a positive experience. I have nothing but good memories.” —Ken Lundgren, former student
“Having Clarence as my teacher is a huge honour to me and even back when I was a teen. I had been one of those silent, shy students and over the six years of being my teacher, he really helped me to become an open individual who is social and following my passion in graphic design and traditional art. After hearing his stories of travelling across the globe it made me want to travel to see the world and experience this myself. I thought of him as a really awesome teacher, bringing good humour and making us laugh and inspiring us to be more accepting to all people of different backgrounds.”—Samantha Rumak, former student