Shocking and tragic news tucked a blanket of sorrow across the West Coast last week as Tofino’s district office announced longtime municipal councillor and stalwart community champion Dorothy Baert had died on Wednesday, July 17.
“I find it very hard to say goodbye to Dorothy,” Tofino resident Eileen Floody told the Westerly News. “She was not only a friend, but also a wonderful supporter of so many causes we both care about. Losing her so suddenly has left a hole in my heart. I can only fill it again by trying to live up to her example of community service.”
Baert, who was born in 1950, opened Tofino Sea Kayaking in 1988 alongside Tom Stere.
Stere told the Westerly News the two met at a kayak shop on Granville Island, where Baert was living at the time, and she told him of her plans to start up a kayaking company in Tofino, a town he had already fallen in love with and was visiting frequently.
“Dorothy took a chance on a 21 year old kid just fresh out of school,” Stere recalled. “She took a chance and we started the company from scratch.”
He said he developed a “deep, deep, love and respect” for Baert as they navigated the ups and downs of business on the West Coast, which had not yet become the thriving tourism magnet it is today.
“You’ve got to understand the time and place, here’s a woman coming to the West Coast to start a business…She was a tremendously courageous woman,” he said. “She just had that ability to put things together. We were, many times, by the seat of our pants, but she knew she had the right vision and that it was going to work, we just had to be tenacious and keep moving.”
Stere said Baert’s support for local artists was instant and she frequently purchased their work even when the company was not yet financially thriving.
“She knew it was the right thing to do to give them encouragement and support,” he said. “There’s so many things under the radar with Dorothy that she just did and never looked for accolades. She just knew what had to be done and did it.”
The district announced the Tofitian icon’s passing through a statement that heralded Baert as a “huge champion” of a wide array of community facets, including the arts, environmental protection and affordable housing and noted the four-term councillor had served on the Tofino Housing Authority’s board of directors and chaired Tofino’s Community Economic Development Advisory Committee.
“Councillor Baert was an incredibly hard-working and passionate woman who always put community first,” read a statement from Tofino mayor Josie Osborne. “Whether advocating for public art, heritage initiatives, affordable housing, or preserving viewscapes, Dorothy was highly respected for her determination, consistency, and principled approach to elected office. On top of all that, she was a good friend. She was an invaluable member on Tofino Council and she will be missed terribly.”
The Tofino Long Beach chamber of commerce released a statement pointing to Baert’s impact as a successful and inspiring businesswoman who was enthusiastically involved in her community.
“Dorothy was a pioneering female entrepreneur, starting her company in the 1980s when Tofino’s tourism industry was still fledgling,” the statement reads.
“She was a strong and tireless voice for Tofino, and she will be greatly missed,” wrote the chamber’s executive director Jen Dart.
Tourism Tofino released a statement thanking Baert for her “strong devotion to everything Tofino,” and highlighting her role in transforming Tofino’s economy away from logging and into tourism.
“Dorothy’s passion for Tofino as a destination and a community was at the forefront of her time with Tourism Tofino, Council and as a long-time Tofitian. Her spirit will be missed but her legacy and efforts will live on in the community,” read a statement from Tourism Tofino’s executive director Shane Richards.
Stere noted that while Baert was one of the pioneers of Tofino’s tourism industry, she was also one of the first to sound the alarm over its rapid growth as she raised a passionate voice for residents in search of housing as local accommodations began switching over to nightly rentals for tourists.
Christine Lowther said she was always grateful to see Baert’s fiery willingness to protect Tofino’s trees and greenspaces.
“Fearless. Strong. Integrity,” Lowther told the Westerly while describing Baert. “We didn’t always agree, she even fired me once…I always voted for her. She was kickass, often the only one speaking up for trees at council meetings…I was always really relieved when she spoke up because nobody else was speaking up and I was like, ‘Right on Dorothy.’”
She added that Baert had stopped her on First Street to talk about letters Lowther had written to council regarding preserving trees and had encouraged her to relaunch the Tofino Natural Heritage Society.
Stere was elected to Tofino’s municipal council in October’s election and said Baert’s was a respected and powerful voice at the council table. He added that he had attended a council meeting with Baert the day prior to her death and that “she was on fire” with poignant questions and comments.
“Nothing was personal with Dorothy. She had those prickly edges, but it was never personal,” he said.
“There was no facade…She was not afraid. There was no fear. She was not going to say something because she was going to either be liked or re-elected, she said what her firm beliefs were and she stuck to them. You might not always agree, but you knew where you stood that’s for sure.”
He said the news of her death was “surreal” and he was shocked.
“I was a 21 year old boy when I met her and she’s one of the most significant people in my life…It’s pretty intense,” he said. “In general, we accept birth and death. What we have troubles with, I think, are when things are unexpected…That suddenness takes time to comprehend.”
He added that, while the community has lost one of its most revered community leaders, the impacts of her passion will continue to grow.
“She was a passionate voice for this community and one that cared deeply, deeply, about the people and the place and the spirit,” he said. “We gained so much. We are losing the individual, but what she’s laid the foundations for is only to carry forward.”
The district’s announcement did not provide details regarding a cause of death, other than to state it was sudden and unexpected. A BC Coroners Service spokesperson said the death is not being investigated.
Baert was serving her fourth term on Tofino’s municipal council and a byelection is expected to be held in the fall.
Information about a funeral service was not available at presstime.