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Lisa Helps

Lisa Helps smiling outdoors
  • Category: Presidents’ Alumni Award
  • UVic degree: Bachelor of Arts in History, 2002; Master of Arts in History, 2005
  • Current hometown: Victoria, BC
  • Birthplace: London, ON

About Lisa

As a community leader, Lisa Helps leaves a legacy that goes beyond the confines of city hall. Prior to entering politics, Helps worked with community members to create a not-for-profit micro-lending organization assisting small businesses to get on their feet.

As a civic leader, she recognized that running a growing city meant looking toward the future. While serving as mayor of Victoria between 2014 and 2022, Helps championed sustainable and accessible transit options, expansion of the city’s cycling infrastructure, improvement of climate readiness, support for community development and a commitment to Reconciliation. Her council also laid the groundwork for the creation of an Arts and Innovation District in Victoria.

Working closely with other municipal leaders and community stakeholders, including UVic, her collaborative approach advanced work on the region’s pressing housing challenges including climate change, housing and inclusivity.

Helps was recently appointed as a Housing Solutions Advisor to Premier David Eby to help develop BC Builds, a program to increase affordable housing supply for middle-income earners in BC.

How did your experiences at UVic shape who you are or contribute to future successes?

Being a historian and having training in history teaches you how to think critically. It teaches you that everything is always happening in a wider context. Also, as a master’s student, you need to read and digest a lot of material. So critical thinking, always [seeing] the bigger picture and the understanding that events happen in a complex system, laid the groundwork for my role as mayor. And then, all that reading sure helped with all those long council agendas.

It sounds a bit trite, but to be able to take in and digest large amounts of information and then make sense of it and then use it for good—that came out of my time at UVic.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

The work I did as mayor for the past 8 years—with the staff, the community and a whole bunch of partners. I kind of see the city as my resumé. If you look at the city in 2014 and then take a look again in 2022, there’s been some transformational change. I guess people point to the bike lanes, but also there’s a lot more housing underway and a lot more money coming into the region, both private and public money.

This is hard to quantify, but I think Victoria has a sense that more is possible—that we can think a little bit bigger than we used to. We’re no longer a small city. That feels like a success to me. People think differently about Victoria, both across the country and around the world than they did a decade ago.

What skills or traits are needed to be good at what you do?

I think what’s needed for leadership today, and I think this is a really important quality, is the ability to really be generous. There’s a lot of polarization, anger and angst right now. And the thing that I found made me most successful as mayor was when people would be angry or upset, instead of getting angry or upset back, I would say, okay, tell me more. Tell me more about why you’re feeling that way. Tell me more about why that upsets you. Tell me a little bit about how we could remedy that together. And so that generosity of spirit is a really important quality for anyone in a leadership position.

What is the best advice someone has given you?

When you’re walking into a new situation, profession or leadership capacity—in a context that you’re unfamiliar with—make sure that you listen first, and settle in and understand the landscape before jumping in too deeply.

What’s your advice to a younger person considering a similar path as you or uncertain about their future?

Always be relentlessly authentic. There’s so much fabrication and so much veneer and so much posturing and so much tweeting about this and that. To be relentlessly authentic is difficult, but it is very rewarding. And it’s also disarming, in a good way. If you show up in a place where you’re just who you are, just yourself, it gives other people permission to do the same.

What is something small or large that you do for others?

The short answer is I dedicated the last 11 years of my life, the last 8 in particular, where every waking moment was dedicated to others.

What is something you do for yourself?

Surfing is my go-to thing to completely return to myself. I had a surfboard for 20 years, but I bought myself a new surfboard—a long board—as a gift for leaving the mayor’s office. When I finished, the first thing I did was go surfing in Tofino for a week.

About the Distinguished Alumni Awards

Nominations for the 2024 awards are now closed. Nominations for the 2025 Distinguished Alumni Awards are open through Oct. 18, 2024.