Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne governs a seaside town that punches above its weight in business
Josie Osborne may have left behind a career as a marine biologist to be “consumed” by her role as mayor of Tofino, but there’s plenty of science behind her political modus operandi.
Osborne, 45, was acclaimed to the office in 2013, after incumbent Perry Schmunk resigned, and won the election the following year. She swapped being nosy about the ocean for delving into what makes so-called Tuff City’s 2,000 residents and almost a million yearly visitors tick. “I’m a very curious person,” Osborne says over a bowl of clams at Cardero’s Restaurant on a day trip to Vancouver for a Board of Trade meeting. “That’s the hallmark of many scientists, and so is not overreacting, being objective, and calmly taking in the information and being critical.”
She’s also a prolific social media user, not only to show her mandate “to have fun” as mayor (being soaked in a dunking booth for a fundraiser, for starters), but to communicate with citizens as much as possible. The latter duty included her response to the tragedy of whale-watching boat MV Leviathan II, which capsized off Tofino in 2015, killing six people. “Nothing prepares you for that,” she says.
Like many Tofitians, Nanaimo native Osborne, who landed in the Vancouver Island resort in 1998, never thought she’d become a long-term resident—let alone mayor. After earning a bachelor’s degree in marine biology from UBC and a master’s in resource management at SFU, she became a marine biologist with the local Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, admittedly after “truly flubbing” an earlier interview with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Vancouver. The planned-for couple of years to cut her chops turned into six in the then-sleepy fishing village, plus another nine as a fisheries consultant and running a business selling locally harvested gooseneck barnacles to Europe. After meeting her now husband, George Patterson, she also helped run the Tofino Botanical Gardens, which he established.
This career dovetails with the “entrepreneurial spirit” of a town that has 500 business licences and, according to Osborne, punches above its weight in that field. Aided by newly installed fibre optics, Tofino (median age: a young 34) is growing in sectors such as food and beverage, manufacturing, and health and wellness spas, explains the mayor, who has made it her mission to boost dialogue between local government and the business community. To that end, she helped create Tofino’s first economic development advisory committee.
In a nod to her knowledge of the ecosystem, she stresses that business must strike a balance with nature. It’s about understanding the environment’s limits to “figure out how to work and live within them,” Osborne adds. “There’s a lot of energy in Tofino, and it can also be an incubator for things—not just products, but ideas and ways of thinking. That’s why we have to preserve our connection to the wilderness, the beaches, the forest, because I think your mind works differently when you’re out in that than when you are here in downtown Vancouver.”
Tofino, however, suffers from a lack of housing, a problem that is firmly on Osborne’s agenda. She has taken measures including enforcing short-term renting regulations, enabling more development with the town’s own land or working with developers to increase supply, and favouring smaller and infill homes.
Most important, Osborne doesn’t want to be afraid of making mistakes in trying to solve these societal puzzles. Of course, council must make informed decisions, but she won’t “let the fear of doing it wrong stop us from trying—you have to have an elected leadership willing to take a risk.”
Going beyond the municipal scene to provincial or federal politics appeals to Osborne, but not now. “I love being mayor—and I honestly had no idea I would enjoy it this much.”
THREE THINGS ABOUT... JOSIE OSBORNE
1. While she was riding her bike in Tofino in 2013, the RCMP gave her a ticket for not wearing a helmet and ignoring a stop sign. The next day the mayor took a selfie at the sign–sporting a red helmet.
2. A science-fiction fan, Osborne even has a Spock sticker on her laptop. “I would guess I’ve seen Star Wars 300 times,” she says. “Some people read trashy novels; I watch Star Wars or Star Trek.”
3. Osborne would rather sing than surf (“It just didn’t grab me”) and is a member of the Tofino Choir for Grown-Ups. “Singing is so healthy, and it’s a ton of fun.”