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'Tremendous legacy' left by former Surrey city councillor

Gary Robinson at a council meeting last Monday. - Evan Seal
Gary Robinson at a council meeting last Monday.
— image credit: Evan Seal

Gary Robinson has died.

The long-time former Surrey councillor, serving between 1987 and 1999, passed away early Saturday morning (Nov. 2).

Robinson had been playing hockey – one of  his many passions – for the Red Army team on Friday night, and then came home and went to sleep.

He never woke up. The cause of death is unknown at this time.

He was 57.

Robinson was a feisty force on Surrey council, serving with the Surrey Civic Electors under the mayoralty of Bob Bose and later Surrey Electors Team mayor Doug McCallum.

He was known as one of the toughest opposition councillors in recent memory.

Much like a hockey player, he would go headlong into the corners and dig at the issues until they had been fully debated.

At the end of it, there was always a big smile and a handshake; it was just the way the game was played.

One of Robinson's prouder victories on city council was having sizable green space dedicated as parkland, including Green Timbers, Sunnyside and Surrey Bend.

"Surrey Bend was a big one which he doesn't often get recognition for," his wife Susan Sanderson told The Leader Monday, adding he was also proud of the work he did getting an ice rink in South Surrey.

There was hard work on a personal level, as well. During his tenure on council, Robinson developed a cocaine addiction.

He was in for a rough ride in reaching his bottom. But on Canada Day, 2006, he put down booze and drugs and never picked them up again.

That year, he started a number of recovery homes called the Trilogy Houses, run by the Realistic Success Recovery Society.

Since its inception, he hosted and helped about 700 struggling addicts through his houses.

"He saved people's lives," his wife said. "And he made a difference in his community."

Trilogy House client John Lenec said without Robinson, he'd still be on the street using the heroin he was addicted to for 14 years.

Lenec, 50, said he has been clean and sober for 19 months, largely due to Robinson's help.

Lenec had no way to pay for recovery, and Robinson told him not to worry about it. His recovery was financed for the first few months by Robinson himself.

He raised recovery to an art form, Lenec said, probably because he cared so much.

He knew what was going on in each and every one of the lives of the 30 to 40 men in his three recovery houses, Lenec said.

The mood at the three recovery homes is extremely somber this week.

"It's kind of surreal," Lenec said, adding the grieving may not have started yet. "Maybe in a week or two when he doesn't walk through that door."

Longtime former Surrey councillor Marvin Hunt – who is now MLA for Surrey-Panorama – was elected the same year as Robinson, and he remembers how much his colleague loved to take contrary positions to strike some balance.

"I think that's one of the things he loved about politics, was the mental challenge of it all," Hunt said Tuesday. "I just chalk it up to his hockey nature, that he loved the sport of competition."

To his credit, Hunt said, Robinson kept his argument targeted at the issues, not personalities.

By far and away, the largest impact Robinson had was while he was out of office, Hunt said.

"The absolute tragedy of his addiction, and what it did to him and his family, and then for him to turn around and help others out of that same mess, that's a tremendous legacy," Hunt said.

Robinson never really left the political scene, having run in the last few municipal elections. He was also president of a new civic party called Surrey Matters, which is taking a run at council next fall.

He is survived by his wife Susan, and two sons, Derek and Trevor.

A Celebration of Life for Robinson is being held Nov. 23 at 2 p.m. at the Valley View Funeral Home, 14660 72 Ave.

The public is welcome to attend.

Donations can be made in his memory to the Realistic Success Recovery Society, 13516 80 Ave. Surrey, B.C. V3W 3C1.

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