There are few true giants in the world. People who impact everything they touch. Who have the strength to lift up people and communities. My friend Mel Boutilier was one. When he passed away this week at the age of 92 the world lost a champion. A champion for good. For conviction. For raising people up beyond their circumstances.
Mel was a dreamer. At first you sometimes thought what Mel is proposing couldn’t be done. Over the years the who’s who of Nova Scotia business would always take his calls, but often they would say to me or others, “he’s dreaming big, can he do it?” The answer was always yes because Mel always found a way to turn dreams into reality. No matter how bad things got, he often started every conversation and meeting by reminding you that “great things are happening”.
Mel was the kind of person you could never say no to. I met him in 1997 when I applied for a summer job as a truck driver. Instead he installed me on the advisory board of the Parker Street Furniture Bank. He would later convince me to run for politics. Like everything, he was hands on. He didn’t only encourage me to run, he knocked on doors in four elections (even after multiple hip replacements) and brought people out to the polls. Like most people, every time he asked for something I could only say yes. In fact, the only time I said no to him was when I decided to not run again in 2017, despite his encouragement to continue. Nothing he asked for was ever for him. It was always for someone else. Always with the goal of trying to make the community at large stronger.
He created funds to help people pay their oil bill, or electricity, or even rent so they wouldn’t be forced to payday loans or bankruptcy. Often he’d pay bills for people out of his own pocket.
I remember once when Mel called me to tell me the new building had burned. As we walked through the charred remains he said, in his positive outlook, “great things will happen”. He was devastated by the fire, but he saw it as an opportunity to grow bigger and serve more people. And he did. Implementing accredited training programs so people could learn skills actually needed in the workplace. It meant giving people a chance to escape the bonds of poverty and find meaningful employment. He was always trying to give a hand up rather than a hand out.
Beyond the first foodbank, Mel started programs to provide furniture, training, and in later years, post secondary educational support for those in need. He recognized that by providing people access to training; providing people with something as simple as a radio for company; and by providing people hope – we can, as a community, work to break the cycle of poverty.
What started as a small food bank in a shed on Parker Street wasn’t going to change the world, but the dreams Mel brought into reality have changed lives for the better. And they did change the world for many.
Just a few months ago Mel and I sat talking about his next plans and all the issues he had yet to solve in the areas of social justice. He had decades worth of plans still ready to go. At 92 having burned through multiple replacement hips, he was still raring to go.
Along the way Mel was awarded an Order of Canada and an Order of Nova Scotia for a very simple reason. He embodied what we aspire to be as Canadians. He wanted our country, our province, and our city to be a better place, a more compassionate place, and a place that recognizes that we all benefit by helping others. We could build a statue or name a building in hour of a giant of a human. But the thing that would likely mean the most to him, and honour his legacy the best, would be to follow his lead in seeing the good and equality in people, the possibility in our communities, and to help others without an expectation of anything in return. That’s what I learned from my friend Mel.