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Diane Bernard: municipal matriarch turning a bailiwick into a Sooke success

Bernard has been an integral cog in Sooke’s politics and the business community
Diane Bernard outside Seaflora’s office on Otter Point Road in Sooke. (Bailey Moreton - Sooke News Mirror)

Diane Bernard has gone from politics to seaweed and back again.

A life-long fascination with seaweed started at a young age and grew until she became “The Seaweed Lady,” as her company Seaflora’s website proclaims. As Bernard says, it takes grit, guts, and a smidgen of skookum to turn a bailiwick into a success. But it also requires support from the government and commitment to protecting the environment.

Bernard started as a municipal matriarch, sitting on the school board – overseeing the construction of Edward Milne Community School and Journey Middle School – and then serving for three years as the regional director of the Sooke electoral area before the district incorporated.

After she lost in the next election for the regional director, unemployment was high (8.3 per cent in the province in 1999 – higher only in 2002 and 2020), and interest rates were high (4.92 per cent bank rate versus 0.75 per cent today.)

Those conditions made it tough for businesses. Bernard said she saw how others were struggling in Sooke and decided to look to her roots for inspiration. Bernard grew up on the East Coast of Canada, where her father and uncles would use seaweed to keep the lobster in their traps cool while they brought their catch to market.

She started researching and experimenting with stuff she was able to pull from the sea in her backyard and making recipes in her fridge. Her sons at the time were not impressed.

“They were probably the only teenagers who didn’t want to go rifling through the fridge.”

She found a local and national appetite for seaweed pulled out of the ocean without being processed with chemicals, especially in the spa industry. The company pivoted towards skincare – they’re working on rereleasing a consumption menu shortly, returning to food. The company’s skincare products have spread widely into Asia and Europe. Throughout that growth, keeping the product natural was essential to the company’s success and was also crucial to Bernard.

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Spreading a message about the importance of protecting the environment, mainly marine life, has featured in her politics and business. She occasionally still runs seaweed tours, which talk about the benefits of the plant but also about the importance of protecting the environment.

Seaflora is moving away from plastic packaging, aiming to sell its products in entirely glass packaging by the end of 2022.

She backed the Green Party candidate in a recent federal election. She was also one of the first members of Sooke’s climate action committee. “That was a long, hard haul, and the burnout rate was extraordinarily high – bringing council along to get it to where we did.” Bernard was on that committee for two years before leaving.

“If this town is serious about tourism, we have to be serious about (protecting the environment). If the town is serious about fishing, we have to be serious. These are all wild resources. I have a wild resource. We have a wild resource. So that’s the message, and if we take care of it, it’ll take care of us, it will provide us with a very healthy livelihood, real jobs for people in the community.”

Growing local businesses and organizations is also crucial to Bernard. She’s been a member of various women in business groups, offering mentorship to others looking to expand their home businesses. She pulled her businesses’ support from the David Suzuki Foundation and replied that she wanted to focus on supporting local businesses when she was asked why. That’s something the district needs to step up, added Bernard.

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“There’s no reason why home-based businesses should be reticent about exploring to get bigger, but they do need support.”

The biggest problems, as Bernard sees it is the lack of commercial space and the lack of services in Sooke. Seaflora’s employees all work and live in Sooke. The number of people who travel out of Sooke for work and services worsens climate change and hurts business, said Bernard.

“We tend to think that also doesn’t have the workforce. Well, they do, it’s in town, but they don’t have the ways and means to get jobs up here. They will take a pay cut, and they are highly skilled, and they’ll come out here if there are things for them.”

When Bernard was looking for the space to set up her business office on Otter Point Road, she couldn’t find a commercial real estate agent in Sooke. She had to go to Victoria, but that expertise is essential, especially for someone setting up a business. She was able to design the office, but it involved long hours and having her son, Adam Butcher, now chief executive officer of Seaflora, and his wife Chantelle Line staying after work and painting the building themselves and Bernard risking her house to secure the property. But not everyone can take that risk, said Bernard, which holds some businesses back.

“If they came out of their homes and were put into storefronts – even 10 per cent – it would look like Tofino. People want to go to Tofino because it looks like Tofino. But if you start pounding in McDonald’s and Tim Hortons here and a Canadian Tire? We’re Langford. So that’s the question the community has to start asking right now,” said Line.

Despite a tumultuous two years – where Butcher says they lost 98 per cent of their business to business sales in three days when the pandemic broke out – Bernard’s seaweed skincare business Seaflora is opening a retail space for the public in its office on Otter Point Road. As for Bernard, she has been retired for five years now and plans to enjoy it.

“Now it’s into the hands of the next generation, which doesn’t happen very often in Sooke.”

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