When news broke that Thompson MLA Danielle Adams had been killed in a vehicle collision on Highway 6 before noon on Dec. 9, it’s safe to say that the reaction of pretty much everyone who knew her or knew of her was shock.
Sudden death is difficult to process. A person is literally there one moment and then another moment later they are gone. Dying happens this way regardless of the circumstances in which someone perishes, but when someone is elderly, for example, or has been sick and in the hospital, the people around them have had time to adjust to the reality that the end may be approaching so that, when it finally arrives, they’ve already made their peace with it, at least partially.
Adams’s death was shocking for many reasons. A major reason is because she was a public figure, though hardly what one would term famous. Another is that the north is a small place. The degrees of separation between any one resident of Northern Manitoba and anther are not that great. There are ties through sports, through work, through family and through proximity. Although the north is geographically spread out, many of its residents come to Thompson at one point or another, whether it’s just to buy Christmas presents, to play in a hockey tournament or to receive medical care. It’s a place where it feels like you know everybody even if you don’t. To paraphrase an expression Mayor Colleen Smook often uses, Thompson is a city of 12,000 people with 50,000 neighbours. And Thompson’s MLA probably knew more people than most.
For 10 years prior to her election as the riding’s first female legislator in September 2019, Adams worked as the constituency assistant for NDP MP Niki Ashton, who represents an even larger and more spread out electoral district in the House of Commons. They made many trips to many communities together and Adams appreciated the importance of face-to-face contact and building personal relationships in person. When she stepped forward from behind the scenes to become the NDP’s candidate to try to unseat one-term Progressive Conservative MLA Kelly Bindle, Adams took that lesson to heart, making sure to visit many of the communities in the riding, which was expanded to include Gillam, Nelson House and Churchill along with other Bay Line communities in 2018. During her campaign, she drew attention to the fact that Bindle had not visited some of the communities in the expanded riding. Although she would have squeaked out a narrow victory had the election only included Thompson, Adams absolutely dominated outside of city limits, collecting more votes than her opponents in all but three of the riding’s outlying communities. Undoubtedly many of those who heard about Adams’s death when it was first announced on Thursday evening weren’t just mourning a politician but a politician who they had met. For some, she may have been someone who helped them with some sort of problem. In at least one case, she and one of her colleagues were able to help someone in Winnipeg, a person who could not possibly vote for Adams, to receive a COVID-19 vaccination in their home, which they could not leave for medical reasons. Although, like anyone who seeks elected office, Adams was ambitious, she didn’t try to seek out the limelight and seems to have been widely regarded as a genuinely nice and caring person, characteristics that may not be considered exciting but are definitely underrated. Despite that, she wasn’t shy about levelling criticism where she felt it was warranted in her role as MLA.
Adams’s death also resonates because the way it happened was very, very relatable to her constituents and to those in neighbouring electoral districts: setting out on a highway in winter to get somewhere you need to be, even though you’d probably rather not be driving in such uncertain conditions through sometimes remote terrain if you had the choice. Adams’s friend and longtime colleague Niki Ashton as well as her father Steve, who represented Thompson in the Manitoba legislature for 35 years, alluded to this in social media tributes to Adams. Many northerners, if they haven’t actually ended up in the ditch or worse, have at least one experience of drifting a little bit into the deeper snow on the shoulder or hitting a patch of ice and feeling their vehicle shimmy or maybe even fishtail a little bit before getting back on track. Once you’ve recovered, you might slow down a bit for the next few kilometres or make sure your mind doesn’t wander from the task at hand but you try to put it out of your thoughts as well because the consequences of not having recovered from it are potentially too serious to dwell on.
Of course, not everybody agreed with Adams politically. More than 2,000 people in the riding voted for other candidates in the 2019 election. But many can probably relate to caring about their community, wanting to see improvements in how the provincial government serves the north and believing in things not because they would be a benefit to one’s self, but because deep down they seem like the right things to do.