Debbie Scarborough. (Brennan Phillips - Penticton Western News)

Penticton Women in Business: A fighter and leader for women

Debbie Scarborough has been a coroner, firefighter and advocate for women

Included in Wednesday’s print edition is our Women in Business magazine where we highlight South Okangan women who are making a difference in the community and in the business world. Below is a profile on Debbie Scarborough, who is featured in the magazine.

At 61, Debbie Scarborough has been an auxiliary police officer, a firefighter, a coroner, an advocate for women and children fleeing domestic violence and most recently she has taken up the position of provincial manager on the B.C. First Nations Justice Council for women and children.

The only thing she hasn’t been is a paramedic, and not for a lack of interest.

“When I became a firefighter I phoned my kids and they said, ‘Most people run from fires,’ and I said ‘I know, that’s going to be the fun thing,’” Scarborough says. “I would love to be a paramedic, it was the one thing I always wanted to do, but I’m too old now.”

The sun is out for the interview, and the passion in her voice is clear as she sits outside and enjoys her coffee.

In her current position, Scarborough is working with the B.C. First Nations Justice Council as the provincial manager for women and children to ensure that their voices are heard and that they are taken into account with everything the BCFNJC does, including the First Nations Justice Strategy.

“It’s the only one in Canada, so Ottawa is watching us, and all the other provinces are watching us,” said Scarborough. “We’re almost walking on the bridge as we’re building it.”

Addressing the over-representation of Indigenous women who are incarcerated, and the over-representation of Indigenous children in care and juvenile imprisonment are the two top focuses for her at the moment.

Part of that includes taking the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls report and building a collaborative strategy for Indigenous women.

Beyond that is the BCFNJC’s work towards First Nations’ jurisdiction over their child protection and justice systems.

As a coroner, one of her goals is to ensure that the First Nations death protocols and traditions are taken into account, as well as helping the families of the deceased.

“People ask me how I could do that work. If I have the ability to make someone’s worst day a little easier, why wouldn’t I?” she asked rhetorically, recounting some of the personal experiences starting with a classmate’s murder in high school.

Two among those she knew, Lana Derrick and Ramona Wilson, were among the far too many who were murdered on the Highway of Tears.

“I can only imagine should that happen to me.”

The personal connection to what she does is part of her personal life as well as her career.

Having gone through child services as a child, in addition to her four biological children, she helped take in close to 60 foster children, including those who need extra support or had survived trauma themselves. Scarborough’s father was born in Hong Kong, and she didn’t know her mother.

After 45 years in Terrace, Scarborough studied childbirth education, before becoming one of the first police-based victim services workers. She joined the RCMP as an auxiliary officer for seven years, before she left after being brought onto the parole board.

During that time she was running a transition house for women and children fleeing violence. She also worked on disasters, and then with RCMP to help those thinking of suicide.

“They would go in and secure the scene, make sure there were no weapons, and then I would work with them. It was a huge privilege.”

After leaving Terrace in 2008, after receiving the Order of Terrace and facing down a bout of cancer, Scarborough and her family went to Winnipeg, where she taught post-secondary and continued to work on disasters.

With her experience in the field, Scarborough came to the Okanagan in 2014 to take up the position of executive director for SOWINS.

“We had the Dream Team for six-and-a-half years. We tripled services, we built our admin office on Westminster, we bought the new transition house where every woman has their own room, their own bathroom,” said Scarborough. “That’s dignity.”

It’s not easy to stay on top of all that work but one thing that Scarborough made sure to emphasize was that her work at SOWINS, and the BCFNJC, would not be possible without the people she works with.

“That was the Dream Team at SOWINS, maybe we can call this one the A-Team,” she said.

It’s a lot of Zoom calls, a lot of meetings with people in all levels of government and outside of it for the last three months since she started her position, and she is always staying active.

“I’ve got my dual laptops, I’ve got stand-up, my antique mat in my office,” said Scarborough. “I’ve played nearly every sport, basketball, soccer, coached hockey.”

When she had been a part of the RCMP they required their officers to be trained markspeople, and as a firefighter, she had to keep to the same physical requirements as any other firefighter.

Staying active and moving is how she finds her balance, with beehives, fruit trees, a vegetable garden and a two-year-old Labrador retriever.

“I try to get up every morning and go walk along the KVR, and when things get too tough, as they can, being a coroner, I like to box.”

At the core of what she does though, is that passion that is clear from listening to her talk.

“I love what I do, and I am so fortunate to always love what I do,” said Scarborough. “If I wasn’t passionate about what I do, I would have to go do something else.”