City mourns loss of Matt Pearce
When he was on the run with a football, leading the pack up the rugby field or taking his team on his shoulders on the basketball court, trying to stop Matt Pearce was like trying to stop a hurricane.
He’d blow right by you.
As a teacher, as a union leader, as a coach, as a family man and as a friend, Pearce was well-schooled in knowing what was honourable and righteous and took pride in passing on those attributes to the people whose lives he touched.
Early Saturday morning at his home in the city, Pearce died suddenly at age 48, likely of a heart attack. First responders were called to the house at about 2 a.m. and were unsuccessful in their efforts to revive him.
Born in Prince George in 1967, Pearce attended school at Foothills elementary, Lakewood junior secondary and Prince George secondary, where he graduated in 1985. He got started in football in the Prince George Minor Football Association and gained a reputation as a devastating six-foot-two, 205-pound fullback. He earned a scholarship to attend UBC and was named the Canada West Conference rookie of the year in 1985. The following season he led the T-birds to their second-ever Vanier Cup national championship, a 25-23 win over the Western Ontario Mustangs.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers drafted him into the CFL in 1989 with their fourth-round pick, 32nd overall. He won the 1990 Grey Cup with the Bombers and played 122 regular season games over seven seasons as a fullback and on special teams. He retired following the 1995 season and completed his teaching degree that year at Simon Fraser University.
He was hired in 1995 to teach at Duchess Park secondary school and was there until 2009, when he left his teaching job at Duchess Park to join the Prince George District Teachers Association, as first vice-president, then served two years as president beginning in July 2011.
In September of that year, teachers began what would become a 10-month job action — the longest province-wide strike in the 93-year history of the B.C. Teachers Federation. The strike escalated in February 2012 when the province tabled Bill 22 legislation, which made it illegal for teachers to bargain on class size and composition, a right that had been restored the year before by the B.C. Supreme Court. In March, the province’s 41,000 teachers withdrew from all extracurricular activities and took up picket lines in a three-day walkout.
The BCTF filed court actions to challenge Bill 22, which also took away teachers’ right to strike, and under the threat of heavy fines they returned to their jobs. After weeks of consultation orchestrated by mediator Charles Jago, the labour dispute ended in late June when teachers voted 75 per cent in favour of accepting a two-year contract which brought modest gains in benefits to teachers, but no wage increases and no improvements in class size and composition.
Throughout their job action, the outspoken Pearce was the lightning rod, organizing sign-waving teachers for street-side protests in response to their dissatisfaction with the contract-stripping legislation.
At the time of the settlement, Pearce pointed out in a Citizen story that since province-wide bargaining was introduced in 1996, there has been just one negotiated teachers’ contract settled without job action.
“It’s obvious that the structures around provincial bargaining don’t work, never have,” said Pearce. “The NDP brought that in in 1996 and it’s never functioned. It’s been very consistent, with the one exception of when they wanted a five-year deal (in 2006) to get them through the Olympics.”
Pearce resigned as PGDTA president in July 2013 and returned to teach science at College Heights secondary school that September.
College Heights senior girls volleyball coach Jason Olexyn, a teacher at the John McInnis Centre and longtime friend of Pearce and his family, graduated from the SFU teachers training program at the same time as Pearce. He said teachers were fortunate to have Pearce as their leader to unite their efforts to create better working conditions.
“He was a great family man, great father and great husband, with a great sense of humour, I can’t say enough good stuff about him,” said Olexyn. “He was a great advocate for teachers, he believed strongly in the rights of teachers and the whole human rights aspect of breaking of the contract. He was a firm believer that we were wronged and he was going to do everything in his power to make it right again. He was a wonderful man who will be missed dearly.”
Pearce was inducted into the Prince George Sports Hall of Fame in 1999. As a role model for his phys-ed students, he had remained active and fit as a coach and referee, working out regularly in the gym. The night of his death he refereed a men’s league basketball game.
“He’s touched so many people in so many ways in this community,” said Jay Guillet, who teaches phys-ed at College Heights secondary. “He was a friend, and I remember him as a kid going to school in Grade 8, we were at Lakewood junior together. I watched him as an athlete and he was incredible. Basketball, track, football, cycling, cross-country skiing, and he was a golfer as well, whenever there was an activity, Matt would do it. He was definitely a doer, and as a teacher he would speak up for us. We’re just in disbelief right now.”
Pearce was a rugby star playing inside centre for the Prince George Gnats and he loved the game. He was known as a straight-line runner with good hands who mowed down his opponents. At the time of his death, Pearce was co-coach of the Condors junior and senior football teams and was an assistant coach with the senior boys basketball team. His son Colburn is a star athlete at Duchess Park, playing on all three school teams his dad coached this school year.
Richard Bundock played midget football as teenagers with Pearce in the early-1980s and this year helped Pearce coach both Condor football teams, where they both had sons playing.
“It was a great friendship and we were looking forward to what we were going to do this year,” said Bundock, who also played rugby with Pearce. “It was just fun to coach together and watch each other’s kid. He would watch Zack and I would watch Colburn and it was half being coach and half being dad. We used each other as buffers.
“I don’t think you’d ever find anybody who would say a bad thing about him. The community is going to feel the loss. You are not going to fill those shoes.
“He played football at such a high level but he was also a good coach in football and basketball and a good person. He coached with positivity and he enjoyed it. Most dads can’t coach their own kids, but he could. Colburn is a special athlete and he was so proud of him. Colburn’s best attributes are his attitude and his leadership and his values, not his physical (ability), and you can see where it came from. He gets that from his dad and mom. They’re just great people.”
Pearce is survived by his wife Sherrie, 20-year-old daughter Tenley, 15-year-old son Colburn and by his father Ross and sister Keirsten.