The Sisters Crandall

Local Heroes: Sheilagh Crandall, Sarah Crandall Haney and Debbe Crandall.

November 18, 2008 | | Back Issues | Community | Local Heroes | Winter 2008

The Sisters Crandall: Three of our 2008 Local Heroes

This Ain’t Petticoat Junction

The kitchen table at the old Crandall farm house in Caledon is a place where big ideas happen, but you need to be pretty sharp to keep up.

Across this table was born the board game Trivial Pursuit. It also saw the birth of what eventually became legislation to protect the Oak Ridges Moraine. Across this table the plight of whales – yes, whales – is debated, the latest research scrutinized, personal investments to save them discussed. Across this table the names of local community organizations, and the time and support they need, drift thick, like steam from the coffee cups.

The Crandall sisters, Sheilagh, Sarah and Debbe, didn’t always call Caledon home. The three, along with sister Marce and brother Taylor spent their early years in isolated northern Manitoba, where their father worked in mining exploration for INCO.

“It made us self-contained as a family,” remembers Debbe. “From that I think we got a sense of closeness.” When the family moved to Caledon in 1967, their parents embarked on a campaign to reforest the farm. “They planted 140,000 trees here,” says Sarah. “Every weekend we’d be out stamping trees into the ground. I think that’s where we got our work ethic from.”

In the early 1980s, the lives of the Crandall sisters took a sharp turn. Sarah’s husband at the time, Chris Haney, and his partners had an idea for a board game, and Chris prompted his in-laws to become investors. The result, Trivial Pursuit (the ‘l’ in trivial added by Sarah), has since gone on to be one of the most successful games of all time, with nearly 100 million copies sold.

Such a financial windfall might have made others forget their community; for the Crandall sisters it was the opposite. As Sarah puts it: “I feel a personal responsibility because I was blessed with good fortune. So I feel a responsibility not to fritter the money away.” Indeed, each sister has chosen to dedicate her life to causes that promote the greater good.

For Debbe, those days as a child on the farm and at the banks of its creek were life-shaping. Still a youngster when a development was proposed on property to the north of their farm, she says, “I felt a sense of injustice, in defence of this place. It also gave me a good dose of belligerence.”

Years later, that same sense of injustice inspired her to become a driving force behind efforts to protect the Oak Ridges Moraine as a whole. Though Debbe points to contributions by others, Sheilagh says, “We figure she saved the moraine single-handedly.” Few would debate that the boast holds more fact than fiction. As part of the organization STORM, or Save The Oak Ridges Moraine, Debbe spent the 1990s as an instrumental player in the grassroots movement that culminated in the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act.

These days, that passion is as strong as ever. “In 2001, when the legislation was passed, we thought it was done,” she says, “but really it had just begun.” Debbe has served as executive director of STORM since 1999, and now leads the charge to ensure the Act is effectively implemented. “There’s a need to monitor and make sure the rules are followed. We provide a balance.”

Debbe is now also chair of the Oak Ridges Moraine Foundation, an appointee to the Greenbelt Council (an advisory body for the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing), and a member of the Caledon Environmental Advisory Committee.

Debbe is quick to credit Trivial Pursuit for allowing her to pursue her anything-but-trivial passion for the moraine. “I could never have done what I did if I had been working to earn a living,” she says. Paradoxically, she also sees a whole other value in her current paid position with STORM: “I feel like I’m actually worth something now.”

For Sarah, a one-time registered nurse and current co-owner and director of Devil’s Pulpit Golf Association, geography has little bearing on philanthropy, even if it does seem a bit odd that the chair of the Canadian Whale Institute lives in landlocked Caledon.

In the fall of 1991, during a trip to Patagonia, she observed research on the endangered South Atlantic Right Whale, finding them “curious, gentle, friendly creatures,” Sarah says. “It was a defining moment. I knew what to do with the rest of my life.”

By 1997 she was ready to launch the Canadian Whale Institute, and roped in Debbe in to serve on the board of directors. With an annual budget of $185,000, the organization supports research, conservation and stewardship projects. Sarah has also sat on the board of three other ocean-research organizations, and her commitment to the cause doesn’t stop there.

Recently, she purchased the Salmon Coast Field Station belonging to Raincoast Research Society in British Columbia. The society provides vital data on whales and the impact of salmon farming along the BC coast, and Sarah learned that the operation was on the verge of closure due to financial struggles. Using her own money, she bought the facility, invested in capital upgrades, and in June of this year sold it back to them for one dollar.

Then there’s the chimps. “Don’t get me started on the chimps.”

Though Sarah and Sheilagh are twins, Sheilagh will tell you that she’s the older sister – by ten minutes. A landscaper and professional gardener, Sheilagh is the current resident of the beloved family farmhouse, though Debbe lives right next door, and Sarah down the road. Taylor and Marce live outside the province.

Sheilagh’s volunteer efforts are more local, though no less focussed on the big picture. As chair of the Caledon chapter of the Oak Ridges Trail Association, she supports Debbe’s passion, and finds a way to mix good causes: “The trail system has been amazing to practise for the Calendar Girls Breast Cancer Walk.”

Sheilagh is also a long-time supporter of the annual dinner and auction in support of Headwaters Health Care Centre, and served as its chair in 2007. The event, which raised $350,000 this year, attracts the well-heeled of the area, but as Sheilagh points out, the aim is practical: “I support the hospital because it’s where we’ll all end up – and our kids and grandkids.”

She also participates as an actor and director with Inglewood Schoolhouse Performers, who in addition to staging performances also volunteer their energies to assist community organizations running charity events. That work has brought Sheilagh in contact with the Humber Valley Trail Association, the Headwaters Arts Festival and the Palgrave Rotary Club.

When asked why she dedicates so much of her life to volunteerism, she ponders the question. Later, she answers concisely: “Humanity demands it.”

Perhaps Debbe best sums up what these three remarkable women receive in return for their lives of community service: “These days I keep feeling waves of connection. Even my enemies and opponents seem dear to me. It’s the goddamnedest feeling. I guess it’s love.

About the Author More by Jeff Rollings

Jeff Rollings is a freelance writer living in Caledon.

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