By Christine McAllister
They say one of the reasons few women run for public office is because they wait to be asked. Elizabeth May, whom I had the opportunity to meet during the election, agreed. In fact, she said it takes multiple asks to convince women to run. “How many times did it take before you agreed to run?” someone asked. “Five”, I admitted, embarrassed.
Being an elected official has not been my life-long goal, but contributing to my community has. When I considered the opportunity to positively impact the community as a candidate and a councillor, I decided to make the leap. While I was excited, the decision came with a sense of fear and risk: my experiences, actions, words and ideas would all be very public; there could be a loss of privacy; not everyone would agree with my positions and while some people would vote for me, some wouldn’t. Marlene Catterall, a former member of parliament and mentor of mine, asked if I was willing to fail. “Yes”, I said. I may not like it, but I was willing to risk it. While I didn’t win the election, I feel the campaign was a life-affirming outcome rather than a failure. Let me explain.
I began building a campaign team last March that grew to well over 100 people by election day. The people who drafted policy, designed campaign material, canvassed, organized, worked at the Campaign Hub and helped out in other ways came from my many volunteer activities over the past 15 years. Some I hadn’t seen for years, others were close friends and neighbours. My work colleagues joined me and many new people also signed on. I loved spending time with everyone on the team and feel that was a great reward in itself.
The other great reward was meeting people from across Capital Ward and learning about different organizations, events and issues that have big impacts on our neighbourhoods. I am an extrovert so knocking on doors and introducing myself to residents, while initially daunting, was something I quickly came to enjoy. I loved hearing personal stories and about issues. I heard about the many traffic challenges in different neighbourhoods and came to understand how infrastructure can affect mobility and isolation through meeting seniors. Students talked about the need for affordable housing and many talked about new development and the character of our neighbourhoods. I learned about organizations in the ward that help others such as Empathy House and Senior Watch Old Ottawa South, and attended super-fun community-building events such as the Old Ottawa East Main Event and the OSCA Fall Fest.
There were some challenges too, the biggest of which I found to be the focus on me as the candidate. I will never forget the first day I stood beside a life-sized picture of myself – talk about weird! Seeing my name on signs all over the ward was a little odd and immensely rewarding. I had to push myself to speak overtly and confidently about my community and professional achievements – this was a particular challenge as most of those achievements were made possible by working with teams of people, not just me on my own. But when you are running for election, you are standing on your own record and you need to speak it loudly. I was asked about many subjects that were new to me (for instance, the importance of public toilets, a question at the all-candidates meeting at the Glebe Community Centre that caught me completely by surprise). Similarly, I had to develop a comfort level with engaging on social media where many people go to become informed.
I may not have won the election but we engaged many people and offered a strong choice for voters. This contributed to the city’s highest voter turnout of all the wards (52 per cent). Many residents have reached out to thank me for running. My volunteer team had a lot of fun, learned about local issues, acquired new campaign skills they’ll use in future elections and felt they were a part of a broader community. A new book club has come out of it, as have many new friendships. To me, that all feels like a big win!
I have some advice, particularly for young girls and women. First, it is easy to take the simple, safe path, but you have much more to gain by taking a risk and trying something that scares you. Don’t be afraid of “failure.” You’ll learn in ways you never expected, grow in ways that will give you strength and the ability to help others in ways you can’t imagine. Second, if you’ve never thought about running for office, you should. We need more women to run at all levels of public office and more women to win. Think of it as a different way to serve our community. You have more qualifications and credentials than you give yourself credit for and you can make a big contribution. Besides, the worst thing that will happen is that you could lose – and even if that’s the outcome, you’ll still be a winner.
Christine McAllister is a former president of the Glebe Community Association and was a candidate for Capital Ward Councillor in the recent municipal election.