On January 26, 2017, in the warm light of Bar Robo, a standing-room-only group of Ottawa folks gathered to chat with Catherine McKenney, city councilwoman of Somerset Ward, and Ottawa’s first LGBTQ woman elected to city council. McKenney shared her experiences and knowledge with eloquence and a lot of humour!
She began by discussing her move to Ottawa, and her experience with subsidized housing and childcare. When she arrived, she was able to acquire these services within a month. She knows that now wait times for these services are 8 to 12 years. It was powerful to hear her note this change in Ottawa’s service provisions.
Her engagement with local politics comes from a personal interest in improving the quality of life of everyone in her community. Her political career began behind the scenes, working as a councilor’s assistant to Alex Munter and Diane Holmes. This experience she says gave her the opportunity to support politicians with whom she shared common goals, to work at a grassroots level of community engagement, and to meet great people.
The goal of Media Action’s Ask Women Anything speaker series is to allow the audience to ask questions directly to the speaker without a media filter, so after her short introduction McKenney let the audience direct the conversation. U.S. politics being on a lot of people’s minds, McKenney was asked how she would guide young people to make a difference. Two major themes arose from her answer: public space, and representation.
McKenney attended the Women’s March on Washington, she felt that while action like this was invaluable, when it ends people are left thinking “what now?” We as communities have public space to our advantage, we need to gather! To come together and ensure that we aren’t isolated by the turmoil stirring down south, and in our own communities. McKenney met a young Muslim woman at the Women’s March who said that this was the first time she had felt safe in a crowd since the election. Fear and isolation are debilitating, we must gather and discuss to stay strong.
McKenney further encouraged the audience to elect more women to political office. When asked about her role models McKenney said that the strength of conviction that Diane Holmes demonstrated made her think “I’d like to fight that fight”. Her move to the front lines of politics happened when Holmes left the office of city council. Faced with the lack of progressive women in politics, she decided to step up to the plate. Women tend to question themselves, to believe that we don’t deserve a seat at the table.
McKenney said from her experience once you get to the table, you realize how untrue that is. She said, “Don’t question yourself, go for it! And if you don’t succeed, don’t internalize failure, take it in as an experience part of a larger story.” As a mother, McKenney wonders what her daughters might imagine they can be in this world.
McKenney is known to be a year-round cyclist, and the audience wondered, what’s next in the city plans for improving cycling in Ottawa? McKenney will be on the front lines of a fight to make Elgin St. more cyclist friendly. She’d like to see no parking, wide sidewalks, and a reduction in the speed limit to make it safe for cyclists.
McKenney is also launching a website soon to gather information on what links need to be made between major bike paths in the city to make the cycling commute more accessible. She hopes to have input from interested citizens on where paths need to be developed. In her view “We have an ethical obligation to design roadways that eliminate danger to anyone.” She believes accessible bike paths and active living can be a way to make friends, to engage with our public spaces, and to give us new perspective on our city.
Thanks to Catherine, to Bar Robo, to Wingd and to all of the Media action volunteers for an incredible event!