Many are watching closely as residents of St. John’s prepare to vote in an election that could result in a dramatic change in how municipal politics are conducted in the capital city, and subsequently how the city’s future is determined.
With 10 women running for council—more than any other election in at least the last two decades—and a number of young candidates running on progressive policy issues they say have been underrepresented on a council that lacks diversity, several candidates and observers say St. John’s is at a crossroads.
Council’s diversity deficiency
For years candidates vying for seats on St. John’s city council and observers have noted the lack of diversity in a governing body dominated primarily by middle-aged or older white men.
A 2014 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report indexing gender equality in Canada’s 20 largest metropolitan areas noted that St. John’s 2013 municipal election marked the first time a woman had not been elected to council since 1969, and that women’s representation on council had been historically low.
In 2016 former councillor Sheilagh O’Leary was re-elected in a Ward 4 by-election and has since been the lone female voice on council.
The single mother, artist and former co-chair of Equal Voice NL has led the province-wide campaign to ban plastic shopping bags and in St. John’s has championed other environmental issues, but often without adequate support from other councillors.
Now running for deputy mayor, O’Leary says she’s excited about the number of young people in their 20s and 30s who have put their names on the ballot.
“The reality is you need six votes if you want to enact anything progressive that you bring forward to council, and that’s the bottom line,” she says. “It’s about teamwork, and we have not had that kind of relationship between councillors.”
Some of the young hopefuls say the lack of diversity on council prompted them to enter the race.
Hope Jamieson, a 28-year-old mother, yoga instructor and activist running for the Ward 2 seat, says St. John’s residents “woke up the day after the last municipal election to a very uniform perspective represented, and I think we’ve seen the ramifications of that over the past four years,” referring to what she says is a lack of accountability and transparency, coupled with a tendency for council to base decisions on ideas and beliefs not shared by many of the city’s more than 200,000 residents.
She says the lack of representation “spawned the surge of new and diverse and progressive people running for council.
“We’ve said, okay, we’re frustrated, we’re not seeing ourselves and our neighbours represented among the people that we can vote for, so let’s stop complaining and do something about that and build a council where we engage meaningfully with our neighbours, where we make space for voices from diverse communities at the council table.”
Following the announcement last spring by Maggie Burton that the young mother, business owner and musician would run for a councillor at large seat, St. John’s resident and small business owner Chris Shortall put out a call on social media, offering to pay the $50 registration fee for any other young women who would put their names forward.
He decided to put out his offer via social media “because it is necessary for council to be an eclectic group with diverse knowledge and experiences,” he says.
“Groupthink, lack of passion, and tired, mundane and routine thinking has pervaded St. John’s councils for quite some time; it needs an injection of creativity and youthful vigour.”
One of the people who responded to his offer was 35-year-old Renee Sharpe, who, with the encouragement of a friend who offered to be her campaign manger, entered the mayoral race against council veteran Danny Breen and former St. John’s Mayor Andy Wells.
Sharpe, a welder by trade, Wen-Do women’s self-defense instructor and self-proclaimed “proud working class Newfoundlander,” said in a recent mayoral debate that “there’s a movement now for better representation on city council, there’s a movement for younger people while valuing the people who are well-seasoned, there’s a movement for people of colour, for Indigenous people, for people from the LGBTQ community.”
She says she hopes the movement will produce results in this election, and that she and other progressive young voices running for council are “working as if this is our time.”
Ian Froude, a 31-year-old civil engineer and entrepreneur running for the Ward 4 seat, says St. John’s is “stuck in a place where there’s a lot of status quo and a lot of older thinking,” and that council needs a “fresh perspective on how to tackle some of these challenges and approaches.”
Froude, who founded the popular community non-profit St. John’s Tool Library last year, says the way to address the quandary is to diversify the voices on council and for councillors to engage in “respectful politics”.
Emily Deming, who reports on St. John’s City Council meetings for local alt-newspaper The Overcast, thinks a more diverse council will facilitate better decorum in the council chambers.
“Generally, when you have a more diverse group, everybody gets a little nervous — and that’s a good thing,” she says, explaining the uncertainty among councillors as to how to behave around peers with diverse backgrounds often forces people to “stick to the rules”.
Young candidates organized, focused on long-term thinking
Deming says many of the young candidates have distinguished themselves with detailed platforms and unique, specific ideas about how to address problems often regarded as insurmountable. Social issues like inequality, racism, mental health and addiction are on the table in the 2017 election campaign, as is climate change.
“Some of them seem to be really engaged in the process and possibly understand the processes of city hall better than some of the councillors that are on there now,” Deming explains, using Burton as a case in point.
“She stands out head and shoulders above anybody I’ve seen on council and anybody running for council in terms of getting herself familiarized not only with what can be done but what can be done realistically.”
Climate change features in the platforms of Burton, Jamieson, Froude, incumbent Dave Lane and others, who say municipal governments have an ability to lead local efforts to address what is widely regarded as the greatest global challenge of our time.
Several candidates argue the city can take important steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by addressing other longstanding issues, including accessibility, wetland conservation, and studying the energy efficiency of municipal buildings.
Jamieson says the political will has to exist first, and that current and recent councils have resisted enacting policies that would help the city move toward a low carbon economy — like providing adequate public transit and infrastructure that would allow all people, regardless of age and ability, to move about the city freely.
“The pushback that I see from city hall to this point is that, well, that would require a cultural change,” she says. “But I believe that the folks at city hall are tasked with shaping the culture of this city as we move forward; so if there’s a cultural change that we have to make we have to give people the tools to make that.”
That cultural change will come when residents feel included and connected, Jamieson explains, which means helping those who are currently marginalized.
Mixed zoning, better snow clearing and cycling infrastructure, complete sidewalk networks “so folks of all abilities are able to move about all 12 months of the year” will all help “create a sense of community and a sense of connection with our neighbours,” she argues, explaining the cultivation of a stronger sense of community and connection is foundational for more transformative change.
Sharpe, who has worked with and advocated on behalf of marginalized communities, is delivering a similar social justice-based message in her bid for mayor.
She says St. John’s has “enough money to take care of everyone,” and that providing equal opportunities for all residents should be top priority. “We are a small city, and historically we take care of our people.”
Sharpe is advocating for anti-poverty efforts, including the implementation of harm reduction resources to support people living with opioid addiction, better housing, and more adequate supports for Indigenous people, sex workers, and those living with mental health problems.
Darrell Power, a businessman, talk show radio host and musician who is running for an at large seat on council, says people are often overwhelmed by the immensity or complexity of big issues, and that focusing on the “small things” would help create a “sea change” in St. John’s.
Power highlighted the issue of food security, saying he would like to work with restaurants and grocery stores to reduce food waste, while exploring the possibility of expanding community gardens so that people and families can grow their own food.
“St. John’s has the chance to be a beacon for the province, and even for the rest of the country, in terms of how we can turn [things] around and improve things,” he says.
“In 2017, it’s high time we start thinking more progressive thoughts about where we want to be in 20 years as opposed to being weighed down by the problems of today; we need a longer term strategy. And I think there’s some young people and some new fresh [ideas] that are coming to council who can potentially do that.”
Froude says the St. John’s Tool Library, which allows residents to borrow tools for home renovations or other projects at an affordable price, is an example of both the possibilities that exist in St. John’s, and of residents’ appetite for change.
The project “represents a different sort of city and a different sort of economy that we want to live in,” he explains. “And I think there’s been an undercurrent of a new type of community action and politics happening in our province and in our city.”
While Jamieson and Sharpe argue poverty and inequality need to be addressed in order for the city to evolve in a healthy way, Jamieson says the council elected on Sept. 26 can make its first order of business the establishment of a set of shared values by which it will govern.
“The place from which all our decisions need to stem is a really clear vision of what we want St. John’s to look like in the future,” she says, explaining that vision could be informed by a “clear statement of what our values are and where we want to move to as we shape our city for the future.”
Incumbents Lane and O’Leary are both pushing for greater transparency and accountability, arguing residents, including demographics not represented on council, ought to be part of the discussion and decision-making processes in city hall.
O’Leary says she recently became aware of legislative changes that allow the City of St. John’s to invite youth representatives to the table at council meetings to discuss and debate issues before council votes. The youth representatives wouldn’t have a vote, but she says they would “have a voice” and “change the dynamic of the meetings in terms of decorum and respect.”
Since youth representatives are for youth under the age of 18, O’Leary also recently promised the Canadian Federation of Students – Newfoundland and Labrador that if elected she will advocate for a post-secondary representative on the Metrobus Commission and the Housing Committee so that students have a voice on two of the issues that affect them most.
Lane, meanwhile, is proposing council introduce a public discussion or “Q&A period” at the beginning or end of all council meetings so that residents can pose direct questions to council on a weekly basis.
“I think we are now starting to recognize that involving more voices in decision-making isn’t scary and that there are ways to make this work,” he says, explaining residents will “trust council more if you just kind of open the doors and let them be a part of how you’re making decisions.”
Plagued by mail-in ballot problems, outcome hinges on election day turnout
Deming says the fact that a number of young people “ran campaigns that got attention and were pretty organized indicates, whether they win or not in this election, that a major change in municipal politics is possible.
“But only if people stay involved,” she warned, saying patterns from previous elections demonstrate that candidates often have to run three or four times before finally being elected.
“The biggest status quo is if voter turnout stays the same, and if new people who are running don’t run again.”
Last week the City announced the ballot return rate during the first week of the mail-in voting period was down from 25 percent in recent elections to just over three percent this year.
Since then reports have emerged that residents haven’t received their ballots, while some households have reportedly received multiple ballots in other peoples’ names.
With only four days remaining until the election it remains to be seen if the city or province will act to resolve the issues.
Residents can register to vote on voting day if they bring identification with their civic address to one of the voting stations.
“We have an opportunity to make change and to build a city that really serves everyone who lives in it and where all of us feel heard,” says Jamieson. “We need to take action to do that, so I want to encourage as many people as I can to vote.”