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Sunday, October 2, 2022
In NOTL, strong women are leading by example

'There’s no hurdle that can’t be overcome if you’re determined enough,' councillor says


While women in Canada and around the world still face obstacles to achieve equal rights and opportunities, there’s a strong sense that, at least in Niagara-on-the-Lake, things are headed in the right direction.

Our town has four women leaders on its council and for International Women’s Day and ahead of the 2022 municipal election, The Lake Report asked them about some of the challenges they’ve faced as women in politics, and what advice they have for women looking to get into government.

In four separate interviews, all female members of NOTL council said they have not faced any discrimination based on gender while working for the town and its residents.

For Coun. Clare Cameron, who received the most votes of any councillor in the 2018 election, some of the challenges of being a woman in politics are associated with motherhood. For many women, she says it’s still common to spend more hours taking care of the kids and home front.

Reached by the phone with children audibly in the background, she said careful planning and dedication can overcome those hurdles.

“You try to plan as best you can. What does today look like and what opportunities do you have today to maybe accomplish something that you can’t accomplish tomorrow because something else is going on,” she said.

While she feels “lucky” to be on a council that hears all members openly regardless of gender, she said one challenge for her was being pregnant during the 2018 municipal election.

Cameron said she did hear some muttering about how she might not have time to do the job.

But nonetheless, she ended up topping the polls and became deputy mayor.

“You can do hard things if you’re determined enough. You can make it work. There’s no hurdle that can’t be overcome if you’re determined enough,” Cameron said.

Coun. Wendy Cheropita said she is proud that NOTL has strong female representation on town council.

“I have not felt that being a woman has hindered me in any way. I think that I can say I have a very good and respectful relationship with my male colleagues, also with staff,” she said.

She noted over her career, she didn’t feel discrimination based on gender and that NOTL and its residents have echoed that.

“It’s intelligent, smart residents that embrace this special place that we live in, and I think, come with a very healthy attitude,” she said.

She encourages other women, especially young women, to get involved in politics, to bring a more diverse voice to our community.

Coun. Sandra O’Connor says while she wouldn’t tolerate discrimination toward women, she does think the town could benefit from having more women involved in committees — an idea she put forward that was supported by council last year.

O’Connor said there are obvious benefits to having varied representation in a community.

“Any kind of diversity leads to a broader discussion on the issues and the more different aspects we can see of an issue, I think the better decisions council will make,” she said.

While society isn’t changing quite as fast as she would like, the changes are evident, O’Connor said.

In the past she said she’s been denied job opportunities for being a female in a male-dominated environment.

“I don’t find that any more,” she said.

Another positive she sees with NOTL having almost equal representation of women on council is that it could inspire other women to get involved with the town.

“Once women are seeing that, hey, almost 50 per cent of council are females, that we are open to having female representation at our decision-making level, then they will say ‘Yeah, maybe I can do that, too.’ It’s good to have these symbols there so that women can see that it is an achievable goal,”

Lord Mayor Betty Disero, who began her career as a politician in Toronto in the 1980s, said she’s seen things change over that time.

As a young woman getting into politics — a mostly male-dominated space, especially in the '80s — she said people would often ask her why she would pursue such a career path.

In her early days, people didn’t take her seriously and “part of it was my age and part of it was because I was a woman.”

But it didn’t stop her and she always made sure her voice was heard.

Over time she’s heard from other women who have emailed or called to thank her for being a role model and helping them through their own challenges as women.

As for why NOTL council has more women than most, each councillor had their own perspective.

It’s a combination of things, says O’Connor — one factor is that NOTL is a unique, progressive town. Another is that we are starting to see the goals of equal opportunities for women being met.

Cameron said it wouldn’t be possible to have so many women on council if no women ran.

Disero said she thinks a big part of it is that NOTL residents are open-minded.

“I really feel that the Niagara-on-the-Lake population is mostly progressive in their thinking and I think that’s why we have as many women members of council that we have.”

And what's their advice for women who might be thinking about getting into politics?

“You need a thick skin,” Cameron said. “And you need to choose your battles, just like in a lot of things about life, and value your relationships. Above all else, value people.”

Disero and O’Connor had similar messages: Just do it.

“I think that you should be informed, that you should be interested and that you should go for it. If there’s any hesitation, you know, go for it,” O’Connor said.

“There’s still a challenge. But I believe that we are getting beyond that challenge,” Disero said.

“Every year we take another step, and we’ll have to be doing that for a few more years. And eventually, we will get total equality. We’re not there yet. But I think we’re moving forward in a good direction. And we just keep moving forward.”

Disero noted and praised the many women who run NOTL's amenities, including Lise Andreana from the Pumphouse, Sarah Kaufman at the NOTL Museum, town CAO Marnie Cluckie, Cathy Simpson at the library, Deborah Antonic from RiverBrink Art Museum, among many others.

* Niagara Region’s “Seat at the Table” program, which aims to address barriers that women and gender-diverse people face when running for municipal office, holds the first of four workshops starting next month.

The first session takes place virtually on Thursday, April 7 at 6 p.m. For more, see the region's website.