Before Lisa Blackburn became deputy mayor of Halifax, she was elected as District 14 councillor on regional council. And before that, she was knocking on doors in Beaverbank, Upper Sackville, Middle Sackville and Lucasville, telling people the myriad reasons why they should elect her to represent them at Halifax's decision-making table.
Before that, she was working as a casual reporter with CBC—after her 16 years on the morning show with Q104 Classic Rock–and part-time in retail. She was considering what it'd be like to run, asking herself "how many months can I go without a paycheque? You know, to do this, to run for politics."
Before that, there were three years of people nudging her, mentioning off-hand as she emceed a community fundraiser and was the chair of the board of directors for the Beaver Bank Kinsac Community Centre that hey, maybe she should consider politics.
"I slowly came to the realization that I got more satisfaction bussing tables at the community breakfast with the Easter Bunny, than I did from any newscast that I wrote and performed," she says.
Word spread in small circles that she was thinking of running, and more and more people came forward to encourage her.
"It's one thing," says Blackburn, "To have your mother tell you, you should run for public office. But when you have well-known community leaders, say, 'you do this and I'm going to support you,' then it really does turn it up a notch."
In August of 2016, she finally filed the paperwork. It was official. "I had a come-to-Jesus moment with my MasterCard," she says. "The next few months were going to be rough but things would get better."
Today, she's one of three members of Halifax Regional Council who are not white men, and one of only two who are women.
Halifax is on trend with the rest of Canada in that only 27 percent of MPs are women and in 2018, only 33 percent of Nova Scotian MLAs were women. In HRM, there have only been three women deputy mayors, no woman mayors and, according to records from Halifax Regional Municipality— since amalgamation in 1996—426 people have run for a seat on Halifax Regional Council, and only 23.2 percent were women. A total number of 133 seats have been won, but only 27 percent were won by women.
In Richmond County, CBC's Tom Ayers reported last week that the all-male council said no to funding a leadership conference to get more women to run for office in eastern Nova Scotia. At the meeting, councillor James Goyetche said "I think it would be kind of irresponsible on my part, and kind of stupid, to use taxpayers' dollars to encourage somebody to run against me."
Why should someone who benefits from systems of power do any work to encourage the process of giving up some of that power?
"Up until now, councils, legislatures and the House of Commons have been viewed by a single lens, and that is that of white males," says Blackburn. "And so in order to change that lens, you've got to change what's around that table."
These colonial systems and structures of governance were created at a time when women, particularly racially diverse women, were not considered "persons" under the law. In other words, they were created by the people in power at the time—wealthy, white men. So, it's not surprising that it has been so difficult for women and diverse people to get elected: The structure of the system wasn't created to address their reality.
Difficulties aside—be they race, economic background, access to equitable health care, education; the social determinants of health; time, privilege, basically everything under the sun other than being a white male (you too, not-all-men folk)—even once women get into a position of power, it's not a cakewalk.
District 4 councillor for Cole Harbour and Westphal Lorelei Nicoll remembers when Blackburn got elected. She recalls meeting for lunch and saying to Blackburn: "You know this, that you will say something and it will be very on point and, you know, a really good point to drive home and then someone else will get up and say the same thing and won't acknowledge that you said it at all."
When Nicoll was elected, back in 2008, she didn't think she was going to have to make space for herself as a woman. "I really thought that I already had a space there," she says. There were nine women elected to council at that time (out of 23 seats) "but it was interesting how each one of us had to morph ourselves into something that we thought was going to work with the men that were there. And everybody had their little solution on how to do that," she says.
From 1990 to 1994 there was a character on Saturday Night Live called Pat. The hilarity of the character lay in the fact that other characters couldn't determine whether Pat was a man or a woman. Pat was neither—but more importantly, Pat wasn't definitely a woman.
When Blackburn was working at Q104 Classic Rock—"the bastion of male, especially white male, domination, right there," she says—from 1990 to 2010, it was just her and two other men in the room. In an effort to take up no more space than necessary—making room for creative and free-flowing dialogue—she says she carried herself much like Pat.
"I wanted to make it clear that the control room was the Pat room, where there was no gender...there was no holding yourself back."
Reflecting, Blackburn says "I wonder if I did myself a great disservice or did women in general a great disservice...by going the Pat route. In an effort to fit in and for everybody to be comfortable so the product on-air sounded good."
"I didn't want anybody to ever be afraid that they would offend me," says Blackburn. "And, so it's funny. I think I've sort of taken that and carried it along through into my career now."
Nicoll remembers early on in her tenure at council, there was military procession going on in Grand Parade, and there were two lines of councillors. A male colleague made a suggestion straight out of elementary school about the boys lining up on one side and the girls standing on the other side—and she huffed, blinking, giving him a lifelong rehearsed "really, that's what you want to do?" She remembers his response being a "Oh here we go, the woman reacts strongly to this little suggestion." And she decided then as she has over and over throughout her life: "OK, I'm just going to have to keep putting my foot down 'cause I'm not going to behave the way they want me to behave."
But it wasn't until 2015—seven years after being elected—when Nicoll became deputy mayor did she feel a "big shift in the respect that I felt that I deserved."
And since then, she's noticed an improvement (hear hear, bring in the celebratory cake for this one). "They don't cut me off when I'm speaking," says Nicoll. "I can actually notice that they're listening to me, instead of rolling their eyes."
If things are, indeed, improving—fantastic. But even when studies and experience show that diverse perspectives make for better policy, it's not certain that the opinions held in Richmond County are completely off the mark from the opinions held in Halifax Regional Municipality.
"To me," says Nicoll, "the biggest thing is our world and sustaining it. And it can't be sustainable if everyone thinks that they're the only one who can do a certain job. You have to have a plan, that there's somebody coming behind you that's going to do the work that you've done."
"It's so important that men, especially white men..." says Blackburn, "we need them as allies, because they're the ones that will have to step aside to allow others" to step in.
"I mean, the power has been in their hands from the very beginning. And that's a tough place. When you have to realize that in order for your community to do better, sometimes you have to step aside to allow somebody else to do the speaking."
So the real question is: Are the men in politics ready to give up their power in the name of better governance?
One way to hardwire new perspectives into policy making is to set term limits. Both Blackburn and Jennifer Watts—who served as HRM District 8 councillor from 2008 to 2016—think they're a good idea.
It was then-reporter Lisa Blackburn who wrote an article for the CBC news desk back in 2016 interviewing Jennifer Watts when she announced she wasn't re-offering for a third term. Watts told Blackburn: "I think it's very important, particularly at the municipal level, to have the opportunity to have new voices and new perspectives around the council table."
Watts says, "We're looking for greater diversity. And looking for people that think in different ways and bring different kinds of approaches because that's what helps our decision making to not be kind of fossilized.
"I think when you have a mandated change in who is representing the community, there's more opportunity for people to consider, 'oh, there's an opening, the previous person is not running anymore.'"
And when council has diverse perspectives, it's easier to create and approve diverse policy.
This year's budget includes money for free menstrual products in all HRM facilities (Halifax is just the second municipality in the country to make such a move, following London, Ontario). The motion came forward on the insistence of Nicoll, and was well received by other councillors, thanks in part to a mic-drop of a speech by Blackburn. (Among the highlights: "Have we ever once questioned the cost of toilet paper in our municipal facilities?" "Listen, do not kid yourself. There are women who are standing in the aisle of a grocery store right now, looking at the price of a box of tampons, and looking at a four-litre jug of milk for their kids and making the decision which one they have to spend the money on." "Get over it, menstruation is normal.")
Nicoll recalls one male colleague thanking her and Blackburn, saying: "I know what it's like. I have a wife and a daughter..." It's a common trope to which Nicoll—who presumably doesn't need to have a husband or son in order to care about man stuff—responds, "Frig off."
"I don't know what it's like to be a man," she says. "Respect the fact that we are different. Embrace the fact that we are different."
Embracing differences also looks like creating a Women's Advisory Committee—no small thanks to Nicoll and Blackburn, too. The council will work the way all the municipality's advisory councils do—bring a specific lens to the policy that HRM puts in place. There are also youth and accessibility advisory committees, helping make up for the lack of actual diversity on council.
Whether or not council would need a Women's Advisory Committee if there was simply gender parity in the seats is up for debate, but Nicoll says with it established, no matter how voters vote, the committee will always be there, providing the perspectives needed to counteract the "white-male lens," as Blackburn calls it. And, it's an opportunity for more women to be exposed to municipal politics—and perhaps one day run for a council seat themselves.
Because before all the mic drops and door knocking, it was sitting on the community centre board that first led Blackburn to think she was cut out for the Robert's rules road race that is Halifax Regional Council. (Anyone who is considering running for office should be sure they can endure the long and painful rigamarole that is standard council and government procedure known as Robert's Rules of Order.)
"I had no idea what I was doing, I stumbled into this," says Blackburn, remembering the feeling of being terrified to do something new, and letting that fear be the final motivator. "I mean, let's face facts. I told fart jokes on the radio for 20 years and now I am standing in City Hall as deputy mayor. What is wrong with this city, like are you kidding me?"
But people encouraged her and now she—and Nicoll, and Watts, and almost any other woman who has run for office—makes extra time to encourage others to join her.
Taking up space—whether that's being loud and proud, or simply refusing to be any smaller than you are—can be terrifying. And exhausting. And you'll never be the right age or perfectly qualified or, as Nicoll worried, ready to "be under the microscope."
But, if running for council is "something that you that is keeping you awake at night," says Blackburn, "If it's something that you're seeing in your community that you want to change, and being around that council table is the only way to change it.