With two ministerial appointments to her name, a cross-country tour to each corner of the country, and myriad community involvements, Maryam Monsef looks the picture of courage and grace.
So when Sandra Dueck, the moderator at the Women in Politics panel held last night at the Holiday Inn, asked the Peterborough-Kawartha MP to identify the hardest part of campaigning for her position, Monsef’s response raised a few eyebrows.
“The hardest part, for me,” Monsef said, “was actually making the decision to put my name in the race — working up the courage to do that work, that’s the hard part.”
Monsef was one of three local female politicians on the panel at the January meeting of the Women’s Business Network of Peterborough (WBN).
The panel spanned age, length of career, background and political vision: joining Maryam Monsef was Peterborough Councillor Diane Therrien and Selwyn Mayor Mary Smith.
Monsef told the 150 WBN members and guests in the crowd — all women — that her interest in politics came naturally but the inspiration to serve was a gift.
“My whole life has been affected by politics,” she said, referring obliquely to her history as a refugee. The decision to run came after more than a dozen people encouraged her. “That was a tipping point for me.”
On the other hand, Mayor Mary Smith comes from a family of male politicians. Her father was on council for more than 40 years, and her grandfather also served municipally. Yet, she says she “never dreamt” she would enter politics.
It was only after she was passionately involved in her community on matters of the environment and rural outreach that she was poised to consider politics when a position on the municipal board opened. And then, it was the encouragement of others on the council, that prompted her to put her name forward.
Smith has just completed 19 years in politics and was recently also named Deputy Warden of Peterborough County.
“It’s an incredible career,” she told the women in the room. “The opportunities to learn, the people I’ve met. It’s incredible to think how much you stretch yourself when you engage in politics.”
Diane Therrien grew up asking the same questions she asks every day as one of Peterborough’s newest city councillors — why and why not?
Yet again, it wasn’t until her local community encouraged her that the idea of entering politics became a plan.
The Women in Politics is part of a new direction for WBN, which made a strategic decision last spring to become more “deliberately” active in politics.
“We felt we should have a powerful voice beyond the business platform,” said WBN president Mary McGee.
And powerful it was, according to WBN members and guests who attended.
WBN member Kemi Akapo said the message she took away is that everyone has the potential to get involved in creating change.
“It’s never just one person running for political office,” she said. “It takes an entire community.”
“Be heard; get your voice out there,” said member Karen Laws. “And don’t think your voice doesn’t matter. It does.”
And for Dr. Catherine Owens the message was about courage.
“Each of the panelists talked about how they reached deeply into themselves and then took that passion public. To me, that’s awesome and inspiring.”
Speaking of inspiring women, in March the WBN will host Peterborough’s first-ever International Women’s Day Conference, featuring CBC Radio host Candy Palmater, career expert Sarah Vermunt, and veteran actress Linda Kash as keynote speakers. The conference takes place on Wednesday, March 8th — International Women’s Day — at the Ashburnham Reception Centre in Peterborough.
Monsef refers to “challenges” of first year in office
Just a day after a cabinet shuffle that saw her shifted from the high-profile Democratic Reform ministry to become Minister for Status of Women — and a few weeks after she issued an apology for strongly criticizing an all-party committee in the House of Commons — Monsef didn’t directly address the challenges of her first year in office. She did, however, admit that others had acknowledged her challenges.
While the questions at the panel offered her ample opportunity to cite examples of challenges in her new political career, Monsef kept her answers general, referring to the encouragement she received from the community and the inspiration she continues to receive, especially from stories of children who look up to her.
“An Afghani woman reached out to me recently to say she knew my first year as a member of parliament had been rewarding, but also challenging,” Monsef said. “She asked me to consider this when the challenges seemed big: she said her six-year-old daughter had taken to standing in the middle of the living room pretending to be me. She said to me, it’s not just about you anymore, Maryam. It’s about her. You’ve opened a world of opportunity for my daughter.”
“I never thought there would be little girls out there who would look at me the way I look at some women mentors. It’s a tremendous responsibility.”
Smith’s political “signature” openness and transparency
Veteran politician Mary Smith says there is one thing above anything else that ignites her political spirit.
Answering a question about something she has “fought for” as a politician, Smith answered quickly.
“For me, it’s the fight for process, which is often hard,” she told the crowd. “Openness and transparency are so important,” she added. “And that can, sometimes, be a tough battle.”
Smith was elected Mayor of Selwyn in 2010 and 2014 and this month was appointed Deputy Warden of Peterborough County.
“Your voice is so important,” she said. “Your message is so critical.”
Therrien admits PDI process could have been “better”
Peterborough Councillor Diane Therrien said she’s in politics for one reason: to make things better for everyone.
A self-identified “rebellious child,” Therrien says she was dismayed when most of the talks about the sale of Peterborough Distribution Inc. to Hydro One were taking place without public input.
She was particularly concerned that there were residents in the county who would be affected by the decision, but had no forum to share their concerns and questions.
“In everything, I want to know why things are the way they are, and why they can’t be any better,” she said.
Therrien pushed for inclusive civic engagement, a move that led to a series of public meetings.
“I had to lobby hard for that,” she said. “Granted the process could have been done better. We can always do better.”