In late November 2014, just weeks after being elected to Peterborough City Council as a first-time representative for Town Ward, a just-glad-to-be-here Diane Therrien admitted to being “a bit nervous” over what laid ahead.
Four years on, nervousness has been replaced by confidence; apprehension substituted with optimism.
“When people say ‘Your Worship,’ I’m like ‘Oh please, don’t call me that’,” says the 32 year old who, on October 22nd, was elected Peterborough’s 62nd mayor. “I’m still me.”
Therrien is just the third woman to hold the city’s top elected position since 1850 — the others being Aileen Holt in 1962, appointed when Mayor Stanley McBride retired to become sheriff, and Sylvia Sutherland, from 1986 to 1991 and again from 1998 to 2006.
“Many people in this community are really hurting and struggling. The role of mayor isn’t daunting, but there are expectations and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. But this is a very caring community; we take care of each other. We need to do more of that. I am confident we can do a lot of good things and that we will.”
When mayor-elect Therrien, along with her 10 council colleagues, is sworn into office on Monday, November 26th — the open-to-the-public event is set for 6:30 p.m. in the Friends of the Library Community Room at the Peterborough Public Library — the city’s political landscape will take on a new dynamic with four elected female members among its number (Therrien along with Lesley Parnell, Kim Zippel, and Kemi Akapo) as well as two people of colour (Akapo and Stephen Wright).
“When I first ran four years ago, I ran because I felt there were perspectives missing around the table,” says Therein, admitting, both then and now, she heard from more than one naysayer concerned about her youthfulness.
“It’s good to have people with experience, but you also need young people. We think in a different way and were raised to be more environmentally conscious and to seek out different perspectives. Under 50 (years old) are young for being on council in this town. This sets the tone that Peterborough is ready for change and is becoming more diverse.”
Sitting down for an early morning coffee at Dreams of Beans, Therrien reflects on the journey that has brought her to this place at this time. It’s clear early on that her bid for the mayor’s chair was rooted in much more than the lure of a better parking spot at City Hall.
“I talked to a lot of people when I first thought about running for mayor,” says Therrien.
“Some people were ‘Ya, that would be great’ and then there were people that were like ‘No, you should wait another four years.’ But once I made the decision (to run), I had a core team of people around me. I was ‘OK, let’s do it.’ Four years is a long time to wait when you feel that the city you love isn’t going in the direction that you would like to see, and when decisions being made are not made considering the long-term impacts on our community.”
That decision made, Therrien announced her candidacy on May 3, 2018. A few weeks later, Peterborough restaurateur Cameron Green did likewise and, just prior to the nomination deadline in late July, Mayor Daryl Bennett announced he was seeking re-election. When Green dropped his name from the ballot, the mayoralty contest became a two-horse race.
“That provided a really definitive choice,” reflects Therrien.
“There were people who didn’t want to vote for Daryl and there were people who didn’t want to vote for me. He (Green) would have taken votes from both of us. If there were a bunch of people running (for mayor) it would have been different, but it was very clear: do we want the status quo or do we want to try and do something more forward-thinking and creative?”
Courtesy of a wide margin — Therrien garnered a very impressive 19,254 votes for a 69 per cent share of the total votes cast for mayor — the status quo absorbed a good old-fashioned butt kicking.
“My team thought it (the final result) would be close … I had a sense from knocking on doors that people were looking for change,” says Therrien, admitting to surprise over her margin of victory.
In the aftermath, she advises those who feel her lack of business experience will be a debilitating handicap had best think again.
“It’s important to recognize that City Hall has an entire staff that bring forward the reports and do the budgets and all of that, so you don’t necessarily need to have that same business experience,” she says.
“That said, I have managed budgets before and I have managed staff. This city doesn’t need to be run like a business. We’re not trying to make money for shareholders. Any money we make as a city we need to be reinvesting into our people.
“If you’re going to run it, it should be run more like a non-profit. Sure, it’s good to have some business acumen — I’ve worked in the private sector, so I get that — but we can’t forget our key job is to take care of our community.”
Born in Mississauga, Therrien attended McMaster University in Hamilton. After receiving her undergrad in History and Peace Studies, she came to Peterborough to attend Trent University. In 2012, she graduated with her Masters from the Canadian Indigenous Studies program and went on to a contract position as a policy advisor with the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs in Toronto.
But Peterborough soon tugged at her heart and she returned, taking a three-year contract with the Peterborough Poverty Reduction Network. In 2014, she set her sights on a city council seat and was elected at age 28.
“When I ran for council in 2014, people were like ‘Well, you’re not from here. Nobody knows who you are. You’re never going to win,'” says Therrien.
“There was a similar sentiment from some people this time around, even though I’ve chosen to build my life here. I met many people at the door who are also from away. There were also people from here who said it’s nice to have someone running who isn’t from here. Ten or 20 years ago, I’m not sure that would have happened.”
Anxious to meet with City staff, both those in management and the rank and file, Therrien makes few promises of what her first year as mayor will look like, but she does pledge a style of leadership will be “inherently collaborative.”
“There was a perception the last couple of years that council was divided,” she explains. “I want to move past that. I want everybody on board. We’ve got a bunch of new people and we’re going to be dealing with a bunch of new issues, so let’s come together as a team. Who cares about what happened in the last term of council? It’s a new page.”
As for hot button issues that remain a challenge, such as The Parkway extension and land annexation, Therrien makes her position on each clear.
“Economically and environmentally, it (The Parkway extension) doesn’t make sense to me,” she says.
“I need to work with staff and council on a transportation solution, particularly for the north end. I know it’s bad. Chemong (Road) is a disaster. I want to get on that ASAP. We need to be doing things immediately to address the concerns around cut-through traffic on residential streets and speeding. There are some quick wins while we figure out the bigger transportation solution.
“I’m meeting with (Cavan-Monaghan mayor-elect) Scott McFadden this week to chat about annexation. I know there’s been interest in Selwyn doing a joint industrial park. The annexation proposal put forth a few years ago did not make sense financially. We don’t need that much land. As for the residential piece, we need to get our Official Plan in place before we even look at that.”
Also on Therrien’s radar is the implementation of term limits for members of council, as well as ranked ballot voting as opposed to the current first-past-the-post voting system.
Aware she will be under the microscope from the moment she first adorns the chain of office, Therrien is clearly anxious to get down to work. Her enthusiasm aside, what will success look like one year from now?
“Having a council that’s working together and agrees on the budget process will be an indicator of success.
“I’m going to be doing community drop-ins in the new year. If no one has yelled at me or thrown anything, that’ll be a sign of success.
“And if we can get some quick wins, that will be good.”
Editor’s note: The new City Council was originally to be inaugurated at Peterborough City Hall on Monday, December 3rd, followed by a general committee and a budget committee meeting. Instead, the inauguration has been moved to Monday, November 26th at the Peterborough Public Library to allow for more seating. The December 3rd meeting in Council chambers at City Hall will be dedicated to the Finance Committee, General Committee, and Special Council. The first meeting of the full council — and the only one before the New Year — is scheduled for Monday, December 10th.