When  women finally do get elected, they find themselves in the middle of a blood sport where you have allies and enemies

Pam McConnell

Toronto Deputy Mayor and City Councilor

Ms. McConnell, you have served as Toronto City Councilor since 1994. What are the challenges that you have faced in your job?

– I think it is time. This is a job that takes a lot of time. Another challenge is trying to make sure that I spend sufficient time making the lives of the people that I represent much better. My community is very polarized. I have a number of people who are relatively wealthy. But I also have a huge number of people who live in poverty. One of the biggest challenges has been to make their daily lives better for them and for their children. In one case, it is rebuilding their community so that the housing and infrastructure for the community are much improved. That their children have a better opportunity for a future life. So, those are some of the real challenges because it is very easy to just forget about those people. But it is what our job is – to make sure that when we are building a city, we are leaving nobody behind, that we are spending special attention on the people who, in the past, had been fragile and who had been left behind.

Toronto is a very big city, with a population of nearly 3 million people. It is geographically diverse. And people are different. We are trying to pull all people together so that they all feel like Torontonians. We are trying to get our transportation and housing systems moving, to make sure that people have food and security, that children have nutrition. These are the kinds of things that have been much on my agenda. Our city is a developing, booming city. My community is the downtown core. We have building cranes everywhere. It is important to build new housing, condominiums, as well as to find a balance in the downtown, because people are living, working and playing there. We need to also think about how we make it affordable for those who cannot afford fancy condominiums, expensive apartments because of the growing cost of real estate, as it is going on here in Ukraine. There are many people who cannot afford it in Toronto. These have been the challenges that happen within the city. And that is always overlaid with the matter of looking at the most vulnerable. And I would say that those are the women in our community. It is important to have those women on the Council and to get enough voices of women who are thinking about the lives of other women and how women can interface with the city.

You are also a Toronto Deputy Mayor. What are your responsibilities as Deputy Mayor? Is it difficult for a woman to cope with a wide range of responsibilities that come with such a high position?

– First of all, I think it is a different position in Ukraine than here in Canada. In Ukraine, it is more of a staffing position. In Canada, it is a political position because bureaucracy is separated from our council. My job as a deputy mayor is to represent the mayor in the south downtown area of the city. Also, I lead a poverty reduction strategy. So, in that way, my job is to make sure that, first of all, there was a strategy which I finished and which has been adopted by the council. It is a 20-year strategy. Step by step. Nothing happens quickly. It is a simple strategy. We are looking at affordable housing, at building more and providing more. We are looking at accessible and affordable transportation. We are looking at services that serve the needs of everyone, particularly children, mothers, families. And then making sure that we have access to good food, looking at how to bring employment to all parts of the city and to all families, making sure that income is secured. And then, it is also about equality – looking through an equity lens at all aspects – children, women, people with disabilities, aboriginal and racialized women. Then we have to make systemic change. This is not a change that happens today and changes tomorrow. This is something that happens in the life of the city, usually in the services of the city or of the budgeting of the city, which changes the way in which we look at things over a much longer period of time. Those are the things that I had proposed to the council a year ago. They approved it unanimously. And now we are in the first year of implementation. When I go back home, I will be reporting on what we have done this year and what we expect to do next year.

My job is very exciting and very time-consuming. But it is very good work, especially at this age of mine where I am ready to hope that we have young women who can take my place. I have been elected for a very long time, since I was a young woman. I think it is time for young women to step up and bring their energy and their expertise to the councilor table as well.

You are a founding member of FCM’s Standing Committee on Increasing Women’s Participation in Municipal Government. In your opinion, what career obstacles and barriers do women still face in Canada?

– We still face getting elected. We don’t have a party system. It means that we put our names forward on our own. Having the funds to be able to distribute to get your name out, to get your messages out, to develop your platforms, – all this is done individually. Men have a much easier job. They seem to have with them the networks from the time they were boys that now help them a lot. And many of our men have fathers and mothers who had been in politics before them. Also, it is important to make sure that there is a full range of women who represent the whole community. We have been doing a project at FCM called “Diverse Voices for Change” to make sure that, even when we come as women, we don’t look the same, we are not the same age, or of the same race. I think the other thing is that keeping women elected is really very difficult. Because when women finally do get elected, they find themselves in the middle of a blood sport where you have allies and enemies, where conflict is prevalent in almost every meeting. Where you don’t feel as if you are working harmoniously to do conflict resolution, to move forward and find positive solutions, but rather where it is competitive. And that has always been the way in which the municipal government have behaved. Another challenge is having women interested in coming forward. Many young women don’t see political career as particularly interesting. They don’t know how to get elected and they don’t have the training to get elected. And they don’t have the money to get elected. Finally, it is keeping them elected and having enough other women that can mentor and support them as they move through their political career.

Could you share with us some tips on how to find the right balance between a full-time job and a family life? What will be your advice on reaching an ideal work-life balance for a female worker?

– It is always very difficult because your first life is often about being a mother. Not that every elected woman is a mother, but certainly, your family life is terribly important. I have tried to make that balance. I must admit that reaching the balance is difficult. The most important piece for me is to have a partner who supports me. My husband has always been very supportive of me. He is not what I would call a “political partner” by any means, but he has very much supported me with my daughters. I have two daughters and four grandchildren. What I try to do is to make sure that there is a couple of evenings that are just simply family evenings. I try to make sure that I have a role in the lives of my children. For example, my grandchild stays at my house on Friday’s nights. I take him to his dance classes and pick him up from school. Two of my grandchildren live very close to our house, so we are involved with them.

I see my daughters having the same problems. One is a lawyer and the other works for real estate. Every woman is having difficulty managing. But it becomes easier when the chores at home are shared, when the child rearing is shared, and when men become interested in the role of nurturing, in being the father. I have seen big change over the years in the way men have fathered their children and have partnered their wives.

Recently you have taken part in the meeting of the Committee on Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women and Men of the Association of Ukrainian Cities. What is your most important takeaway from the meeting? What do you think of the leadership potential of Ukrainian women?

– First of all, I see a huge move forward. Not only was a very good strategy approved, but, most importantly, the participation of women and the knowledge of the women really jumped forward. They have really taken their role very seriously on this Committee. And they are participating in sharing some of their projects and in listening to other projects, as well as in looking at what is the resistance to gender equality both in terms of the words and of the meanings. We spent a lot of time trying to frame it into two general themes, one which is peace and the other is prosperity. And we talked about equality bringing respect, respect bringing harmony, and harmony bringing prosperity. A lot of our discussions were about harmony and peace in Ukraine and the role of women in it.

From my takeaway, there have been giant strides forward of these women, who started out not even having a place or a voice. And now they start to do gender budgeting, to be experts in peace-building, to be talking about hot to frame the discussion of combating the concern about the word “gender” by the central government. And really putting it into the framework of why it is good for the community without it being a scary message that women want to take over. All in all, I was quite excited to see that move forward, to see that they were looking at the next steps, at their strategy and how to move forward in local governments. Gender equity is very important for people both in Ukraine and in Canada, because when men and women come together, they make better decisions.