6 min

Catherine McKenney to run for Somerset Ward

Longtime councillor Diane Holmes has announced her retirement

Catherine McKenney says she wants to continue the work of Councillor Diane Holmes. Credit: Julie Cruikshank

When it comes to LGBT representation in Somerset Ward, the race for city council is heating up. Out gay candidates Jeff Morrison and Denis Schryburt are both vying for the seat, and now there is another queer candidate in the race. Earlier this month, Councillor Diane Holmes, who has spent more than 30 years in Ottawa city politics, announced that she will not run in this October’s municipal election. Instead, Holmes is backing her former assistant, Catherine McKenney, who has had a long career in both municipal and federal politics.

“My first day working for the councillor was the first day of the ice storm, as a matter of fact, in ’98,” McKenney recalls with a chuckle. She worked for both Holmes and former councillor Alex Munter, managing the latter’s 2006 mayoral campaign. She also worked as legislative assistant to both Ed Broadbent and Paul Dewar, on Parliament Hill, and for Volunteer Canada as manager of public policy. Now, after a career spent largely in supporting roles, McKenney is taking centre stage. She is currently on an unpaid leave of absence from her position with the city as she makes her bid for city council.

“People were surprised because it’s not something I had ever expressed an interest in before,” she says of her decision to run. “But I live in Somerset Ward, I love Somerset Ward, I love the downtown. It’s a great city, and I feel very strongly that the work of Diane Holmes needs to be carried on.”

Reached at her office for comment, Holmes says she’s confident in McKenney’s abilities. “I got to see what she’s like, her work ethic and her interest in social justice and green transportation and affordable housing and all the things that are important in Somerset Ward . . . She’s involved in the community and, of course, she’s also an athlete . . . so she’ll certainly have the energy to do all the door-to-door that needs doing.”

“She really understands how the city works, and [it] would be useful to bring all that experience to the support of Somerset Ward,” Holmes says. Asked why she’s chosen to enter retirement now, she says she’s been thinking about it for some time and is ready to step down and focus on her family, getting more exercise and enjoying the city. “I’d like to have a life now,” she says. “It’s good that there’s quite a variety of people running who are GLBT. I think that’s very healthy for the ward.”

McKenney’s campaign will focus on key issues that are close to her heart. With her wife, Catharine, she is the mother of a young daughter and wants to see more and better housing options for families living in the downtown core. She is passionate about green spaces, public transit, the downtown business community, including the Village, and safer roads for pedestrians and cyclists. McKenney also wants to address the growing population of seniors downtown, specifically LGBT seniors who are seeking long-term care facilities. Here are her thoughts on those key issues:

LGBT seniors

“One of the issues right now that I think is important in the community is aging and queer seniors who are aging. You’re hearing about couples having to go back into the closet when they enter long-term-care retirement homes. So that’s something that I’m very interested in, and I know that the [Ottawa] Senior Pride Network has done some work on that.” McKenney is hoping to see work done with both clients and service providers, addressing the issue of straight seniors who may be unused to sharing space with their LGBT peers and teaching facilities how to better serve the needs of queer seniors. “I think that once you talk to people about it, my experience has been that once you sit down with service providers, with folks, and talk about the issue, it changes for the better. It’s about bringing together people and working with people, and we have great resources in our community.”

Bank Street and the Village

“One of the things that’s very important to me is creating ideal conditions for small business and local business in Somerset Ward,” McKenney says. “When I talk to small-business owners and I ask them, What do you need? What’s the one thing that helps you? . . . it’s people. They need people on the streets, they need people walking, they need people living.” McKenney wants to see an increase in housing for Bank Street, giving families more downtown living options and increasing foot traffic in the business areas. She says she would work with the Bank Street BIA, headed by former city councillor Christine Leadman, to encourage more queer and queer-friendly businesses. She is also open to working with the community to possibly extend the Village area further. “My campaign addresses a healthy and livable downtown,” she says.

Family housing options

“Families today want to live downtown. They want to live in Somerset Ward,” McKenney says. Her plan is to continue Holmes’s work to push for more green spaces and recreation services. She also wants to see a range of housing that will meet the needs of all residents, including condos, single-family homes, rental apartments and affordable social housing. “What that does is it makes people want to live downtown, it makes business want to locate downtown, it makes tourists want to visit, and that benefits everyone — all families and all people.”

Cyclist and pedestrian safety

McKenney says that Somerset is probably the most complicated ward in the city. In addition to having a large, multi-generational, culturally and sexually diverse population, it’s also home to the city’s business core and supports a large number of working commuters. “The more that we can shift to where people are cycling longer, more often, and feeling comfortable and safe, the more that people are walking, it’s better for health, it’s better for the environment, it’s better for our infrastructure. It just makes for a much healthier community.”

She wants to see more infrastructure, including bike lanes and wider sidewalks, to encourage people to use alternate modes of transportation and take some of the pressure off car commuting. She says the new LRT system being built by the city will also help. An avid cyclist herself, she feels that having more bikes on the road will increase overall safety. “It makes a huge difference when you have other people out cycling. Cars are more careful; they’re more comfortable with you on the road . . . they understand what to do.”


McKenney is strongly in favour of the new LRT system, calling it “long overdue.” At the same time, she is very concerned about the rerouting of buses down Albert Street during its construction and has been actively involved in the 2500 Buses a Day? No Way! campaign. “It’s about health. It’s about our kids’ health, it’s about older adults who have to live, and it’s about low-income families who maybe don’t have a voice and are not able to take a stand,” she says. She would prefer to see some of the buses routed down the John A MacDonald Parkway and wants a buffer between the sidewalk and the roadway where the buses will travel.

“For me, what I would like to see in terms of transit is an increase in inner-city transit,” she says. “I think that we often think about transit as moving people from the outside core into the downtown for work, and I really do think that, as a downtown core, a lot of people rely on transit.” She is also concerned with transit safety, particularly given some of the concerns raised in the last year about harassment and assault on OC Transpo. She would like to see transit become safer for seniors, youth and women and says she is open to working with Hollaback Ottawa to explore solutions, including increased driver training.

Safe injection site

“I believe that mental health and addictions are complex,” McKenney says. “Do I support [a safe injection site] for Ottawa? No. I’ve never seen any evidence. I support evidence, and I’ve never seen the evidence that that is the model that would work for Ottawa. Ottawa’s not Vancouver East.” She does believe in harm reduction but feels it needs to be tailored more specifically to an individual city’s needs. “You have to make sure that the model you’re using is appropriate for the demographic and for the community that you’re trying to help.”

McKenney supports mobile needle-exchange and crack-pipe programs, as well as methadone clinics. Instead of creating a safe-injection site with one location, she believes mobile programs are needed to go into communities and target specific problems and says she’s in favour of an expansion of these programs. “We can’t turn our back on people who use. We can’t turn our back on people in our community who need that help.”