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Ottawa elects first openly queer woman to city council

Catherine McKenney takes Somerset seat with 40 percent of vote

Catherine McKenney gives her victory speech at the Shanghai Restaurant after becoming the first openly queer woman elected to Ottawa city council. Credit: Julie Cruikshank

It was a tight race in Centretown, but ultimately Catherine McKenney came out ahead, becoming the first openly queer woman to be elected to Ottawa City Council. McKenney, who campaigned with the endorsements of both outgoing councillor Diane Holmes and NDP MP Paul Dewar, led the polls with a total of 3,997 votes according the City of Ottawa’s official website. Openly gay candidate Jeff Morrison came in second with 1,681 votes, followed by Martin Canning with 1,631.

The mood at the Shanghai Restaurant on Somerset Street was ebullient as McKenney made her entrance after the results were announced. She thanked her supporters for standing by her throughout her campaign, which began in April. She also thanked her wife, Catharine, and daughter, Kenney.

“For the last seven months every night when [Catharine] kissed me goodnight, she knew I was thinking about nine another men and another woman, and she put up with that,” McKenney quipped. She also thanked the 10 candidates who ran against her. “Democracy really is about choice, and in Somerset ward, we had choice,” she said.

With her win, McKenney succeeds incumbent councillor Diane Holmes, who represented the ward for nearly 30 years. “She has all the skills that we need,” Holmes said at the victory party. “She understands downtown neighbourhoods, knows what we need downtown, from complete streets to parks to trees. She’s very knowledgeable — she’s lived here, she’s working here, she volunteers here. So she’s the perfect person to take over.” Asked her thoughts on McKenney becoming the first openly queer woman on council, Holmes said she thinks it’s “about time.”

McKenney’s campaign focused on her support for affordable housing; safe and cost-effective transportation, including more infrastructure for cyclists; and effective harm-reduction measures. Prior to her run for council, she spent time as assistant to Holmes, as well as working on the 2006 mayoral campaign of Alex Munter, who was Ottawa’s first openly gay politician. “To follow in those footsteps all these years later, I feel so honoured. I really do,” she said.

Partners Sarah Manns and Nicole McRae, who volunteered for McKenney’s campaign, said her election makes them feel they will be represented at city hall. “I think it shows a lot of progress for Ottawa,” Manns said. “I think it shows that it is a diverse community where everyone is accepted and that there is a lot of growth in terms of progressive communities.”

Jeff Morrison, who came second in the race, offered his congratulations to McKenney but also pointed out that having the support of both Holmes and Dewar behind her made her a tough opponent to beat. Morrison stepped down from his position as board president of the Centretown Community Health Centre to run and says he’s looking forward to enjoying some personal time post-election before taking on any new projects.

Denis Schryburt, the race’s third gay candidate, fared less well in the polls, with only 2.24% of the vote. He says he’s disappointed with the result but proud of his campaign efforts and volunteers. “Throughout this campaign, I still continued to do my volunteer work — maybe that was not the best idea, but my community comes first for me, so that’s what I’ve been doing.” Schryburt says he will return to his job with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for the time being, but he isn’t ruling out another potential run for office. “This isn’t the last of me.”

School trustee Donna Blackburn, who became the first openly gay woman to hold a seat at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board in 2010, easily won back Zone 3 for a second term with 68 percent of the vote. Gay candidates Curtis Bulatovich (Zone 7), Guy Hughes (Zone 10) and Sylvia Martin (Zone 11) were not elected, losing to Mark Fisher, Erica Braunovan and Shirley Seward, respectively. Mayor Jim Watson was also reelected for a second term.

As for McKenney, first thing Tuesday morning she plans to be out collecting her campaign signs from around the ward. “I can’t rest,” she said. “I don’t know how yet.”