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8 min

Somerset West candidates on public transit and LGBT families

Part three of Xtra’s interview with gay Ward 14 hopefuls

Denis Schryburt (left), Jeff Morrison and Catherine McKenney, all openly gay, are vying for the Ward 14 city council seat in the October municipal election. Credit: Julie Cruikshank

When Centretown residents go to the polls in October, they will have a choice of seveb candidates for city councillor. Of those, three are openly gay, making the choice much less obvious for some.

Jeff Morrison, Denis Schryburt and Catherine McKenney are all strong candidates. Morrison is a former president of the board at the Centretown Community Health Centre and an advocate for the health of the LGBT community. Schryburt is a past president of PTS and has worked with the LGBT youth and senior communities. A longtime assistant to retiring Ward 14 Councillor Diane Holmes, McKenney is the direct strategic support and advisor to the deputy city manager and has worked in both federal and municipal politics. With her wife, she is the mother of a young daughter.

In the final installment of Xtra’s three-part interview with the candidates, they weigh in on the services needed to support the growing demographic of LGBT families in the downtown core and how public transit can better serve the downtown community.

Xtra: LGBT families are a growing demographic in Ottawa. Obviously, we have some great organizations like YSB and Ten Oaks that are servicing that area, but is there more you think the city could do to make those families really become a part of our downtown community?

Catherine McKenney: I agree. We are seeing more queer families, babies in families and in our neighbourhood, and a lot of that is happening in the downtown core. We’ve got great services, businesses like Venus Envy . . . that have resources and books for kids. We are evolving, obviously, and we are a downtown urban centre . . . But there still are gaps with families.

So I think of, you know, my daughter, who’s seven . . . because it’s her reality. She lives with two out, queer, feminist women, but when she goes to school, when she watches TV, when she opens up a book, it’s all heterosexual families. And it still is. When she came home from school [recently] . . . one of the forms said, ‘mother and father.’

I don’t want . . . [children] to have to explain their families. It’s not up to kids to have to explain their families. So we do have Ten Oaks, we do have some amazing programming for kids who are being raised in queer families. But there’s more to be done in the broader population and especially around books, especially around education.

Why can’t we rethink the way we educate our kids, and why can’t we rethink as a broader population, not in our [LGBT] population — I think we do really well and we have some great services, but in the broader population I think we really need to push. Because the onus shouldn’t be on the kids to have to explain their families and explain how they’re different.

Denis Schryburt: I can’t speak [with the same] authority that Catherine does, but I have planned many events throughout the city in the queer community . . . and the focus is always to include queer families now.

At work we do have forms where . . . you know, they’re doing surveys and they’re asking “male or female?” and so we have people who have transitioned at work and so on, and people who have not yet — aren’t quite sure, are undecided or whatever. So it’s the same thing that when it comes to schools, I can only imagine that these children have to explain why they have two moms or two dads or whatever.

I have so many friends who are adopting or having children through different programs, and they’re just as loving and caring parents as everybody else. It’s the same thing, it’s just that you have two males or two females. That’s why we need to get, I agree, more education so we can get more acceptance and more people understanding that this is the dynamic that the world is going to.

Jeff Morrison: I don’t know if there’s necessarily more [queer families in Ottawa], I just think they’re more out and that they’re more visible and that they’re not afraid to hide who they are. And that’s fantastic. I think it’s part of a more general societal trend towards greater acceptance of GLBT that’s hugely positive.

But . . . the fact is we’re still not there yet. And what was really disturbing and very concerning was watching the Ford rally a couple days ago where some people there with signs were being physically attacked. And I thought, you know what, that’s proof positive that we still have a ways to go to make GLBT reality just as normal as anything else.

Having said all that, in terms of what you can do at a municipal or citywide level — I don’t think there have been too many of what I would call gay-specific issues that I’ve been hearing from people out on the trail . . . Gay people in Somerset Ward want the same things that everybody else does: they want green space, they want library communities, they want innovative designs and development and so forth. They want to make sure that, you know, the roads are plowed and the garbage is picked up.

So I think, again, that’s a sign of the maturing of the GLBT population. The one thing that I would maybe identify is that while I think the community itself has become a lot more vibrant in the past couple years . . . I think one of the areas maybe we could work on is how do we make [the Village on Bank Street in particular] a more vibrant area, a more welcoming home for more of the GLBT population and community?

I think of course of, you know, Rue St Catherine [in Montreal] and Church Street in Toronto, where there’s a lot more visibly identified businesses, places to go, a lot more events, a lot more happenings for GLBT. We tend to concentrate that into Pride, you know, the two weeks in August. So how do we make that more of a celebration year-long of GLBT where . . . families and singles and young and old and everybody in between can come together [and] feel comfortable . . . if nothing else if you can create that more welcoming environment, especially in the Village . . . it would go a long way to increasing the acceptance and diversity of the community.

What areas of the city do you think the new LRT system most needs to target, and how do you think this should be accomplished?

CM: Well, certainly the airport. I think we’ll all agree on that. I was happy to see that we have a provincial government that supports LRT and is going to invest in phase two, so we will get that extension to Bayshore and we will get that extension south. However, we need to go to the airport, we need to go a bit further south, and certainly we need to start looking at how far west we go.

The other thing with the LRT that I was disappointed in is that that stop was moved, obviously, from Confederation Square to over on the other side of the Rideau Centre . . . I think that having that stop moved . . . is wrong. I think that we’re not showcasing the centre of the city the way we should be and that the stop for that very downtown core is just a bit too far west. I was disappointed in that.

JM: The airport link was, I think, the missing link . . . I think that link to the airport was a huge gap in the 30-year plan, so that would be something I would want to push for. But other than that, I’m really excited about the LRT . . . I think it’s going to be a massive improvement on public transit in Ottawa. I think the 30-year plan sets forth the blueprint for where we want to go post-2018.

The challenge is going to be the funding. Catherine’s right, of course; the Liberals did commit to implementing phase two, but the rubber will hit the road when we see that funding actually come across . . . With the airport, again, Ottawa being a tourist destination, a convention destination, are all reasons [to link to the airport]. World-class cities have links to the airport . . . it’s what world-class cities do; it’s why we should do it.

DS: The basic need for LRT was to get people downtown as quickly and easily as possible without too much traffic on the street but also [to] take people to where people gather. So I agree with Catherine that moving that [downtown] stop was definitely a big mistake, because people are gathering at Confederation Square. That’s where they’re going and that’s where you want people to get off. And the airport, absolutely. I don’t even understand why that wasn’t considered or even added . . . It has to be done right, it has to be done smart, and it has to be done in a way that will not only help the city now, but in the future.

As you know, the LRT project has necessitated a diversion of 2,500 Transitway buses, currently onto Scott and Albert streets. Do you think this could have been handled differently?

CM: When the report came out in 2012 . . . we all paid attention. We were there. I was at the community association meetings, I was at the consultation, and nobody talked about diverting [all the buses] onto Scott and Albert . . . They talked about extending Preston. They talked about a lot of things, but they never once said, “Oh by the way, we’re considering [moving all the buses onto Scott].”

So when all 2,500 buses were diverted, we felt that they had been snuck on. That was the general feeling of the neighbours, that they had been snuck onto the street, and that there was no consideration given to any kind of diversion.

Often I believe that it’s not so much the outcome as the process of getting there . . . Everybody’s not always happy with an outcome, but people, if they feel that they’ve been heard, they’ve been truly consulted, will say, “You know what, it’s the best that we could do as a city. We understand — we want LRT . . . but our children’s pillows are some 23 feet away from that first lane of buses.”

JM: It’s absolutely true . . . that you’re never going to please everybody all of the time. That’s just the nature of the game. To be fair, I was a little critical that it was not caught initially that this was the plan, or the discussions and the conversations weren’t had, the clarity wasn’t sought in terms of what the diversion plan was to be . . . The Parkway was, I would agree, the most logical option. I don’t think the Queensway was really a viable option, and I don’t think Carling was a viable option.

So in order to get the Parkway, then, what you had to do was partner with the NCC. And that’s been another area where I’ve been a little bit critical that the city can and should be doing a better job . . . The NCC is probably the biggest partner that the city needs to be engaging with. And this is a perfect example; if those discussions and conversations had been held earlier with the NCC in terms of how to use their land, I think that this could’ve been a solution that would’ve had more time to be essentially implemented.

The other point I’ll make about Albert . . . [is that it’s] a terrifying street to be a pedestrian on . . . and so the pedestrian infrastructure for that street has to be improved.

DS: I think one of the big issues here, and I think Catherine hit it on the head, is the consultation part. They’re not transparent enough — it’s very much like Lansdowne, you know — what we have in Lansdowne right now, is it the best? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but we’ll never know because they cut that process short. We didn’t have that opportunity to see a variety of different plans. It’s the same thing. They had not been transparent; they waited till the last minute to say, “Oh by the way, we’re going to be sending all those buses down that street.”

It’s really being transparent and open with the citizens of the city; when you’re going to affect their daily lives or maybe put some of their families in danger . . . you need to be transparent. You need to make sure that if their lives are going to be in danger or changed dramatically, they have to be part of the discussion from the beginning.

Read parts one and two of Xtra’s conversation with the candidates.