“Expect More” from Diane Therrien

Photo by Austin Andru.

On October 22, Peterborough elected Diane Therrien as mayor in a landslide victory over incumbent Daryl Bennett. A former councillor, Therrien, 32, won with almost 70% of the vote, unseating her 70-year-old rival. Many are saying that Peterborough is looking to the future — and that sentiment isn’t just about Therrien’s age. She campaigned on a progressive platform that promised to bring change to city.

In light of her overwhelming success, Arthur had the pleasure of sitting down with Therrien and asking her some questions about her plans for our city.

Arthur was welcomed into the mayor’s office by her assistant. There is a name plaque on the wall that says ‘Daryl Bennett’; a smaller plaque rests on it that reads ‘D. Therrien’. The mayor-elect’s office is in a transitional period, but it is still quite organized. She welcomes us warmly and we get settled in.

NT: During your campaign, you visited the Trent Campus more than once, as well as making trips to Fleming College. Your opponent did not. Why was appealing to students so important to you? How do you view their role in municipal politics, particularly students who are not from Peterborough originally?

DT: Sure, that’s a good question. I came here as a student who wasn’t from Peterborough originally. Part of why I fell in love with Peterborough was because of Trent, so I like to go back to do all the alumni stuff. I was on the Alumni Council for a while. I went out to Fleming too. I think it’s important to try to engage students even though they tend not to vote. You can’t put your whole campaign on getting students to vote. It’s also just getting young people interested in municipal politics, helping them realize that even though they may only be here for two years or four years, you’re still taking the city bus and walking on the city sidewalks. You’re still eligible to vote here. The issues that municipal government deals with are still going to impact your life. Between Trent and Fleming’s population, that makes up about 10% of the city’s population and that number is growing. I think Trent is at 8000 undergrads now?

Students also play a key part of Peterborough’s demographic and help keep our downtown businesses alive, so it’s important to reach out, get them engaged, and help them understand. It doesn’t always work, but there were a few more students this time than last time.

NT: What motivated you to get involved in municipal politics? Was there a specific event that triggered this? Or was it the culmination of many?

DT: Yeah it was kind of the culmination of many. I started really paying attention when I was TAing with Mark Dickinson, for the ‘Canada and the Land’ class.

NT: This is wild because I recently ran into someone who was in that class who had been telling me about your Jackson Park activism. I was even more motivated to vote for you!

DT: That’s great! It was 2012 when the former mayor was bringing the Parkway project back and he hadn’t campaigned on it. Mark was talking a lot about the impact it would have on the Jackson Park area. I started attending Council meetings through that. I was also working at the Poverty Reduction Network locally, so I was going to Council and made several delegations about housing stability, and food security.

I saw who was sitting around the table, and the perspectives that were missing around the table – not just young, women, diverse voices, but also low-income people and students. Council skews older; Council skews male. It tended to skew to more of an upper-class [demographic]. There were perspectives that were missing around the table. There were people around the table who didn’t seem to want to be there — who would roll their eyes when people would come to do a delegation. I thought “I could do that,” and I would be better at it than some of these guys.

NT: And I think you’ve proven that thus far. This actually feeds well into my next question which is: How has you work Peterborough Poverty Reduction Network, the YWCA, and even your Masters studies at Trent better prepared you to address the needs of the most marginalized in our city? What do you think are the greatest challenges in advocating for marginalized communities?

DT: I think having those experiences helped me understand what life is like for a majority of the people in our community. The former mayor was of a wealth that most people can’t imagine. [It’s important] to know what the issues are of people who actually live in town and walk and bike and drive these streets every day. In talking to people, you get to know where the priorities really are. In this campaign, housing emerged as being a key issue. The former mayor has kind of said a couple of times that there wasn’t really a housing problem or that it was a national issue — which is true, but it doesn’t that we doesn’t have any responsibility here locally to do something about it and make change. That really resonated with people.

My campaign talked about more consultation and more transparency, particularly for a lot of low-income people, Indigenous people and the diverse groups that we have in our community. The former mayor never met with Chief Williams or Chief Carr or any of those Indigenous leaders. I’ve talked to both of them and I’m hoping to create an Indigenous consultation working group that the city has never had because we need to get moving on some of those things. As you know, up at Trent we’ve been seeing with the Twin Pads, there wasn’t any consultation or it was too late. You have to consult at the beginning, not when you already have a concept design. Having that perspective and that background I think will be helpful moving forward.

I’m trying to get city staff to understand that they have a duty to consult. And they get it. They know that they have to do it, but I think there is still more education to be done about why it is — outside of the legislative mandate we have — that there is actually a moral obligation. I’m trying to have some staff training around these issues. So I’m excited to do that and staff seem open to having that conversation.

Mayor-elect Diane Therrien and Nick Taylor sit in City Hall for an interview. Photo by Austin Andru.

NT: I think that it has become something that is very much part of public discourse in Canada, so there is a general openness to it, but with that there is also with that a lot of ignorance surrounding these issues. Education is definitely one of the most important steps. That’s awesome to hear.

My next question is: what kinds of challenges do you associate with being a woman in politics, especially municipal politics? How did these challenges present themselves during your term on City Council? What advice might you have for young women thinking about going into politics?

DT: I think it’s just harder to assert your authority, particularly when you contrast me with the former mayor who is a different personality — very big and commanding. My style is inherently more collaborative, but when you do that, you have to make sure that at the end of the day, people still see you as their boss. It’s harder being younger too. I’m younger than most of the staff I work with and most of Council. It’s about earning that respect, which has happened through [my work on] Council. Transitioning into this role, it will be interesting to see how this plays out with staff, because, like I said, I have a very different leadership style. The challenges are just that you need to be prepared for comments or questions that your male counterparts aren’t going to get at the door, not going to the doors alone — that kind of thing — the safety stuff that women always have to worry about. And then also trying to have that balance between wanting to do things in a different way, but also being able to assert your authority and ideas and make sure people are respecting you in the office.

So my advice for young women is just to get involved. You don’t need to be a candidate. I had 18 core members of my campaign team, and then dozens and dozens of other volunteers doing phone calls, door-knocking, or even decorating at our fundraising events. Whatever it is that you’re good at, you can put that energy towards a campaign. There’s a federal campaign coming up so if people are interested in getting involved just to see how things work, that’s always a good way to get your foot in the door and see what’s happening.

NT: Yeah, for sure! I volunteered this summer a bit with the provincial campaign. You definitely have an image of what politics are like and then you realize it’s not that when you’re there. What I noticed was that people are kind of flying by the seat of their pants a lot more than I thought they were.

DT: Yeah! Provincial and federal [politics] are different too because you’ve got this party system in place, but municipally it’s very different. You have a lot more autonomy, which is great, but you don’t have this backbone structure to get money to you and those types of things.

NT: I think there is generally more apathy toward municipal elections for some reason, which I don’t understand because I would argue that they’re probably the most important.

DT: I think it’s because it’s the level of government that is most tangible, but people don’t realize it or [they] take it for granted until the snow isn’t cleared or your garbage isn’t picked up or your water isn’t safe for drinking. Part of it is that it doesn’t have that party appeal where you have a leader and a candidate and all the flashy stuff around it. It’s much more grassroots. Voter turnout was up 2% this time, which is good; it was still less than 50%, which is bad. But if we can get young people more engaged like the high school students. I had people say that “I just turned 18! I’m so excited to vote!” So if we can get them involved…

NT: I really hope that things might be shifting with my generation, but we’ll see.

In the mayoral debate, you mentioned that you feel the biggest issue our city is facing is our housing needs. Could you tell us a bit more about your plans for addressing this issue, particularly the issue of homelessness and a lack of resources to address this problem?

DT: So we’re in the middle of the process of rebuilding the Brock Mission, which hasn’t been the greatest process. But there’s a new consultant on who hopefully can get it going because we need that up as soon as possible. Part of it is that there hasn’t been a lot of affordable or geared-to-income units developed. There’s been some, but the waitlist for Peterborough housing alone is still over 100 people. For affordable seniors’ residences, it’s about five years, and seniors are like “Okay, great, [but] I might not have five years.” That’s unacceptable.

We’ve had this housing boom happening with a lot of people coming in from out of town or buying up investment properties which has driven the price up. That’s hard to control, but I want to work with the development community to make sure that when we’re building new subdivisions or new apartments, that there’s at least some affordable units in there. There are things we can do to incentivize it, or mandate it. I’ve had some meetings with the Home Builders Association and will have some moving forward, because they’re worried that I’m just going to make them all build affordable housing, but you can’t really just do that.

We do have a program that has some incentives for building affordable housing, but I think we need to be fed up a little bit because there’s only really been one or two developers locally who take advantage of that and actually build an entire residence of affordable units for seniors. Ideally, you’d have inclusionary and mixed-use zoning, but the municipality only has so many levers it can pull. Working with the planning department to figure out what we can do — and then again with the development community, because I don’t want to blindside them. I know they’re concerned about what I’m going to do, and I don’t want that. But we do have absentee landlords running these slum-like rooming houses, which is a huge problem.

With the increasing enrollment at Trent and Fleming, pressure is being put on the housing market because people are turning their single-family homes into student houses or they’re pricing out people on fixed incomes because students come with OSAP, whereas people who are working minimum wage or are on OW don’t have that flexibility.

NT: I’ve been encountering a fair number of students who are very apathetic to the homelessness problem in Peterborough… It’s this weird “justified” apathy where people argue that it’s not their problem because they’re not from here or they only live here 8 months of the year. But they don’t realize that if you’re living in a house with cheap rent — which a lot of students are looking for — that’s a spot that someone else who needs cheap rent isn’t going to get. It’s important to recognize the massive role that Trent plays and I think the administration needs to think about that more when they’re deciding how many students to let in, but that’s a whole different story.

DT: I’ve talked to Leo and Maureen at Fleming about that and they both know that it’s a problem and that they’re going to have to step up and have proper accommodations for the students they’re bringing in.

NT: In the same mayoral debate I mentioned earlier, a question was asked about the perception that our downtown is unsafe. Your answer differed greatly from that of your opponent, indicative of the polarizing nature of this issue. I was wondering if you could speak to your plans for addressing this issue moving forward, including the implementation of a comprehensive detox centre. What role do you see the police playing in this issue, if any?

DT: We want to have dedicated foot patrols downtown because that’s what used to be done and police have become — in a lot of ways — like frontline service workers. They’ve got the naloxone kits, they’re trained to recognize signs of overdose and they’ve been doing that more and more. It’s not having them there as a punitive measure. The police aren’t criminalizing anyone for the possession of anything. Their strategy now is to help get them to treatment. Having the foot patrols helps with the perception of safety.

The One City program that happened this summer; I committed to funding it over four years. That was a helpful pilot project trying to break some of the stigma around people experiencing homelessness.

Peterborough is not unique in dealing with a lot of these issues, but in terms of our location we are a social service hub for the rural areas, so a comprehensive detox centre would be great. We don’t have the money to do that on our own and technically healthcare is a provincial issue. We had some hope at the beginning that the provincial government might help with this given the Premier’s family experience with addictions, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. For those people who are economically conservative, having a detox centre saves money in the long-term. I don’t know how they don’t understand that — or don’t want to understand that. You’re going to save on healthcare, policing, and your shelter system.

NT: I think its this cycle of stigma surrounding homelessness, mental health, and addictions. Hopefully things can start shifting, because Peterborough is definitely experiencing something that is not unique to Peterborough, but it’s definitely here.

So, onto my next question: In your campaign you mentioned the possibility of bringing in rideshare programs such as Uber and Lyft. While this has many people excited about a convenient alternative to the taxi services offered in Peterborough, it has some concerned about the implications for working-class taxi drivers and their livelihoods. How do you balance this tension?

DT: I know Uber is not a perfect model; there are issues with it as well. I’ve been in conversation with a guy here locally who has developed an app they’re using here, strictly for DD services, because you can’t get a cab when bars close. I think the amount of people that we have in Peterborough, especially with the student population, there is sufficient market demand to be able to sustain both or all forms of ridesharing whether it’s cabs or whatever. There will still be people who want to use cabs.

But I’ve also talked to people who are very concerned about the cab fare increases that just happened, where people aren’t going to be able to afford that anymore. I’ve also talked about wanting to bring in a community car share which came to Council a few years ago and I’m going to see if we can get them to come back. I think that that is something that would benefit a lot of low-income people who have a driver’s licence but can’t afford a car and can’t always rely on public transit if you’re trying to get to a job interview or something like that.

We need to modernize our transportation system. We need to “open the market,” which you think Daryl would have wanted to do. We need to look at different ways of helping people get around. I’ve taken a cab up to Trent before and it’s like $20. But we want those people to get paid; they’ve historically been underpaid. We want to make sure that everyone in town has a good living wage.

NT: I like that we’re coming at it from a holistic perspective surrounding transit that involves even making our bus services better.

DT: I’ve had a few emails from people who work in the service industry and bus service on Sundays ends before they get off work. It costs them two hours’ wages to take a cab home. Are they supposed to just leave their shift early? So again, diversifying the economy around that a bit would be helpful.

NT: You’ve touched on my next question a bit already, but I’ll ask it anyways. Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is an issue that has been recommended be address at all levels of government. What might this look like on a municipal level? How do you view this in the context of the wetlands issue at Trent?

DT: I think that building those relationships of which I have some, and I need to continue to strengthen them obviously. I’ve been in contact throughout my time in Peterborough with the urban Indigenous community and Hiawatha and Curve Lake and Alderville. Making sure that the municipality and staff and Council know what our responsibilities are around consultation and that we’re not just doing the bare minimum – that there is actually a sustained and proactive attempt at relationship building and information sharing at Trent with the community there and Fleming and the Niijkiwendidaa and the Friendship Centre, plus the Treaty 20 First Nations that we have obligations to as well. So there’s a lot that the municipality can do. We’ve talked with our official plan review about doing some Indigenous place-making and highlighting, fixing the Nogojiwanong sign that was supposed to be redone two years ago. Guys, that costs $5000. Take it from the Mayor’s Office budget — I don’t care.

NT: It’s horrible because every time you look at it, it’s just like a symbol of colonialism.

DT: Yeah, very emblematic. Thank you for reminding me. I’ve got to be like “Yo, that needs to be done by the end of the week.” There’s a lot of things like that, but the relationship building is really important and making sure that they’re in the loop and that we’re consulting before we’re planning anything.

NT: Okay, so last question! What was your favourite part of going to school at Trent? What is your favourite part about living in Peterborough?

DT: My favourite part of going to school at Trent, was instantly having a community and a sense of belonging and friends. Coming from McMaster as an undergrad, it was very different. I would be like “Do you need my student number?” and they’d say “No, I just need your name.” Oh my god! I’m a person again!

That is both what I love about Trent and Peterborough, is that there’s a sense of community. There’s a lot of really good, progressive organizations. There’s all these opportunities. And we saw this in the last election. People were tired of the old way of doing things and wanted a progressive Council that is actually going to work on some of these issues.

About Nick Taylor 34 Articles
Nick Taylor is a queer settler living and learning in Nogojiwanong/Peterborough. He is in his fourth year of an International Development and Philosophy BAH with a specialization in Ethics. His journalistic interests include politics, student affairs, gentrification and urbanism, and arts and culture. They write from the left of centre. (he/him/they/them)