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Diane Therrien wearing her ‘bling’ in City Council Chambers | Credit: Taylor Clysdale/Metroland

Mayor Diane Therrien: The Arthur Interview

Written by
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay
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November 2, 2022
Mayor Diane Therrien: The Arthur Interview
Diane Therrien wearing her ‘bling’ in City Council Chambers | Credit: Taylor Clysdale/Metroland

Diane Therrien has made a real name for herself over the past four years of serving as Mayor of Peterborough. For the prudes and pearl-clutchers, and long-time members of council and City staff, her presence in City Hall has challenged their conceptions of what a politician should look like and act like while in office leading to a definite degree of friction at times between what she refers to as the “Old Guard” and the progressive wing of Council. 

For just about everyone else, Mayor Therrien’s consistent championing of social justice, equity-focused policies, and not taking shit from interloping right-wing opportunists or “fuckwads” has endeared her to them. Therrien’s ability to openly engage with constituents and admit when mistakes were made on her end has been a refreshing shift in tone.  

To put it lightly, Therrien’s eight years in office have been eventful. First elected to Peterborough’s City Council at the age of 28 in 2014 as Town Ward Councillor, Therrien was elected Mayor in 2018 after a single term on Council. The 2018 election also witnessed the most diverse city council in Peterborough’s history, with Councillors Kemi Akapo, Kim Zippel, and Stephen Wright joining as first-time councillors.

Mayor Therrien has spoken frankly about the roadblocks she has faced as a young woman in politics calling out traditional news outlets for omitting stories about her experiences of sexual harassment during her time as a councillor and mayor. She has made a habit of doing so loudly often while using language that resonates with a section of the population who are tired of the norms of political inaction coupled with self-righteous decorum in the face of absurdity. 

When Arthur sat down with Mayor Therrien, she was preparing for an emergency meeting of Council which she had called the day before to seek answers on the procurement of funds for a winter strategy. The meeting that unfolded saw the divide between members of Council on full display, with some councillors outright denying the need for more shelter beds despite the earnest presentations of delegates who are working on the ground to protect some of the most marginalized members of our communities. 

Most reading this now will have seen that Mayor Therrien declared a state of emergency on the homelessness crisis facing the City of Peterborough as a first step to ensuring that City resources are being directed towards the needs of these community members.

This interview took place just under two weeks before the 2022 municipal election. What had previously been pitched as an interview with the outgoing Mayor in the final days of her term quickly switched focus to account for the fast-developing story of whether or not there would be funding from the city to fund new beds and how such an allocation of funds could be achieved during a “lame-duck” period during an election. The transcript has been edited for clarity, but we left the F-bombs in.     

SJL: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. I figured we'd get started off with what might be considered the hard stuff. I moved to Peterborough in 2018 just in time for the previous mayoral election of a council election. And so I don't really have much of a recollection of a time before you being Mayor as it’s been my entire experience of Peterborough. But I'm wondering about what you see as your legacy as mayor.

DT: Yeah, that's a good question. I mean, obviously, it's been an interesting term with a bunch of challenges lately. I think that part of it is hopefully setting things up for success with a lot of the infrastructure, such as the Official Plan and active transportation work that we're doing, as well as the work that we're trying to do around affordable housing, which obviously, is a huge, huge issue. We're talking about that again tonight. 

Those are a lot of the bigger things, but I think that one of the positive legacies is that in 2018 the election resulted in the most diverse council that this city has ever had and it was one of the most diverse councils in Ontario. For a lot of folks that moved here in the last four years, because we saw an influx of people as well over the pandemic, there was a sense of people feeling represented and included, and maybe having a voice that they didn't have before when council was mostly older white dudes. 

So again, even though there are still a few diverse and younger candidates running in this election, I’m not sure what the council makeup is going to look like this time, but I think we showed that it is possible. I only moved here in 2010. So I showed that it's possible to come in, be new to town, and still infiltrate the old guard, even though they don't like it when you do that. 

SJL: They certainly don't. Having interviewed four of the five mayoral candidates, the sense I have covering this election is that there is a rather strident Old Guard, which is really desperately trying to maintain some semblance of power, or in Jeff Leal’s case, regain it. So your answer kind of bleeds really well into my next question. But before that I was going to say off the bat, feel free to swear. We encourage profanity at Arthur. 

DT: Perfect. Fuck, yeah!  

SJL: No clutching pearls or anything like that. We're not the CBC. That was awful.

DT: It was so bad. Yeah, it's very annoying.

SJL: I was cringing for you. When you mentioned the possible makeup of the incoming council and the fact that some of the candidates are running this time around, you've spoken a lot about how people can get involved in municipal politics when it is still considered a part-time job. And so what do you feel needs to be done in city hall that might begin making municipal politics a more viable option for people?

DT: Rather than have two part-time councillors per Ward, to me, it would make sense due to the scope and the size of the job and the city, to have one full-time councillor per Ward, or just maybe five full-time councillors and move away from the Ward system and just go to an At-Large system, which again, would be antithetical to some of these old boys who represent staunchly the east or west or whatever it is. But if you had full-time councillors, then you could compensate them adequately. 

I think if you want people that are qualified and really passionate, and want to treat it in a professional manner, you need to pay people as though they're professionals. I think that that would go a long way because I've talked to a lot of people who were interested in running but basically said it's not worth their time, especially if they're working other jobs or if they would have to pay for child care. 

On top of that, there are all the expectations are put upon councillors. A lot of people are surprised to call some of them and they're working at their full-time job and that they don't have any admin support. So I also think having a few additional staff members would just make the job a lot easier.

SJL: Stephen Wright mentioned that part of his plan if he should be elected mayor, was to move to a one full-time councillor arrangement, but then also do away with the ward system as well. 

DT: Yes, because then you have people that are focused on the entire city, rather than being just fiercely advocating for a pocket of it. They just have that broader perspective.

SJL: It seems like it creates uneven development as well as partisan infighting.

DT: Absolutely, which is not helpful. 

SJL: Definitely not conducive to any form of progress at all. So following up on that, based on your own experiences, what message would you give to one of these non-traditional candidates?

DT: I think that there are easy ways to get involved like volunteering on a campaign. Not everybody wants to be a candidate, and not everybody wants to be a candidate right away. But when we have upcoming elections, regardless of the level of government, you can get involved in a campaign. Find a candidate that you can support and see how you can help them and then you'll learn about the process, that's a really easy way to get involved. Municipally you can register as a delegation to speak to an issue that you're passionate about. 

That's kind of how I first got elected back in 2013, I came to the planning meeting about the parkway and had a whole speech in opposition to it. Looking around the table, I was like, these are the guys that are representing us? I could do this job. That was sort of when I decided I'm going to run for this, even though people were like, “You're never gonna win, you're not from here!” and I was like “Well, I think I'm gonna go knock on every door in the ward and introduce myself.” And that's the thing too, is that the old guard isn't used to having to hustle. I knew people didn’t know who I am. Some of these guys assume, “Well, my last name is whatever or my grandfather was whoever” and  I'm like, “I moved to this town, I didn't know anybody, and nobody can pronounce my last name, still, I better go ahead and work.” I'm used to having to work for everything that I have.

I think it's also important just to reach out after the election, you know, if there are candidates that get elected, to support them. You're not always going to agree, but we progressives tend to be really hard on ourselves and each other, which is good that we hold ourselves accountable and have some standards. But at the same time, we can also be our own worst enemies. Even an email saying “Really appreciate what you're doing, keep up the good work!” goes a long way for morale.

SJL: Yesterday you announced on Twitter that you've called a special meeting of council for this evening, to receive an update from staff about the plans to ensure unhoused people have access to space for this fall and winter. Previously, you tweeted that senior City staff were withholding money and preventing you from moving forward with an emergency plan. And since then, the Examiner has reported that the Commissioner for Community Services, Sheldon Laidman, apparently misspoke at a recent community meeting regarding the availability of $200,000 in funding. What exactly happened here and what should the people of Peterborough know about what's happening now or if you can clarify any of this?

DT: This has obviously been an issue that's been building for a long time. Councils have these debates over the overflow shelter. When COVID hit, we opened up the Sports and Wellness Center to be able to house people in a safer way. The longer people are living outside, the further entrenched they become in homelessness. We're going into winter and we don't want people freezing to death. So we had this big community meeting. There was a group discussion, and we came back together and tried to figure things out. There was a proposal to have Trinity United Church have this sort of drop-in space. And the commissioner had said, there might be $200,000 of funding. And then a couple of days later, he walked that back.

Then last week there was supposed to be a community meeting as well. And I found out from [Co-Director of One City] Christian Harvey that ity staff cancelled at the last minute and said that they were working on their own plan. And yet, I've been hard-pressed to get any details about it, which is why I'm calling this special meeting in order to have some accountability. We're in a lame-duck period but we are still able to ask staff questions, and if we declare an emergency we are able to direct staff to have a provision of funds.

So that's what went down. We're going to see what happens because City staff trying to go out and plan alone is not going to be successful. We know that the shelter system isn't perfect, and there are a lot of criticisms about the accessibility of it is part of what deters people from using it. So how can we figure out a way to actually listen to the community agencies and people with lived experience about what is actually going to be a successful way to get people inside off the streets and then ultimately into the system to get into housing long term?

SJL: Right, thanks for that. I feel like there was confusion about whether or not Council needed to approve these funds. Given the Examiner article, it sounded like Laidman said that this money needs to be approved by Council. And that's why City staff can't spend it. Am I understanding that correctly?

DT: What he means is that because we're in the lame-duck period we can’t make large budgetary commitments. Under the Municipal Act, there's a limit to what Council can do when they're in a limbo period. But if we declare a state of emergency, then it gives staff the ability to go ahead and commit those funds, which is what we're hoping to do to get this moving forward. I do think that everybody agrees that this is an emergency, and it's something that needs to be dealt with. And in a forceful manner. There are a lot of intricacies under the Municipal Act. Staff and the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) have delegated authority to approve up to certain limits. 

But you know, we're talking about $200,000, which is not insignificant, but in the grand scheme of the City budget, when we're talking about people's lives, it really shouldn't be that hard to figure out how to find that. We have millions of dollars in different reserve funds. This is the kind of thing that they're for. So it's there. Staff approves budget increases for all kinds of projects, every construction project we have goes over budget by millions of dollars and we find the money for that. 

I think it's important that we figure out how to find the money for this. But it’s also important to show people that we're listening to the United Way and One Roof and all those people that actually do frontline service delivery. Not that City staff don't, because we do have some amazing frontline social service workers and outreach workers. But again, a lot of the senior management staff are very far removed from what's actually happening on the ground and what's actually needed by people.

SJL: Yeah, I mean it looks and sounds like, and now I'm going to swear, it looks like shit to a lot of the people.

DT: There's just such a disconnect. And a lot of stuff is from just not communicating with myself or council, even though we're the ones that are accountable to the public, while staff aren't. They should be, of course, but they're not. And then we're the ones that field the questions, like “What the hell are you doing? What is going on?” And we're desperately trying to get information from staff. It's a struggle to get them to provide answers at times. As I said, there are a bunch of reserve funds from all the different departments. We have had to dip into the Social Services reserve fund before but there are also other contingency funds. We can always use more money. 

The province needs to step the fuck up and help with these issues because it is a provincial responsibility that they are just ignoring entirely and have historically so. There's a wannabe mayor who was an MPP and cabinet minister, and under that government, social assistance rates were frozen and rents went up and the situation was exacerbated so all these issues have been compounded. The province downloading this really just fucked over municipalities across the province.

SJL: Thank you for your frankness on that. How closely are you following the mayoral race? Can you stomach it?

DT: I've been following it a bit. I mean, it's really funny even with everything that's been going on. It doesn't seem like the end is nigh, but it is. But I've been following it a bit. I was watching the debate last night when I could, but it's difficult because I've had so many people say “I really wish you were running again.” A lot of people feel really uninspired this time around whereas there was so much excitement in 2018. And this time, it's a lot more muted. Which happens, but again, I'm hoping that in 2026 there's a whole slew of young folks that come out. I'm hoping that we just have like a swing back because it seemed like in 2018, we had this swing and then it's been such a shit show that the progressive women are like “Fuck this, we're out of here.” We just need to not let City Council drag us back into the twentieth century, and it looks like it's gonna be a swing back to the conservative dudes this time. I'm happy to help people that want to campaign in four years. 

SJL: So, at this point, I'm just curious when you're going to publish your memoir.

DT: Yeah. I'm working on it. I did the one-year MRP for my master's and it took me an extra couple of months, so I am a bit of a procrastinator. I've been working on it. I'm hoping to get it done within a year after being out of office.

SJL: Do you have any plans for what you're going to do? Besides, you know, write your memoir? 

DT: Aside from hibernating for two to four weeks and not talking to anybody but my dogs? I'm planning to stay in Peterborough. My parents moved up here a couple of years ago. And my sister and my nephews are in Toronto. I kind of wanted to move to Montreal, but then I don't want to be that far from them. So I’m just kind of figuring it out. Looking for the next thing, but still want to do something meaningful and give back to the community in a more grassroots way where I don't have to deal with council or councillors.

SJL: After these four years especially, I mean, my God. Was there anything else you wanted to add? Any shoutouts you want to make?

DT: I just want people to consider running for office at all levels. Again, it's gonna be a couple of years till any of these elections happen again, which is a lot of time for organizing and talking. I know that Kemi, Kim and myself are all happy to talk to people that are interested in running about how to run a campaign and what it’s like. Depending on the outcome of this municipal election and who gets in, there's going to be some senior staff turnover. And so the opportunity to bring in some outside perspectives and really visionary people to help move because Peterborough has just been at this sort of precipice where people want progress and people want change, and people want and have all these great ideas, but there's a lot of road blocking that happens at City Hall. People just need to stay informed, and stay involved. Put pressure on your municipal officials. But also send them words of encouragement, don't be relentlessly critical. Because that's never helpful.

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