The Municipal Councillor Interviews

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Leadership Monday, March 21, 2016 View Count = 4427

The Municipal Councillor Interviews

This is a guest blog written by the Rural Ontario Institute. ROI is a non-profit organization focussed on developing leaders, initiating dialogue, supporting collaboration and promoting action on issues and opportunities facing rural Ontario. ROI has most recently been working on the Rural Municipal Councillor Profile to capture and share the the individual experiences on municipal councils across rural Ontario. This initiative contributes to a broader applied research initiative: Measuring Rural Community Vitality.

When you ask most people to describe the general demographics of rural municipal councils across Ontario, it is often met with a knowing smile or a chuckle. People have a general understanding that municipal politicians are older, whiter and more predominantly male relative to the general population – so it has been no surprise to many when we shared the results from our demographic survey and analysis of 2014 municipal election data.

Makeup of Rural Ontario Municipal Councillors
We have certainly seen, in the data, significant imbalances in council demographics relative to the demographics of rural Ontario communities. When you ask people to pursue these ideas in greater detail, to share their stories and experiences, the story grows. 

What We Have Heard

In speaking with over 50 municipal councillors and mayors, clerks and Chief Administrative Officers (CAO), we heard stories of deep personal struggles, contrasted with endearing triumphs, and instances of strong effective teamwork contrasted with experiences of betrayal and manipulation.

We have heard from councillors, mayors, clerks and CAO’s alike, from across rural Ontario, that there is indeed room for improvement. There were three primary areas of discussion: Gender, Age, and Preparedness out of which came a number of implications for future action.

 Gender Imbalance

“It goes back to their own sense of their capacity and their leadership abilities. When you see a trend like 25% [of elected officials being women] in the last couple of municipal elections in Ontario, it's evident this issue sits at a societal level.”

 “With regards to barriers, it’s the conflict and it’s how you’re going to be perceived in the community. Unfortunately I haven’t quite evolved to the point where I can ignore all of that yet and it eats up a tremendous amount of my mind space some days. Did I wear the right outfit to look professional but not look hoity-toity? Did I speak in a way that’s accessible to other people so it doesn’t make me look this way?”


Age Discrepancy

“I was definitely not represented in my own community, so that was the driving force behind running for election. I was young had two kids at the time and I was not represented on council at all.”

“It is not a young person’s sport from a time commitment point of view. I would love nothing more than to quit my day job so that I could do this again to the fullest of my capabilities, but I have a pension, and at [under 50] I’m not in a position where I could walk away from a pension.”


Councillor Preparedness

“For the first two years you are useless. You’re learning how this whole thing works. Not to say that you don’t have any good ideas in those first two years, but you’re pretty much useless until you figure out how it all works.”

“I have a solid business background. I have an MBA. And I had dealt with government at the provincial and the federal level. So I thought I was fairly well-acquainted with what it took to be a councillor. Like most people, I think, who get elected for the first time, I quickly found out that I did not know as much as I thought I did.”

Next Steps

What Can Be Done
“I still think it’s a misnomer for existing councillors that they truly want to have people engaged to take their job. You’re basically asking the group that are there, how do I get more people who will take your job from you.”

 “The time commitment almost requires that someone be retired and the pay structure in rural areas for a councillor doesn’t make it worth it.”

“I really maintain that it needs to be a big picture focus and we need to get the youth involved. We need to start encouraging them and getting them to understand the value and importance of getting involved in their community and to give back.”

“I’m not sure that you can legislate or otherwise make people come to the table. People have to want to come to the table themselves. All you can do is to try and set a good example so people are interested.

In Conclusion

Identified through this initiative are a number of commonly known statistics and stories, showing trends not significantly different from those observed in other levels of politics or spheres of society.

It has been shown that rural Ontario’s municipal councillors are on average older, more predominantly male, with higher incomes and more education than a typical cross-section of rural community demographics. Further, municipal politicians face challenges in learning the ropes, understanding their roles and responsibilities, and often with managing conflict amongst fellow councillors’, constituents, and staff.

It has been ROI’s intention throughout this initiative to bring together these demographic realities and shared experiences of municipal politics in rural Ontario as understood through the eyes of councillors, mayors, clerks and CAO’s, so we may find new opportunities to improve. It is from this common ground of understanding that emerges an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue around some of the issues affecting our municipal governments.

Click here to read about Samara's exit interviews with 80 former Members of Parliament.

Samara captured the first-ever exit interviews with Members of Parliament in Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out about Canada’s Failing Democracy and have since supported other organizations’ efforts to learn more about elected officials in Canada. In 2016 Samara will begin another set of interviews with Members of Parliament exiting the 41st Parliament. ROI has pursued greater insight in how the Canadian political system is working in the Municipal Councillor Profile. Samara welcomes organizations emulating the exit interview model to further research about public life. If you’re interested in emulating the exit interview model at the municipal or provincial level, please contact us info [@] 


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