Fall Brings Colors — and Change — to CBRM

The coming of October goes not unheralded.
Its harbingers are glorious – yellow, orange and red.
They blaze across the hillside and flame against the sky.
While summer, like September, has faded with a sigh.
October has a beauty and a splendor that are rare.
A crayon-colored prelude to November, bleak and bare.

 

October brings out my inner poet — it also brings elections, and this year’s was a doozy that has given us our first female mayor (hurrah!) as Amanda McDougall takes on a role no woman has filled in the 25 years of the CBRM’s existence. I found myself wondering what she was thinking this Sunday, when she woke up and remembered she was mayor.

MacAdam's Lake. 19 October 2020

MacAdam’s Lake. 19 October 2020

McDougall has spoken out against in-camera meetings (a popular exercise over the past few years), expressed support for a municipal charter and for the long-discussed and much-needed central library and openly resisted certain decisions made without input from the citizenry. I feel certain that she will work with her council, including the many new faces around the table, to involve the people they serve in their decision-making.

Whatever she does, she’s already advanced the position of women in local politics.

 

The concept of municipal government was first introduced to this region in 1879, with the incorporation of the Municipality of the County of Cape Breton, an entity made up of 19 Districts. It was an early experiment in regional unity that soon went off the rails as the various districts incorporated as towns in their own right — led by Sydney and North Sydney in 1885.

At that time, women were not permitted to vote in Nova Scotia — although they had been earlier. As the Nova Scotia Legislature website explains:

 Technically, until 1851 women could vote because the only voting requirement was land ownership. There is documentary evidence from 1793 and 1806 that a handful of women did vote in elections held in those years. In 1851, legislation was enacted to explicitly exclude women from voting. The property requirement was also eliminated. In 1918, women were explicitly included in the legislation, but could only vote if they also fulfilled the property ownership requirement. Finally, in 1920 women in Nova Scotia achieved universal suffrage.

But in 1879, Cape Breton County women were not voting for councilors, let alone running for council themselves, and it was a situation that would not change for decades, as the smattering of local government photos below illustrates:

 

 

Eventually, though, women began to make their way into municipal office. The first woman elected to council in any of the municipalities now forming the CBRM was Anne Godwin, who won a seat on Dominion Town Council in 1953. She served two, two-year terms, during which time she was actually joined by a second woman councilor, Donna McMullin.

Elizabeth Vaughan served as a Sydney “alderman” in the 1960s. Claire Detheridge was elected to the Cape Breton County Council in 1982 and to the CBRM Council in 1995, serving 34 consecutive years in local office.

Other women who have served on CBRM Council include Mae Rowe, Lee MacNeil, Kim Desveaux, Earlene MacMullin (re-elected on Saturday), Kendra Coombs, (now NDP MLA for Cape Breton Centre) and Amanda McDougall, who was elected to council in 2016 representing District 8.

Agreement signed between Indian Affairs and Membertou.

An undated photo shows Indian Affairs Minister Jean Chretien signing an agreement with Sydney Mayor Carl Neville and Membertou Chief Roy Gould under which the City would provide police, fire and street and sewer services to Membertou. Alderman Elizabeth Vaughan, pictured behind the mayor, was a member of the City committee that negotiated the agreement. (Source: Membertou Heritage Park)

 

And now, a woman has finally broken the glass ceiling and will be mayor of the CBRM for the next four years.

It’s never easy to put yourself “out there,” asking for the support of your fellow citizens, but it’s especially difficult in the days of social media where, unfortunately, too many Facebook fools and Twitter trolls see it as their prerogative to slander and harass whomever they please. In some cases, even fellow candidates seem to believe it’s their right to do so. McDougall received her share of such ignorant blathering for being, not only a woman, but a pregnant woman, but she managed to stay above the fray and accomplished a feat that will be a significant part of the history of the CBRM.

I don’t know what Mayor McDougall was thinking about this past Sunday, but as I was driving around the CBRM, admiring the fall colors, I found myself thinking what a beautiful place our municipality is. There are problems, of course — there’s a lack of affordable housing, there’s child poverty, there’s food insecurity — and our council will be expected to work together as a cohesive group, along with provincial and federal governments, to address these problems. And in the process, make the CBRM an even better place to live.

 

 

Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.