Cornwall mayor reflects on 'incredible pressure' amid social change

Bernadette Clement is believed to be the first Black woman to serve as the mayor of an Ontario municipality. In the wake of Canada's reckoning with systemic racism, she sat with CBC Radio's All In A Day to talk about her responsibilities.

Bernadette Clement is believed to be 1st Black female mayor in Ontario

Cornwall, Ont., Mayor Bernadette Clement, seen here in 2017, spoke with CBC Radio's All In A Day recently about the pressure she feels to be 'perfect' as Canada confronts its history of systemic racism. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Cornwall, Ont., Mayor Bernadette Clement remembers when her sister was called "Aunt Jemima" in high school.

The insult was a reference to the stereotypical Black servant or nanny figure that acted as the mascot for a PepsiCo brand of pancake mixes and syrup.

When the company announced last week they were retiring the character, Clement — who is believed to be the first Black woman to serve as mayor of an Ontario municipality — contacted her sister and broke into tears. 

"It was fresh, like [the incident] had happened yesterday," she told CBC Radio's All In A Day.

Clement said the tears shocked both her and her sister.

"Here we are, successful women who have done well and have benefited from all kinds of different things in life [and yet] we would still be able to recall that with such a specificity," she said. "And recall the pain."

Bernadette Clement, the first Black woman to serve as mayor of an Ontario city, reflects on the anti-racism movement around the world and in her own city 12:59

As Canada reckons with systemic racism following the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd at the hands of police, Clement has been reflecting on her own role, both as an elected leader and as a Black woman in a predominantly white community. 

Cornwall had its own anti-Black racism protest earlier this month, and Clement passed out masks to people in the crowd and walked side-by-side with the city's police chief.

She recalled telling those who gathered about how her father, who immigrated to Canada from Trinidad and Tobago, faced racism as a newcomer.

At the same time, he also had allies who took "concrete action" to help him establish a new life, Clement told All In A Day.

As others shared more recent stories of racism in the city of about 50,000, Clement said it felt as if she'd been flung back 40 years.

"[I was] thinking, 'How is it possible that these young women are hearing and experiencing the same things I did? Have we not moved?'" 

She also felt the crowd was listening to the stories.

"They were shocked by some of the stuff they were saying, but they wanted to connect," Clement said. "It feels like allies really want to help us shoulder that burden. It feels different this time."

'I feel incredible pressure'

Clement, who previously served as a city councillor in Cornwall and ran twice locally as a Liberal in the 2011 and 2015 federal elections, said she entered politics because she felt representation was — and remains — important.

She said she wanted to be able to show young women that being a leader is "part of what women can and should be doing." 

Since being elected Cornwall's mayor in 2018, Clement said she's felt a responsibility to help create change for Black people, especially Black women.   

Clement was elected as Cornwall's mayor in 2018 after previously serving as a city councillor. (CBC)

"I feel incredible pressure," Clement said. "I feel pressure to be the perfect mayor, which I know, that's not possible."

She also hopes other Black leaders are elected in their communities.

"I don't want to be the only one. I don't want to be one of very few," she said. "I want to be among groups of people that represent our community."

With files from CBC Radio's All in A Day

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