Thunder Bay

Women made gains in northern Ontario's municipal elections. Now the work begins

As newly elected mayors and councillors prepare to take office, women will be in key positions in communities across northern Ontario. Now, with election day behind them, they say its time to start putting their plans into action.

Women elected to mayor's offices, council seats and say they're ready to tackle the issues head-on

A smiling woman with glasses.
Michelle Boileau was elected as mayor of Timmins with more than 61 per cent of the vote. She's one of several women to win a key position in northern Ontario's municipal governments. (Jimmy Chabot/Radio-Canada)

As newly elected mayors and councillors prepare to take office, women will be in key positions in communities across northern Ontario. 

Women won mayoral races in Timmins, West Nipissing, Nipigon, Rainy River, Oliver Paipoonge, Shuniah and Red Rock. 

In Thunder Bay, four of the 12 councillors will be women, including three of the five at-large positions, responsible for city-wide issues. Women will make up four of 12 council positions in Sudbury and three of 11 positions  in Sault Ste.Marie. 

These results, and even the number of women who were unsuccessful, is a step in the right direction for politics in the region, said Anne Antenucci, chair of Women in Politics Northwestern Ontario in Thunder Bay, which encourages women to enter politics through mentorship programs. 

"It's not just that you should vote for a woman because she's a woman," Antenucci explained "Our elected officials should look like the electorate they are representing and 50 per cent of us are women.

"That goes to all diversity — we need different voices, different faces because that means different issues will be brought forward," Antenucci said. 

This campaign saw women running for the first time, which was encouraging, Antenucci said. 

"That was really exciting. It was also exciting to see the number of diverse women, women of colour, women from Indigenous backgrounds, people who are gender diverse," she said. "The under-50 crowd of women stepping up and making their voices heard is always exciting to me." 

Still, there was a notable absence of women running for the top jobs in northwestern Ontario.

In the region's 10 most populous municipalities, only two women ran for mayor this fall. The four largest — Thunder Bay, Kenora, Dryden and Fort Frances — did not have a single woman seeking the mayor's office, according to a CBC News analysis of provincial candidates lists. 

Though Thunder Bay is still far from reaching gender parity on council, there is one more woman around the table compared to the last term.

Out of the three women from the last term, Rebecca Johnson decided not to run, Kristin Oliver defended her seat and Shelby Ch'ng moved from her Northward ward seat to an at-large position, winning more than 13,000 votes. 

Shelby Ch'ng and Brian Hamilton watch election results come in on Monday night at the Red Lion Smokehouse in Thunder Bay. Both were re-elected to new terms on council, Ch'ng at-large and Hamilton in the McKellar ward. (Sara Kae/CBC)

Kasey Etreni and Rajni Agarwal were elected as at-large councillors, which has traditionally been difficult for first-time candidates, Antenucci explained. 

"Usually you've got to do the stepping stones to get to that point," she said. "To run for the first time, at-large as a female, who's new and to get elected? That says a lot about your campaign and what you spoke about to the people you were knocking the doors of."   

First-term councillors bring big plans 

Etreni, a retired radiology therapist, and Agarwal, a Realtor and developer, both say they're ready to hit the ground running. 

For Agarwal, reducing property taxes for homeowners, attracting new business, increasing housing stock, and encouraging mining development are her top priorities once she takes office in November. 

On the city's well-documented social issues, which include homelessness, crime and the rising opioid death toll, Agarwal said the situation is a "crisis" and there needs to be immediate action. 

Rajni Agarwal is one of Thunder Bay's five at-large city councillors, responsible for issues affecting the entire city. It's traditionally been a difficult race for a first-time candidate to win. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

"This is an immediate need; it's not a future need. It isn't a discussion we should be having in the future, a year from now. It needs to be resolved today." 

Recently cancelled street outreach services are essential, she said, and she's looking for more money from the provincial and federal governments for more detox beds. 

Etreni, meanwhile, wants to have a spot on council committees such as the city's social services administration board and Thunder Bay's economic development board. 

"There's some really good work that a lot of these committees have done," Etreni said. "I don't think people realize how much work our city councillors have done within our community." 

Kasey Etreni is one of Thunder Bay's five at-large city councillors, winning her spot Monday as a first-time candidate. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Over the past few years, the committees have set good plans, but they haven't been fully carried out, Etreni said, attributing the lag to the COVID-19 pandemic.   

Etreni also hopes Thunder Bay can become a hub for workers at regional mining projects expected to start soon, a hope that has also been shared by mayor-elect Ken Boshcoff. 

"We're going to see some collateral from [those projects]," she said. "We're going to need approximately 1,500 homes in the next five years because of that collateral and so there's a lot of excitement with that."   

Etreni predicts there will be movement from the Ontario government soon on addictions treatment in the city and hopes Thunder Bay can have a satellite service of an already-established service elsewhere in Ontario. 

"Then you don't need to focus on the infrastructure of an organization. You actually get to tap into all the resources, and I think there's an opportunity there for mental health and addictions, to help with that."