This First Person column is the experience of France Stohner, a mental health counsellor in Montreal who ran for city council in November’s municipal election. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
I never imagined myself being a politician. But by the time Montrealers had cast their votes for who would run the city, I’d lost count of how many times I had given my elevator pitch:
“Hi, my name is France Stohner and I am a political candidate running for the district of Snowdon with Courage – Team Sue Montgomery. I am a mental health counsellor and community organizer. I grew up in the neighbourhood, still live in the neighbourhood and am now raising a family in the neighbourhood. I would be honoured to advocate for better services for our community if you would allow me. I would also love to hear about how I can earn your support.”
I embarked on this wild ride at a time when I was looking for my next project with a new master’s degree and as a first-time mom on leave.
Around the start of the pandemic, I was invited to join a series of conversations with other residents from Montreal’s west-central Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough to discuss what we could do to improve things. I listened with curiosity and connected with some wonderful people who would then become my teammates in a newly founded political party focused solely on the borough.
Coming from an immigrant, queer, single-parent household, I grew up with limited resources. Yet my childhood was filled with happy memories, many associated with municipal services such as after-school programs, summer camps, parks, recreational spaces and the public library that always felt like another home to me.
As I grew up, I witnessed many of those programs lose funding or shut down, like the old Maison des Jeunes de la Côte-des-Neiges building on de Courtrai Avenue. Our community relied on it as a centre for arts and culture, a homeless shelter and even as housing for young women fleeing underaged marriage. I saw running for office as another way for me to advocate for people in precarious situations.
Prior to politics, my work focused on emotional health and anti-racism education, as well as empowering and encouraging leadership and civic engagement for Filipina/o/x-Canadian youth and women. I was no stranger to fierce grassroots leaders making significant changes in their communities with barely any resources. Nor was I to strong women who not only juggle multiple jobs and rear multiple children, but also uplift those around them — despite living paycheque to paycheque.
But running for office allowed me to witness firsthand how truly deep the systemic barriers are for Black, Indigenous, people of colour and diverse communities.
I learned that voter turnout in our neighbourhood is notoriously low, and no politician seems to bother addressing it. Turnout in my district and neighbouring Darlington was less than 30 per cent this election, compared to the more affluent Notre-Dame-de-Grâce district, where turnout was more than 40 per cent.
Some politicians seem content to build entire careers on winning with just small pockets of our communities going to the polls — just going for the “sure thing.” But these numbers signify there are many voices we are not hearing.
I met so many people who admitted to have never voted municipally — people we attempted to educate, provide information to and mobilize. For that, I am incredibly proud.
My core team was composed of young professionals from all walks of life handling messaging, optics, communication, data and finances. My outreach and door-to-door team was made up of a rotation of students and youth who live here, but many have not yet acquired their Canadian citizenship. Without the right to vote, I was humbled that they wanted to volunteer for me as a means to be involved in some way, any way, possible.
It was incredible to see a growing number of candidates from diverse backgrounds not only run but win in this election. It speaks to how many of us are tired of the status quo in a system that was not built for us. But while political parties may mean well in recruiting candidates of colour or of diversity, these candidates also require diverse resources and support.
A huge part of campaigning is fundraising, but how do you respectfully and adequately fundraise in communities that already have so little? If we are trying to mobilize a voting demographic that has never gone to the polls, we need different methods. We have sadly not reached this level of awareness or action yet.
On my small budget, I was only able to afford a few posters. I was repeatedly told by folks more experienced in politics and campaigning that posters do not win elections. But I also knew that they could help fill an important representation gap. Underrepresented communities want to feel seen, and posters of candidates from these communities help with that.
Another barrier that presented itself was racial profiling. Our team of mostly people of colour were often read as a threat when going door to door. Multiple apartment building superintendents and security guards threatened to call the police on us.
People will continue to show disinterest in municipal politics if they are continuously and systematically excluded, do not see a place for themselves or do not see themselves reflected.
I repeatedly mentioned during my campaign that it is difficult to be what we cannot see, when there are few role models and no road maps. To the youth, I encourage you to try anyway. I encourage you to be that representation that never was, and to create that road map that never existed.
In whatever situation, even if winning is unlikely, I implore you to jump in anyway.
Even if I knew I wasn’t going to win, I would have still run in this race — in exactly the same way — in a heartbeat. So many beautiful connections were made during this process, and I have grown my chosen family of like-minded people to keep fighting on.
Progress doesn’t only look like a win at the polls. We are expanding who we all can imagine being in positions of power. And when you’re gaining experience and knowledge of any kind, your time is never wasted.
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