Sharing lunch with Shawn Menard: “I didn’t expect this to be fun…”

As The Mainstreeter sat down to interview Shawn Menard for the June issue, it became quickly evident that Capital Ward’s first term city councillor didn’t run for office to win any popularity contests. Along with his staff team, Menard has set to work to challenge the existing power structures at City Hall and to press forward on a vision for the city that shakes up the existing agendas and interests. Whatever unfolds over the next few years at City Council, with Menard pushing for new priorities, things will be anything but dull!

The Mainstreeter: Councillor Menard, you are four months into office now. Can you tell our readers how it’s going? Are you having fun? Is the role what you anticipated when you ran for municipal election?

Menard: Well, I didn’t get into it to have fun. And it’s not a fun job. It’s a job that requires a ton of work, community relations constantly, and working for the betterment of your city and your local community. It is exhausting, but I have enjoyed it because I relish this short-lived opportunity in life to make a huge difference. And that’s what we’re trying to accomplish. We have a vision for the city and for the ward that I think was supported by a lot of folks during the election. It’s being supported more and more by people now as they see the work we’re doing on the ground at City Council. So I didn’t expect this to be fun. But it is certainly exciting to be able to try to change things for the better, and to challenge the status quo at City Hall, which is what we’re doing on a regular basis.

The Mainstreeter: As a new city councillor, you’ve already had a few early run-ins with your council colleagues, including Mayor Jim Watson. What have you learned from these incidents about the rough and tumble of city politics?

Menard: We knew coming in here that we weren’t going to have a ton of friends, because we challenged the status quo throughout the election. We challenged it because we don’t believe that developers should be controlling City Hall, which is the case right now. And when you say those sorts of things, you’re not going to make many friends in the Mayor’s office or with people who have traditionally taken developers’ donations and who sit on the Planning Committee. So, it wasn’t like we were coming in to make friends with everybody and to be as collegial as possible. City Hall is where we’re having to work collaboratively with certain individuals to try to get certain things through, like the climate change emergency motion. And at the same time, there’s other issues we raise, like somebody’s beliefs around transportation, and around women’s right to choose that may rub people the wrong way. What I’ve learned is there are certain times to raise things and that, in certain circumstances, it’s better to go through the motions of a typical council meeting, which I probably haven’t always done. But that’s who I am, I put things out there. I challenge the status quo. And I don’t make apologies for that. And I think that this City Hall needed to be shaken up.

The Mainstreeter: This month, you have been sparring with the Mayor once again, in this case about expanded free OC Transpo bus transit. Can you put this latest public disagreement into context for our readers?

Menard: We don’t make any of these issues personal in nature. All of them are about policy decisions. I challenged the position of the city right now because we currently do offer free transit. We offer it for seniors on Wednesdays, and now on Sundays. We offer it on New Year’s Day, and on Canada Day. People that go to Lansdowne currently get free transit if there’s under 5,000 people who attend an event, because we’ve said the capacity on our buses can handle that. We use free bus transportation as a policy tool right now. I don’t mind debates. And if we’re going to debate on Twitter, that’s okay. But I want to make sure that they’re informed debates. What we said during the election is that free transit down Bank Street would be a game changer. We don’t have transit being serviced properly in the north-south direction right now. We have an east west line coming in, and the O-train that exists, but in the future, Bank Street is still going to be clogged. So we said that would be a fantastic route to make free with hop on, hop off transit service. I say to myself, am I just going to come in here to get along with the Mayor and other people? No, that’s not who I presented myself to be during the election. I’m going to stay true to our team and to the people who supported our team. And I’m not going to be somebody that’s a bobblehead. I just don’t do that.

The Mainstreeter: Many residents in Old Ottawa East would find your approach as their elected representative to be a courageous and refreshing one, but others may wonder whether the approach will prove to be advantageous to the community over time? What do you say to those residents?

Menard: I think the evidence is in my first four months in office, and what we’ve achieved. We’ve gotten new crossing guards, after years of advocacy by people when it didn’t happen. We’ve got new transit service that will go to the hospital eventually, with the number 55. We’ve had success on a climate change emergency motion, working collaboratively with other colleagues, where it makes sense, but also by saying look – this is the issue of our time – if you’re not voting for this, you’re going to be called out for it. I think you can look at the record that we’ve had on snow clearing, where we’ve cajoled the city into doing an update on the maintenance quality standards, which haven’t been changed since amalgamation. We had a snow clearing forum, which we promised in the election, and we did it. I believe in community pressure and in organizing to achieve things. At the same time, I’m not adverse to collaborating when it makes sense, like I did with Scott Moffatt on the Environment Committee for the climate change motion. But at the same time, I think we’ve been going in the wrong direction in our city for some time now. And for me to sit back and say that it’s okay for us to have been going in this direction, that to me is not acceptable. We need a wholesale change. And when I say that, I mean developer control at City Hall. I mean, the cost of transit fares, which are some of the highest in North America.

The Mainstreeter: Let’s split Capital Ward for a moment and focus entirely on Old Ottawa East. As you know, our community is undergoing phenomenal change. Some people say that Main Street and the community won’t be recognizable five years from today. Given the flux in Old Ottawa East, what are the two or three most important things that you think must be accomplished during your term on council?

Menard: I lived in Old Ottawa East for six years, and we had our first child in this neighbourhood. So I know I know it very well, and I love this community. There are some concrete things that we’re working on right now that need to get done. One is ensuring that the community centre gets an expansion. We’re looking at the Deschâtelets building right now, and we’ve advanced that file heavily from where it has languished for more than a year. We’ve gathered together the developer, Regional, as well as city staff, the community association, our office as well as planners. This matter has been left up in the air without discussions. We need to reignite things, and we’re in favour of looking at the Deschâtelets building or another spot for an expanded 21,000 square foot community centre. I think the community is doing a fantastic job of advocating for a new community centre, and I want to be a supporter of the community association. We think that’s going to happen now as a result of us pushing those conversations forward. That’s one of the big things that that we need to get done. Another big item is around green space in Old Ottawa East. What happened with the Immaculata turf field should never have occurred. That was a huge mistake and needed to have been fought back by the city a year ago. And it wasn’t appropriately done; there was a site plan approval that essentially gave carte blanche to the school board, except for the 10 o’clock curfew, which we haven’t seen yet because it’s under appeal. There’s a lack of green space in our community. Springhurst Park is currently slated for the AltaVista Transportation Corridor. We’re working very hard to ensure that the AVTC never gets built through that park. It would be a huge mistake expanding roads. We know that doesn’t work, it just creates more congestion, because more people choose to take their car, through the concept of induced demand. We don’t want to spend another hundred million dollars to put a road through there. So, that’s another huge priority. And, we can have an impact on that this year, in this term of council, because the transportation master plan is being updated.

The Mainstreeter: The Lees Avenue transit station will have a major impact on city planning for this community. Current plans call for massive housing development in that area with 40-storey towers built in close proximity to the transit station. Give me your thoughts on the next Official Plan and its impact on our community?

Menard: The Official Plan is going to be updated this term. We are working extensively with the Federation of Citizens Associations, and with staff and other councillors here to try to make sure that, when it is updated, it best serves community residents. When I say that, I mean it should not just be focused on a car culture, and not just focused on the wild west of development, which has been the case in Ottawa for a long time. We need to make sure that there’s affordable housing in the mix, that we’ve got active transportation modes as a better option for folks, and that we’ve got certainty in our planning. That means that secondary plans have to be respected within the Official Plan, and that climate change is front and centre in terms of the way we design our buildings and our building envelopes.

The Mainstreeter: We’re early days to be talking about Shawn Menard’s legacy. But it does appear that climate change and related matters of transportation are the two key areas of personal focus for you, the areas where you have the most exposure and perhaps traction within city council. Would you agree?

Menard: Yes, I think so, and that was largely how we ran our campaign. I’m the vice-chair of the Environment Committee now and able to usher through certain motions there working with colleagues on the committee. I believe that climate change is the issue of our time, and that if we don’t act now, we’re going to have major consequences in the future. I come from the Federation of Canadians, where I worked for a long time. We saw there that you can actually save money at the local level when you invest in climate change solutions. Things like retrofitting our buildings, reducing our heat, hydro or water costs, doing the switch over to LEDs. We’re only halfway through that now, investing in different transportation solutions. Climate change is certainly something that I prioritize in our office, but it extends out to a number of other priorities that we have, like active transportation and transit-oriented development that aren’t strictly related to climate change.

The Mainstreeter: Local politics has traditionally been a proving ground for civic-minded individuals, who oftentimes emerge from local community associations. However, some people have claimed that the last municipal election was won or lost because of the direct involvement of federal and provincial political party machines. Assuming that was correct, what do you believe that means for the future of municipal politics in Ottawa?

Menard: At the end of the day, what people wanted in Capitol Ward was a more progressive voice, someone who was going to hold people to account at the city. And that’s who they elected here. I’m a new urbanist, and I’m also a social democrat. That means that I want things done in a different way that helps people on the ground. In terms of those types of policies, I think people were attracted to our campaign from various walks of life and political profiles. We had environmentalists from the Green Party that certainly helped us out. We had long-time Liberals on our campaign, and certainly a lot of people who would identify themselves as New Democrats, as well as a lot of community members who aren’t officially part of any party. I think that there is change in the air, and at the end of the day, it’s people who help other people get elected, not political parties.

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