'It's Been 100 Percent Worth It': 3 Women On Running For Office For The First Time

Three rookie candidates in the Ontario election talk about the highs, the lows and the biggest surprises that came with making the leap into politics.

Gillian Smith, Makini Smith, Suze Morrison

Left to right: Progressive Conservative candidate Gillian Smith, Liberal candidate Makini Smith and NDP candidate Suze Morrison. Photos by Meghan Hall Photography, Jenna Muirhead and Angela Zhu.

It’s a sticky 30 degrees on a sunny day in suburban Oshawa, where Liberal candidate Makini Smith has been knocking on doors for a good hour now. She makes her way over to a brick bungalow and is met by a woman in the doorway, with a barking dog at her feet. “So you’re taking a run at politics,” the woman says, after shaking Smith’s hand. “Have you got any experience?”

“Political experience, no,” Smith responds with a smile. “But I’m very passionate about improving the quality of people’s lives. That’s what I do every day.”

The woman pauses and studies her for a moment.  “Well, I wish you luck,” she says, then after a beat, “I think you’ve got an uphill battle.”

Smith thanks her for her support and retreats down the driveway. It’s not the first resident to tell her today that the incumbent Liberals are in for a battle, and the party has never held this eastern Greater Toronto Area riding before. But she’s not shaken. “Life has been an uphill battle for me.”

With women still underrepresented in all levels of government (making up 26 percent of federal Members of Parliament, 11 to 39 percent of provincial legislatures and 28 percent of municipal councillors), and the known challenges of relentless schedules and life in the public eye, it’s a tough road for a lot of first-timers. What’s it actually like to run for the first time? Chatelaine spoke with three rookie women candidates in the Ontario election to find out.

Suze Morrison

Suze Morrison. Photo, Angela Zhu.

Suze Morrison

Stats Running for the NDP in Toronto-Centre, a seat vacated by a Liberal cabinet member in 2017.

Background Morrison’s earliest memories are growing up poor north of Parry Sound, living in a converted school bus after her home burned down. As a teen, she became an advocate for her part-Indigenous single mother, who had become wheelchair-bound and was fighting to get a university education (Morrison calls her grassroots activism something she “needed to do to survive.”) The 30-year-old is a communications professional who has helped canvass for other candidate’s campaigns. She co-founded Women in Politics, an organization designed to boost women’s political participation, in London, Ont. in 2013.

Whose idea was it to run? A well-known community advocate, a handful of people in Morrison’s neighbourhood asked her to run for city council last year. “I kind of laughed,” she said. But she came around to the idea and started building a team but backed out after realizing the municipal race in her ward would be aggressive and drawn out. Then, last fall, the Ontario NDP approached her to run — this time, it felt right.

The worst day “You hit this point halfway though the campaign when you’re so tired from 18 hour days, you don’t know how you’ll put one foot in front of the other. [It felt that way] the other week: I’d burned myself on a motorcycle during a photo opp. Then my campaign manager was trying to get us out the door and I was shoving food in my face while texting my husband to get bandages, while trying to McGyver some First Aid – and I just snapped. The waterworks started. It was just this really emotional moment. The day after, they sent me home early. I napped for two hours and then I was a human being again.”

The best day “We had federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh come into the riding in the middle of the campaign and I got to take him to watch Drag Race in the Village . . . I mean, come on! And this past weekend, I voted in the advance polls and I actually cried. I had to check seven times before I put the marker down to make sure I checked the right box.”
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On being a woman in politics “The general gendered treatment of women existing in public spaces is really true. Just today I had a dude walk up to me and stare at my chest for an inappropriate amount of time. I wonder if male candidates are treated the same way. One person also came into the office and asked if I had the stamina for the 14 hour days as a heavier woman. But I expected more online trolling than I’ve received.”

Unexpected challenge “I was raped in an apartment building in my riding. I won’t canvas in that building. That wasn’t just a problem for me as a survivor of sexual violence, it was a problem for my whole campaign team. I had to sit down and have a really foreign conversation with no fewer than four people who need to know that that building can never appear on a canvas sheet I’m being sent out on. Not that we couldn’t send volunteers there, but for my own personal safety, it’s not something I’m going to do.”

What happens if you don’t win? “Win or lose, it will be one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. The stories I have now as part of this experience are just unreal. Even as a young professional, the leadership development experience has been amazing. I’m not going to sugar-coat it, though – it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But 100 percent worth it.”

Makini Smith

Makini Smith. Photo, Jenna Muirhead.

Makini Smith

Stats Running for the Liberals in Oshawa, a seat never held by a Liberal provincially.

Background Smith is a former realtor-turned-personal development consultant, speaker and author of four books about her journey through teen motherhood, divorce and the death of her sister. She coaches women and girls on confidence and resilience and is a single mother of three. She’s volunteered for a friend running for office.

Whose idea was it to run? The 38-year-old had never considered running for office at all, until she volunteered for Leisa Washington’s campaign in the neighbouring riding of Whitby. At Washington’s nomination victory party last November, Washington said to Smith: “I kind of told the Liberals that you would be a great candidate and they want to meet with you.” Smith resisted at first, but agreed after a few coffee dates. “Because of my somewhat shy personality, I was like, ‘That’s too much spotlight for me.'” But she realized it’d be a good chance to walk the talk, take risks and face fears in the name of giving back and trying something new.

Moment of doubt “After I submitted my vetting papers I had a moment of buyer’s remorse, thinking, ‘Okay, what did I just say I’d do?’ But that was just a moment of fear of the unknown. I pushed through it.”

Motivation “My kids have definitely motivated me. Since I’ve had them, it’s been my mission to give them everything I didn’t have and I want to teach them that serving is a major part of what they should be doing.”

Biggest challenges “I’ve had to deal with some trolling online — some people who were not pleased with a black woman running in Oshawa. [But] I’ve entered into a lot of rooms where I am either the only black person or the only black woman in the room so it’s not something that is brand new to me. I also thought I could balance it all — running, my family, my consulting business, friendships, me time. By the end of the first week I had to put things on the back burner. The campaign requires sacrifice of a lot of things, but so does anything we are passionate about. Oh, and my house is dirtier than it’s ever been – but I’ll get to that after the election.”

Bright spots “We had a meet and greet with myself and Premier Kathleen Wynne in April. There was a lady who’d come down from a seniors’ building and said she usually votes Conservative but because of the things that the Liberals have done, she said she’d support me. She gave me the biggest hug. We’ve seen her many times since then. She is the sweetest woman ever. I’ve loved meeting people like that.”

On being a woman in politics “People put more focus on you being a woman than what you’re capable of doing. I’ve had men start the conversation complimenting my looks or they assume pretty doesn’t connect with brains. Some men have given me the cold shoulder, which makes me feel unwelcome, but they don’t determine who deserves to be there. I was vetted, nominated and I’m doing the work.”

What happens if you don’t win? “This whole experience has thickened my skin. I know people are sometimes afraid to do things because they’re afraid of what someone is going to say, or what they’re going to think. This whole experience has kind of removed a lot of that [fear].”

Gillian Smith

Gillian Smith. Photo, Meghan Hall Photography.

Gillian Smith

Stats Progressive Conservative candidate in the uncontested riding of University-Rosedale.

Background Smith is a communications executive and former CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. She’s volunteered for The Stop food bank and various cultural institutions, as well as for friends and family who’ve run for office. She’s a mother to twin 5-year-old girls and a 22-year-old stepson.

Whose idea was it to run? Smith learned a lot about the ground game when her husband, Paul, made a play for a federal Conservative nomination in 2014. At an event 2017, she and Paul were talking to an Ontario PC party operative who asked Paul if he’d consider running provincially. Paul responded by saying the perfect person for the job was Gillian. “This guy looks at me and said “Seriously? ‘That’s so awesome!’” Gillian, 44, says. “It sort of went from there.” She won the nomination in early 2017.

Motivation “I’m a fiscal conservative and socially progressive. What that means to me is that you have to take care of the books if you want any capacity whatsoever to take care of people.”

Moment of doubt “On the same day I went in to see [then PC-leader] Patrick Brown, my mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer. So for the next few weeks, I was in Ottawa taking care of her. I was in my childhood bed when Paul called to check in on me. I said, “I don’t know if I can do this — how can I run and handle what is going on here?” He just said to me ‘Focus on your family this week, get everything set up, but you can still run. You just can’t do it this week.’ ”
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Most memorable moment on the trail “This one poor woman, she came running to the door in her towel — she thought I was her sister. She didn’t realize the towel had kind of fallen and I’m looking at her forehead, saying, ‘I’m happy to come back another time!’ and she’s like, ‘No, no, no, you’re here, let’s talk.’ What made it worse was there was a full length mirror behind her.”

Biggest challenge “When I go out for the evening shift to canvas, I’ll stop by the school on the way just to give my girls a kiss and hug. Sometimes that is a bit hard — like they don’t want me to go — but usually it’s ok. If I can, I catch them as they go to sleep.”

Biggest surprise “If you told me a year ago that I would enjoy door-knocking, I would have said you were nuts. But I find the whole experience energizing. I get my energy from people.”

On being a woman in politics “I anticipated getting questions about ‘work-life balance’, personal comments made about my appearance, and questions about the rough-and-tumble of politics. I was not disappointed . . . however, I think my experience has been mild as compared to women who are already elected to public office. At the door, I’ve been asked, ‘If you’re running, what about your children?’ I wonder if this question would be asked of a father.”

What happens if you don’t win? “I’ve worked for 22 years. I can take basically what is an election sabbatical for these couple of months, which I wouldn’t have been able to in years prior. At the end of it, win or lose, I’ll still have my friends and family, still have my community connections, I still have all the people I have grown to love in this life. I [will have had] the chance to hold up one end of the conversation, about what I believe is the right future for the province. There is a lot of honour in that.”

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