For the rare people under 30 who make a run for elected office and win, how long does it take for the often disheartening world of politics to grind the youthful optimism and hope out of them?
That’s one of the questions that was hanging over interviews TVO did last year with some of Ontario’s youngest municipal councillors: Leigh Bursey, Sheldon Forgette and Mo Mohamed Salih. In late 2014, all were still riding the high of their election wins and most of them were coming into public office for the first time. Would their enthusiasm prove to be youthful naiveté?
One year later, it turns out that while there have been some difficult moments and hard lessons, all three are happy in their public role and excited about making a difference in their communities.
Brockville’s Leigh Bursey was the veteran of the young city councillors profiled in last year’s series. Re-elected in the 2014 municipal elections at 27 years old, he readily says his second term in office feels different. Talking to Bursey, you get the sense of a councillor who is maturing and learning to feel comfortable in his own skin while on the public stage.
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The most striking thing about his second term is that “the criticisms are a little easier to take. And I’m realizing that I have to keep my idealism in check,” Bursey says.
He says it became clear that there would always be someone who would disagree with his positions. While he says he must always listen to his constituents, he now feels more comfortable disagreeing with them (when necessary).
“There are certain issues that I’m not going to change my mind on, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from you and work with you,” Bursey says. “But I’m growing less tolerant for those who don’t choose to politely engage and politely disagree.
“I’ll always listen and I’ll always be polite, but generally speaking, I think I can handle them a lot better than I probably could have when I was that young idealistic kid, a year into his term.”
Even though he’s learning to be more pragmatic, Bursey clearly remains focused on social justice issues, referencing Syrian refugees, homelessness, racism, gay rights and mental health issues.
Bursey says he’s most proud of the success of the 2015 Brockville pride parade, which he chaired. As a new councillor five years ago, Bursey felt “publicly demoralized” when he tried to advocate for gay rights. But this year, the pride parade was a finalist for the Brockville Chamber of Commerce tourism award.
Despite these developments, one thing hasn’t changed. “I don’t see myself as a politician. I never did.” Bursey says. “I’m a community activist. I do a lot of stupid stuff. I’m a punk rocker. And to me, it’s kind of neat that all these interests feed together [in municipal politics].”
North Bay deputy mayor Sheldon Forgette, 24, had a more difficult introduction to politics than he expected.
In June, the North Bay Taxpayers Association (NBTA) attempted to sue Forgette for $90,000, because it claimed he had defamed their organization. Forgette maintained the taxpayers association wasn’t following the law because it collected donations without registering as a charity and had no public record of agendas and minutes from its meetings. Forgette’s lawyer argued the lawsuit was frivolous and filed for the case to be dismissed.
The taxpayers association eventually dropped the lawsuit, saying it wanted to avoid taxpayers paying for Forgette’s defence.
Forgette says he continues to believe what he said was correct, but “it didn’t change the fact that it went public and I had to go through that process.
“It was hard. It was hard.”
However, that incident hasn’t stopped Forgette from accomplishing many things that he’s proud of. For instance, as the budget chair, he opened up the budget process, allowing all councillors and members of the public to make submissions.
“We’re allowing input from all sorts of different mindsets,” Forgette said. “If they have specific ideas for the budget, we get to hear their feedback. Which I think is important. As opposed to the way we were doing things before [when] the budget was pretty closed.”
Forgette has a young family, an IT company and rental properties, so it would be difficult for anyone to keep all those balls in the air. He credits his wife and employees for helping him get through his first year in politics successfully.
“Municipal politics is a lot harder than I thought it would be,” he says, “just simply because we’re only part-time politicians.”
Last year, TVO interviewed London city councillor Mohamed Salih one week after he had been sworn into office on the heels of an impressive social media and door-knocking campaign.
In his first year in office, Salih, 29, has gained some very favourable recognition, including positive feedback from the London Free Press and a prize at the Black Canadian Awards.
On a policy front, Salih says he’s proud of his efforts to reform police relations with racialized communities. Carding has been debated throughout Ontario, but the issue seemed particularly salient in London where the police conducted 8,400 street checks in 2014 involving 14,000 people – three times the rate in larger cities of Ottawa, Hamilton and Windsor.
Salih and another city councillor wrote to the province, asking that carding not be considered simply a Toronto issue. Salih also spoke at a public meeting about how carding has affected him personally, saying, “I've been stopped so many times for no reason. I know that feeling. I get it. It's frustrating. And it doesn't change when I put on a suit. And it doesn't change when you throw the name councillor (in front of) my name. It still happens. And that's a real life experience for me as a black man in this city. For me as a black man in this country,"
In October, the provincial government placed strict new conditions on carding. Salih says he and the London Police Service are bringing together a working group to determine how to better train police officers in issues related to race relations and diversity.
Salih says his most difficult policy decision was on the city’s approach to Uber. Salih is a member of the London’s Sudanese-Canadian community, 90 per cent of whom work in the local taxi industry threatened by the ride-sharing service. But many of his other constituents support such services.
“It was a challenging thing for me personally, but I always want to carry myself where I come in making decisions on what’s best for London. And I never personalize,” Salih says.
In the end, Salih voted in favour of the city council to explore changes to taxi regulations, leaving open the possibility that Uber could operate legally in London. But it was tough: “The local CTV… caught me wiping my eyes,” he said.
Many politicians find revealing too much of themselves on social media to be too risky. But Salih came to city council with a large online presence and continues to make extensive use of it. He regularly posts videos to his Facebook page, and two recent ones have about 20,000 views each.
“I continue to be the personality who I am,” he says. “And, in a way, I think I have started showing more of who I am."
Main images courtesy of Leigh Bursey, Sheldon Forgette and Mo Mohamed Salih.