Canada's second Black female mayor has 'Trini' roots
November 21, 2018
As she prepares for her new role as Canada’s second Black female mayor, Bernadette Clement reflected on a profound moment during the campaign that reinforced the significance of the task she was undertaking.
While knocking on doors in Cornwall where she won 53.86 per cent of the votes in last month’s municipal elections, the mayor-elect encountered a little girl who felt her hair after she bent down to greet her.
“This young girl had to be about eight or nine and she said she was going to run for mayor one day,” Clement recounted. “That was powerful in that it made me realize a younger generation was watching me and I have a responsibility to make a positive input during my tenure.”
Daurene Lewis, who passed away in January 2013, made history in 1984 when she was elected mayor of Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia.
Clement was cognizant of the historical significance.
“I have always been aware of Daurene as far back as when I entered municipal politics,” she pointed out. “In fact, I always seek out role models and women who have come before me and are blazing trails. I never thought I would be following in her footsteps. It is now sinking in and that is motivation for me to work even harder to fulfil that special responsibility.”
A city councillor for the last 12 years, Clement decided earlier this year to run for mayor.
“Because I also have a career as a lawyer and I wanted to continue with the work I do at the Stormont, Dundas & Glengarry Legal Clinic (SDGLC) which is the job that brought me to Cornwall 27 years ago and still connects me in a very real non-political way to the community, I had to think about how I would really do both,” Clement said. “That meant I had to meet with the legal clinic directors.”
With their blessings, she made the plunge to become the city’s highest-ranking official.
“When I sat down with the board to get their permission, it was determined that if I was elected mayor, I would continue as executive director at the clinic where I am the senior lawyer,” noted Clement. “There’s a succession plan in place with a deputy director who has been in that role for a year. He will take on some of the managerial duties while I work part-time there.”
Seeking political office wasn’t on Clement’s radar until 2006 when she purchased her first home.
“When I got my tax bill and was trying to figure out how municipal taxes work, that was when I became interested in everything to do with municipal budgets and operations,” she said.
The lack of women on city council was another motivating factor.
“That just didn’t seem right,” the province’s first Black female mayor said.
At around the same time, Domtar Inc. closed its pulp and paper mill in Cornwall, eliminating nearly 1,200 jobs.
“We have always been a pulp and paper mill town and everyone was sort of afraid of what would happen to our city,” said Clement who taught at St. Lawrence College. “I just felt like it was the right time to get involved in a way that would be new for me.”
Cornwall, which two years ago had the second lowest household median income in Ontario at $51,712, has a diversified mix of manufacturing, automotive, high tech, food processing and distribution and call centres.
It lies about 100 kilometres southeast of Ottawa.
“Like so many cities in the province, we have transitioned from a heavily manufacturing type of economy to something else,” said Clement. “Since Domtar closed, we have had to figure out what we would be from an economic and jobs perspective. That continues to be a major challenge. We have big warehouses and call centres here, so there has been some diversification of our economy. We also have lower levels of education than elsewhere in the province and higher levels of poverty.”
The oldest of three siblings is ready to hit the ground running after being sworn in on December 3.
“As mayor, you are not only talking about attracting investment,” said Clement. “We are 47,000 people and we have infrastructure to sustain more than that. We would like to attract new residents. That however means we have to attract more investment, create jobs and increase skills training and availability of affordable housing. Those are big challenges which, I don’t think, are unusual for municipalities in Ontario.”
Raised with her siblings in Cote-St-Luc, Clement moved to Ottawa in the 1980s and obtained civil and common law degrees at the University of Ottawa before articling at Perley-Robertson Hill & McDougall Inc.
“That’s an excellent firm and that experience confirmed that I wanted to do legal aid,” she said. “I wanted to be closer the vulnerable who need a diversity of help in a legal context.
Called to the Bar in 1991 and prepared to go where she could find a job that would align with her core values, Clement spotted an SDGLC advertisement in the Ottawa Citizen newspaper.
Without a car at the time, she hopped on a bus and was hired.
“The timing was perfect as this is exactly what I wanted to do,” Clement said. “Cornwall welcomed me with open arms. I became part of the Francophone community here very quickly and this place felt like home right away.”
In the aftermath of her historic election triumph, no one was prouder than her 96-year-old father who joined her on the dance floor at the victory party.
Hubert Clement migrated from Trinidad & Tobago in 1954, earned a commerce degree four years later and taught for three decades before retiring in 1988. It was while at Marymount Academy that he met his wife of 54 years – Euphrasie -- who left Manitoba in 1959 for a teaching post in Montreal.
“I am so fortunate to have my dad share the historic moment with me,” said Clement. “He’s always been my biggest supporter. I grew up in Quebec during a time when there were referendums. When we sat around the kitchen table, there was always a daily dose of political discussions led by my father. I have always had an interest in politics even though I never saw myself running for political office.”
Clement, who made two unsuccessful attempts as a federal Liberal candidate, has visited T & T a few times with her parents.
“I have been to Carnival once and I think I am due for my next visit soon,” she said.
Her siblings are in Montreal.
Catherine Clement is a senior learning & development specialist at AccorHotels and Joseph Clement has been an institutional equity leader at Raymond James Ltd. since February 2010.