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Mayor Amanda McDougall-Merrill: Putting family ahead of city hall

by Sean Meyer, Municipal World
in Governance, Leadership
May, 2024

Amanda McDougall-Merrill was the first woman elected as the mayor of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) in 2020. That distinction is one she celebrates as something nobody can ever take away from her.

But she also knows how much pressure is on the mayor, regardless of their gender. That pressure, along with a desire to focus on her family, is why she decided not to run in the 2024 municipal election. Of course, they weren’t the only reasons. McDougall-Merrill has faced a hectic four years in the mayor’s office.

“When you’re a councillor, you’re a councillor of one district. When you’re mayor, you are serving every person in your community,” McDougall-Merrill said. “I was mayor at a time where our community needed me a lot. We went through the end of COVID, two states of local emergency, pretty catastrophic weather events. I lead as a nurturer and I want to care for people in the good, bad, and ugly. It was a really challenging four years.”

Putting Family First

Woman behind a desk drinking a coffee while holding a baby drinking from a bottle

Cape Breton Mayor Amanda McDougall-Merrill has had to find a balance between family needs and city hall responsibilities. Photo: Amanda McDougall-Merrill

In discussing her reasons for not running again, McDougall-Merrill puts her family’s needs “first and foremost.” Her children are three and 10 years old, with her oldest attending middle school this year. Her son Emmett was born with Down Syndrome and is also deaf. Understandably, he needs a lot of care.

McDougall-Merritt has spent a lot of days making the drive to Halifax where Emmett receives a specialized treatment. There were times throughout her term that she would be out of the office for several days attending to Emmett’s needs. It led her to feeling a lot of guilt about the job she was doing as mayor. But then again, when she was focused on the mayor’s office, she worried about things at home as well.

“You feel guilty that you’re not focusing on your job as mayor. But then I would also have the same feeling when I am not available to my children and my husband and thinking, ‘damn, I’m just doing such a crappy job at home because I’m so focused on my job here in the office’,” she said. “So that conflict back and forth of feeling like you’re always letting somebody down. It’s big. It really weighs heavy.”

Differences Between Mayor, Councillor

McDougall-Merrill was elected to council in 2016, prior to her mayoral win four years later.

While she is quick to acknowledge that being a councillor is important work, the mayor’s role is exponentially more difficult.

McDougall-Merrill said when it comes to sitting in the big chair, people have to be prepared to be the mayor 24 hours a day. You’re never not the mayor. That goes for whether you are attending community meetings or walking through the grocery store.

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“It’s humbling, wonderful, absolutely one of my favorite parts of the job,” she said. “But that can also be pretty daunting sometimes when you just want to go and grab some milk at the store, and somebody’s going to stop you and says they need to talk about their property taxes. There’s no downtime.”

Today’s Political Realities

McDougall-Merrill said she also sees the world is changing – particularly from a political climate point of view. Even when she started in local government eight years ago, the landscape was completely different. And that, she adds, isn’t for the better.

Social media can be “relentless and vile,” McDougall-Merrill said. The anonymity that’s permitted through social media, she added, has allowed for an escalation in the use of words in such a hurtful and negative way.

“You have to be ready for it. Anybody going into that office, I made the mistake at first thinking I’m doing it different,” she said. “I’m doing everything. I’m going to make sure my social media is taken care of. I’m going to do all the email responses. But you have to trust your team to help shield you from some of that negativity.”

Highlights of a Political Career

The municipal election isn’t until October, and McDougall-Merrill still has plenty of work to do. But that said, she is quick to celebrate the things about the job of being mayor that she is going to miss.

There have been successes to be sure. McDougall-Merrill is quick to lauds the amount of work she and her staff put into the creation of a Cape Breton Regional Municipality Work Plan. The plan will provide grants for much-needed affordable housing projects. But there was also surviving those states of local emergency, including post-tropical storm Fiona and the massive snowstorm that blanketed the municipality in as much as 150 centimetres of snow back in February.

McDougall-Merrill said it was “remarkable” what the municipality’s team – staff and councillors alike – accomplished together. But the biggest accomplishment for her was winning that mayoral election in 2020.

She does recall her gender being brought up “either intentionally or inadvertently” far more than was necessary. In fact, McDougall-Merrill said she “definitely was treated completely different” than her male counterparts. But even so, that status is something she will always hold on to.

“The fact that I will always hold the legacy of being the first female mayor is something that you almost forget about it when you’re so busy working,” she said. “But you have those moments that are so humbling and thinking that’s a pretty incredible accomplishment. That’s amazing that my community had such trust in me. That tops everything.”

Political Highs and Lows

McDougall-Merrill is quick to celebrate the strengths of local government. She easily lauds how municipalities can accomplish so much while rarely being given the tools they need in today’s modern world. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t “a little bit worried” about the future.

McDougall-Merrill said she worries a lot about the “negative dynamic and rhetoric” that seems to be growing everywhere. But at the same time, she recognizes people are “excited and invigorated” because of the positive strides that are being made.

But even so, she worries about “Trump-style politics,” the mean and adversarial approach, which is making politics so divisive. Still, she also wants to see more women and racialized people involved in politics. As such, when she gets approached for advice by those looking at elected office, she is quick to paint an honest picture.

McDougall-Merrill said she attended a lot of campaign schools for women where everything was about how to win a campaign. Unfortunately, not much was said about what happens when a woman actually takes the seat.

“Sharing stories like this is not meant to deter women from going in, but to be more prepared for what you’re about to face,” McDougall-Merrill said. “I have faith that diversity will continue to grow and expand. But we just have to be honest with people who are running that with change comes conflict. It’s not going to be easy. Change does not come simply. So how can we be there to support those who are going to take those seats?”

What Comes Next?

McDougall-Merrill is quick to admit she isn’t going to miss waking up on Saturday mornings and going right to the opinion section of the newspaper to see what people are saying about her.

She will miss her team at CBRM and her colleagues from across the municipality, the province, and even the country. She will miss interacting with the community, being invited into so many spaces, and having the opportunity to learn about her municipality at such a deep level. This has been especially enjoyable for someone whose background is in the non-profit sector.

But the future remains full of unknowns. Now that she has made her decision, she is starting to think about what the path may be. She has been excited to have a few different organizations reach out to have conversations.

It means a lot to her, McDougall-Merrill said, that people are recognizing this as an opportunity to have her play a role in their organization. “To me that validates that I’ve done something right in this job,” she said. But while she is uncertain what her future career path might be, she knows full well something she is for sure looking forward to – taking her kids to Canada Day festivities. After all, their whole lives, she has always been working on Canada Day.

“I’m looking forward to a little time for myself. These roles mean you give yourself to so many people in so many different ways,” she said. “A lot has happened in my life since I first was on council and now as mayor. My family has grown. I married my husband. That’s a lot. And so having a little bit of time to really breathe that in and enjoy it and celebrate it a little bit more.”  MW

✯ Municipal World Executive and Essentials Plus Members: You might also be interested in Sean Meyer’s article: Local government champions look ahead to new experiences.

Sean Meyer is digital content editor for Municipal World.

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