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FCM president inspires women to shape the future

by Sean Meyer, Municipal World
in FCM, Leadership
March, 2019

On International Women’s Day, Municipal World was proud to kick off its 2019 series celebrating Women of Influence in Municipal Government. Our first honouree is Vicki-May Hamm, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, mayor of the City of Magog, QC and chair of the Memphrémagog Regional County Municipality.

Vicki-May Hamm has accomplished a lot in her young life, which is probably appropriate for someone who once – perhaps only half-jokingly – told a room full of her fellow social work students her goal was to change the world.

Hamm is the mayor of Magog, Quebec, and president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM).

When reflecting on where her political career began, Hamm recalls standing before her teachers and classmates to answer the question of why she chose social work as a career path. Her answer, in full honesty, was to change the world.

“Of course, I was young and naïve back then. But, I’ve always considered myself a changemaker, someone building projects, working in the community. I’ve done that all my life,” she said. “My past led me to politics because that’s where the decisions are made. Instead of being the person saying you aren’t doing things right, you should be doing things this way, I figured if I was on the other side making the decisions, maybe it would be helpful to get some things done.”

For someone who has accomplished so much in the world of municipal politics at just 48 years old, Hamm faced disappointment from the beginning of her campaign career, losing at the polls in her first run for election in 1999.

That loss, however, didn’t dissuade her. She again put her name forward for city councillor in Magog, winning in 2005. From there, she served one term before running a successful mayoral campaign in 2009, remaining in the role ever since.

“I feel I have to prove myself every day. Sometimes it comes down to that. I believe I always had it in me, some kind of leadership. It’s followed me all my life,” she said. “I realized I’m much stronger when with a team. I like to put people beside me who are stronger, who push me to do things I didn’t know I could do. And politics gives you that opportunity; you aren’t in your comfort zone very often. I need that personally.”

As a wife, mother (of four), grandmother (of four), and mayor, it would be understandable if Hamm decided she had enough on her plate.

However, all her many responsibilities didn’t stop her from launching a campaign for the FCM presidency in 2018. Her decision essentially leap-frogged the federation’s traditional leadership ladder of first serving as third vice-president, second vice-president, and then first vice-president before seeking the top job.

“I sat down with my gang at our provincial association and said what do you think is better? This is a great opportunity. I love working with FCM. I’m bilingual. Maybe we can get working closer together,” she said. “Quebec has always felt a little bit apart, probably mostly because of French. So, I said I would run for FCM. I just jumped in at president; this has been a very fast track learning process.”

Hamm said she’s learned quite a bit about how to handle her demanding workload — being well organized and learning to say no (something she admits is still difficult for her) are two keys she’s picked up along the way.

Those lessons, and many others, are just some of the ideas she eagerly passes on to other women seeking political office.

Hamm admitted she never thought of herself as a role model until a pair of women came up to her and said the reason they got into politics was because she had inspired them.

“I was like, wow. I don’t feel it’s on my shoulders. It actually makes me proud and reminds me I had role models too. I had women who inspired me like Pauline Quinlan (the former mayor of Bromont, Quebec), who is the first one who got me involved at FCM,” she said. “In Quebec, women are only 19 percent of mayors. That’s not a lot of women. We need role models and I invite women to have them. Don’t be afraid to write them or call them; that is part of our job too. Any opportunity I have to share with women who aspire to politics, I look forward to them.”

Hamm said she has seen change over time. For example, during her first campaign, she knocked at a door only to have a man tell her to “go back to your pots and pans” before closing the door in her face. While that isn’t the typical reaction, Hamm said that memory does serve as a reminder that out-of-date perspective remains a part of society even today.

Attitudes, she added, are also changing in how the media covers women in politics, but perhaps not as quickly as some might expect. For example, she has still faced occasions — admittedly “only maybe once or twice” — where what she was wearing was made the topic of conversation, adding, “You never see [that discussion] around the tie that a man is wearing.”

When she first ran for office, Hamm said she planned to stay for two terms. However, she soon realized “four years goes by pretty fast,” and she didn’t get done everything she wanted. After 12 years, that has changed and she has been able to shepherd Magog through some difficult economic times and into what she describes as “a much different place.” It is change she’s proud to have played a role in.

Hamm has announced her decision not to seek a fourth term in Magog. The decision stems largely from her belief elected officials “shouldn’t stay too long” and need to eventually (whatever that might mean to a given person) make room for people with new energy and ideas.

Although she plans on staying involved in politics, perhaps at some other level — “We will see in three years. There will be another opportunity for me.” — she is looking at hopefully finding more time to indulge in more personal activities.

A fishing and hunting enthusiast, Hamm said she enjoys spending time at the family cottage in northern Quebec, far away from electricity and cellphones.

“I love being in the woods. It is so different than what I do every day. And read a good book with a good glass of wine,” she said. “People are often surprised when I say that I fish and hunt. I hunt with a crossbow … it gives the animal a better chance. During the winter, I don’t have much time, it is a very busy period in the city, but when we do get away, we go snowmobiling. It’s a lot of fun.”  MW

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in the full version of this article or in Yolaine Kirlew’s article: Breaking through the municipal glass ceiling: How deliberate systems of support can help remove barriers for women in local government. Note that you can now access the complete collection of past articles (and more) from your membership dashboard.

Sean Meyer is Senior Content Editor for Municipal World. During his 25-year career in journalism, Sean has covered municipal politics in several small- and medium-sized communities and gained an understanding of the structure and political framework of government.

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