May and June are always busy months for high school teachers. Students are stressed as they are preparing for the conclusion of activities and final exams, and trying to meet their academic goals. Staff are tired and at times appear to experience more stress than the students preparing for all the final assessments.
I do not know why I thought it would be a good idea to take on the stress of an election campaign on top of my already chaotic work, family, and recreational obligations. My friends called me crazy, but knew why I was putting myself forward as a candidate and so did I. I did not want a conservative Ontario and I was weary of populist politics. Although I knew the chances of winning in my riding were slim to none, I wanted to know that I had done my part in the political process, and I hoped to learn something along the way. I grew up learning values of fairness and inclusiveness, and I wanted to try to inject that into the election in any way I could.
In May, I was attending the OSSTF/FEESO Communications and Political Action Committee regional meeting with my colleagues from around the province when I received a phone call from a senior activist from the Ontario New Democrats. I had been advised by some people close to me who also have connections to the Ontario New Democratic Party that this call could be coming. When it did, I was both surprised and honoured. It was getting close to the candidate nomination deadline and the NDP was struggling to find candidates in my area. I was asked if I would put my name forth to be the candidate for the newly formed riding of Aurora—Oak Ridges—Richmond Hill. Along with the rush of excitement, the weight of my decision to commit to this was now firmly on my shoulders.
Historically, this area covered by the new riding has been a Conservative stronghold, and not much attention was being paid to the NDP. It was getting close to the deadline for nominations, so I had to move fast. One of my apprehensions was the presence of some limitations I could not change. I was still teaching full time and knew there would be few resources available to the campaign. This riding was not expected to be part of any wave of popularity the NDP might ride.
Nonetheless, this was going to be a fast ride I could learn and grow from. As a history, civics and politics teacher I thought to myself, what better professional development could I receive than running in the provincial election? Within 48 hours, I had the requisite signatures and enough support to move forward with the nomination meeting. Within a week, I was signing my nomination papers, meeting with the returning officer and filing paperwork with Elections Ontario—I was officially the last New Democratic candidate to register for the 2018 provincial election—and I was excited.
At the beginning, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. I was trying to balance my work commitments and my new-found role as a political candidate. I was given an NDP email address, asked to provide a biography and a photograph, and had my social media and internet footprint scrutinized. I was now receiving emails from people I did not know about issues I had to learn about quickly. My copy of the party platform became well worn and I researched issues I had never thought I would need to understand. Luckily for me, I had some very experienced and knowledgeable political workers in my corner. I was going to do this.
Given that I had multiple commitments, it was a challenge to get my name out to the community. There were more concerns; at first, I did not have any funds to purchase signs or materials, nor did I have an office or a campaign team. I had been involved with elections in the past, canvassing and answering phones, and I had admired the storefronts that were transformed into campaign headquarters covered with signs and pictures of the candidate. Walls were covered with calendars counting down to election day and maps of the riding with marks for potential voters adorned every available wall space. There were droves of volunteers moving in and out of the office and eating food donated by local citizens who wanted to support their candidate. These offices had an energy and a vibe that only the stress and urgency of an election could create. My headquarters was my backyard and my volunteers were my husband, father, one firefighter and my friends at OSSTF/FEESO District 16, York Region who used their lunch hours to erect and take down signs. I also had support and sage advice from my sister in Alberta; however, as good as her advice and encouragement was, she could not stake signs! This was not a typical campaign, and as it turned out, not a typical election.
Monday to Friday, I would go to work, teach my classes, keep up with my marking and, perform my role as a union branch president during an intense end-of-year administration period. In the evenings, I would respond to hundreds of emails from citizens asking questions about issues and responding to surveys from unions, professional organizations and community groups.
Most of the emails were asking me where my signs were and why had I not attended the debates, (one had been during the school day and I had received an invitation to the second one three hours before the debate). I spent hours going through social media seeing the comments that were made about me, my “leftist union work” and my lack of visibility on the campaign trail. I should have heeded my own advice of “not reading the comments” but I couldn’t help myself. I was invested, and I did care what people were saying about me.
With two weeks to go before the election, I had acquired literature, some online presence, and my donated signs had arrived at my ‘campaign office.’ I was excited and proud to see my name printed in white on the orange background I was so familiar with. Now it was time to get the signs up. This work was added to my evenings and weekends while I was still navigating other obligations. Although I knew candidates and politicians had unenviable and unforgiving schedules, I was now experiencing this first hand. Luckily for me, I have a great group of friends working at District 16 who were happy to use their personal time to paint the riding orange. Now I had a new job to do and each and every night. I would personally deliver signs to residents that requested them meeting them in the process. I had the opportunity to learn about issues and hear the concern in their voices about the threat of a Progressive Conservative majority victory. I had the privilege to tell them about the NDP’s vision and Andrea’s message. There was an alternative, even in the staunch conservative riding in which they lived. It was great.
As election night approached, I began to focus my energy on follow-up emails to those who had shown a genuine interest in my candidacy and the NDP. I personally sent out emails to everyone reminding them of the importance of the vote. Since I was still working all day, this was my own small scale get-out-the-vote plan for election day.
By this point, people on staff and some students at our school were aware of my political adventures and were wishing me luck and showing support and encouragement. I received texts and phone calls from across Canada, from people of all political stripes, thanking me for taking a step and putting myself out there for something I believed in. I can honestly say, I was proud of myself; it took a lot of strength and sheer guts to put myself out there, to take the public scrutiny and to continue to work as a teacher, community member and union representative—tough, yet rewarding.
Unlike other political campaigns I had been a part of in the past, my election day was low key. A reporter from the Toronto Star called me and asked where my election night party was going to be held. I chuckled to myself and said I that we would be ordering pizza to the ‘campaign office’ and I would be spending the evening with my volunteers watching the results come in, and if she needed to get a hold of me, she could call my cell phone.
The night of June 7, we hung the television in the backyard, had a few drinks, ate some pizza and watched the results come in. I have watched many election results, but this was the first time I saw Katrina Sale, candidate—wow did it feel great. Obviously, I did not win the seat, but at least for the next four years I will hold the record for the most NDP votes in the Aurora—Oak Ridges—Richmond Hill riding!
What did I learn from this experience? Politics is hard and putting yourself out there is even harder. Everything you say and do is scrutinized by social media and the press. You need to make sure you choose your words wisely, not only to align with party values and policy, but also to avoid saying anything that could be taken out of context and twisted by those who are trying to find anything with which to defame you publicly. People can be mean, disingenuous and, ruthless. One needs to have a thick skin and remember it is not you, it is politics. Furthermore, running a campaign as a full-time teacher is next to impossible. You cannot devote the time required to be successful in an election. People kept reminding me that in 2011 federal NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau was in Las Vegas on election day, but that was a different election and a different time; although there were hints of an NDP swing in Ontario, the results were much different. Would I do it again? Yes, but not unless and until I had the time to devote to run a proper campaign with a team and a real office.
We all know how the provincial election ended—a Progressive Conservative majority lead by Premier Doug Ford. It is going to be tough slogging for the next four years.
In his short time in office, Premier Ford has made it clear that his government will be disruptive to education in Ontario and the professionals in the field. Within a month of taking office the government has scrapped curriculum writing sessions to incorporate First Nation’s history into the provincial curriculum and abolished the current Health and Physical Education curriculum in favour of one that dates back to when I was attending high school.
I am left wondering how the education system will be supported. This, though, is why I decided to run. To add my voice and present a vision. Although I was not successful this time, I plan to continue to advocate for our provincial and local services, so that our province can thrive.