Smashing the ceiling

Iona Stoddard. Photo: Submitted

Iona Stoddard’s upset win in the recent election makes her the first and only Black woman on Halifax’s Council. Once again, she’ll have to prove herself—but she’s been doing that her whole life


n Iona Stoddard’s previous jobs, there were always a common denominator.

She was often only woman of colour in her workplace. The Timberlea resident felt singled out and awkward.

“I felt that I had to represent all of the people of colour: I had to do better, be twice as efficient,” she recalls. “I felt the pressure to prove myself when I walked in a room… felt like all eyes are on me. If I made a wrong or incorrect move, I was being judged like all the people of colour… It was tough.”

During the 2016 municipal election, she noticed that four of the five men running in District 12 (Timberlea-Beechville-Clayton Park-Wedgewood) didn’t live in the area. She believes candidates should live in the community they want to represent, so she decided to run.

She finished fourth but was undeterred and immediately started looking ahead to the 2020 election. This time she won, becoming the first Black woman elected to Halifax’s council, defeating incumbent Richard Zurawski (who didn’t respond to Halifax Magazine‘s interview requests for this feature).

“I felt there should be some diversity; I wanted to make a difference,” she says. “It was bigger than me, and I thought this district deserved more. I believe from the beginning that there should be more people of colour in council, more women. I felt that it would be a big step… and that would be a good look to have people in Council that represent the area.”

The win reflects the lessons she learned from the 2016 campaign. She threw herself into volunteer work to better understand her community, joining a wide range of business, environment, religious, and social-justice groups.

The pandemic changed the way she campaigned. Before it hit, she had about 30 volunteers. After COVID, she winnowed that team down to about 15, including her husband John, who was her campaign manager and official agent. She created handouts with information on her platform and left them on doorknobs so voters could familiarize themselves with her. If someone came to the door, Stoddard distanced herself while wearing her mask and engaged from afar.

“It worked,” she says. “It was hard work and I am still tired. I want to thank voters for their support.”

Stoddard believes the guidance of her mentors and advisors was her biggest advantage this time around. They include Becky Kent, Ann Divine, Iain Rankin, Winnifred Grant, former Lieutenant Governor Mayann Francis, and Pamela Lovelace. Iona Crawley, who passed away in 2017, also took her under her wing when she moved to Nova Scotia, and her family continues to provide a lot of support.

Diana Whalen

Retired politician Diana Whalen, who lives in the district and represented it both as a Councillor and MLA, is another mentor. While it’s hard for anyone to run in an election, Whalen says it is a lot harder for a woman, especially a woman of colour.

“It takes a lot of confidence and determination to do that,” Whalen says. “She has broken through more than one ceiling. She put so much into running twice for an election in this district, did the hard work to get out, get her name known, and introduce herself. I have a lot of confidence that she’s going to be able to do well on Council simply because of how well she ran her campaign.”

Whalen met Stoddard while she was running her campaign to discuss the proposed Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes park. During that initial conversation, Whalen saw something special. “She hadn’t been in to hike in that area but she was very keen to go. One of our members went up with her… What I saw was her interest. She recognized right away the big thing. She heard of it, she didn’t know a lot about it, and she wanted to learn.”

Transit and road safety are immediate priorities for Stoddard, but she sees some other unique challenges in her district.

“We have a divided district because we have a combination of Clayton Park West, which is very diverse and has a combination of homeowners, condo owners, and apartments,” Stoddard explains. “Beechville, Lakeside, Timberlea: the majority is homeowners and small storefronts. Everybody kind of feels left out. Depending on the district’s area, they might think another part of the district is getting more or less attention. It’s going to be a work in progress. People want to be heard, and listening will be the biggest thing I can do for District 12. You can’t solve everybody’s problems… But if you listen and make them feel they are being heard, they appreciate it.”

One area that Stoddard believes is still lacking is the support for women of colour to run for office. They face more obstacles in getting financial and mentor support. “Women, in general, are learning to lead the way, but women of colour still feel like they are a couple of steps behind,” she says. “I think I have made it easier being the first one. It makes room for the next woman of colour.”

Nicole Johnson.

Nicole Johnson placed second in the District 2 campaign. Stoddard’s accomplishment inspires her because it represents the changing times, with Council looking more like the city it serves.

“She will bring to city Council the diversity and I think that’s what everybody’s been looking for… It’s been a long history of a particular type of leadership,” she says. “It’s eight women and eight men that are sitting on Council, and that’s a good thing because change is happening… It’s reflective of the people we are today. She brings a voice to the council that hasn’t been heard and should have been heard throughout decades.”

Planning to run again in the next election, Johnson hopes that she will someday work with Stoddard. “Iona did it without compromise and did it with integrity,” Johnson says, imagining joining her on Council. “She’s the first. To follow after, come in, be greeted by her when I get there…”

Stoddard is happy she’s clearing the way for others. “I like it that so many girls are excited from my win,” she says. “It gives me hope that all little girls can look up to me and know that they can run in politics and be successful. The first one opens the door for the second, third, and fourth. That brings a smile to my face.”

Iona Stoddard

The victory is sinking in as Stoddard recalls a recent experience where two “of the cutest” girls (age 7 and 9) who live nearby knocked at her door. They gave her two cards to congratulate her on her win.

“One says ‘great job, congratulations, Iona, I’m very proud of you, you did a great job. PS: I voted for you in kids’ school little political rally,” she recalls. “Little things like that being at the door, all excited. Those little girls also put inside the card ‘Black Lives Matter’ and a big heart around it.”

The coming weeks and months will become busier for Stoddard. After being sworn in on Oct. 29, she will do two weeks of orientation leading up to the first Council meeting on Nov. 10.

“I said to her the first year on Council for everyone, regardless of your background, is a whirlwind,” Whalen says. ” There is so much to absorb, learn, and understand the city’s culture and how things get done. It’s a lot to grasp… The first thing is just to be prepared for that, and it’s a busy, busy year, but she’s very open-minded, very keen to learn things.”

Once again, Stoddard will be the only Black woman at the table. And once again, she’s prepared to prove herself, doing her part in making the city play an active role in diversity and inclusion.

“I’d like to be a bridge-builder,” she says. “I’d like to bring both sides together and have a conversation and see if we can work it out, maybe come to some agreement. I feel huge pressure now because everybody is looking at me now. I feel the same way as I did [in previous] work positions. I went out of my way to prove myself and show that ‘yes I am efficient, I’m smart, I deserve this,’ and I think that’s the same attitude that I’ll take into Council. I want to make real change.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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