From The Lance to Windsor City Council: a Conversation with Kieran McKenzie
I spoke with Kieran McKenzie, a graduate of the University of Windsor, a former journalist for The Lance, and a city councillor representing Ward 9 in Windsor, Ontario.
We discussed how he began his career in politics, how you can do the same, and why it is important for young people to get involved in the community.
Sophia Plese: What is your educational experience, and how did you get started in politics?
Kieran McKenzie: I attended the University of Windsor, I am a Lancer through and through! I graduated with an honours in political science with a minor in history. I’m still working on my Master’s major paper, so that’s been a work in progress. A career has gotten in the way to some extent. One of the great things about the University of Windsor’s political science program is that it really did help me to launch my career in the fourth year. I participated in an internship program, it was a placement type of class setting, and I was placed in Brian Massey’s office. He was the MP and continues to be the MP for Windsor West now. I’ve been active in the party since, to be honest, the age of five. My father was a member of the writing association, Windsor Riverside. I’ve been a part of campaigns since that time, working on campaigns going as far back as Dave Cook and Howard McCurdy. Literally all the way up to the present day. So, I’ve been associated with the NDP and involved in partisan politics and electoral politics since I was a child, but the placement really did launch my professional career. After I spent the year working with Brian, there was a series of short-term contracts that came forward, and then after that, there was a full-time position that became available, and the rest is history. I was very much inspired to remain involved in politics and was building up my own aspirations to serve the public as an elected official myself, and in 2018 the residents of Ward 9 saw fit to elect me as their councillor.
SP: That sounds like a super interesting and beneficial experience. I think working on campaigns, working closely with politicians and seeing what goes on behind the scenes
KM: The campaign work, by the way, is literally just as important as the non-campaign work. I promise you, if you can approach an elected official’s office, there’s plenty of work to be done and help that these offices would appreciate and accept, especially from someone who is knowledgeable about the political landscape and the community and whatnot.
SP: It’s good to know that there’s a lot of opportunities out there for political science students.
KM: Especially when someone is walking in as a volunteer. Whenever somebody would walk into Brian’s office, we’d start the conversation with “what are you interested in?” And invariably, we would already sort of be working on something that was maybe at the advanced stage, or maybe still at the idea stage, but there was some area where we had to do work that aligned with the interests of the person walking through the door. So, it wouldn’t just be filing papers, it would be some real work that might align with your interests and talents.
SP: There’s a lot of aspects to running a campaign that a lot of people might not think about, you really do need someone on top of every single thing. There’s a place for everyone.
KM: There is. From filing the papers, dealing with any of the correspondence, the political work, the outreach, managing to get information to a few hundred people in a four-to-five-week period. It’s a very dynamic and exciting environment. You also need to be able to handle a little bit of stress, because there’s pressure to get things done within a short time, and of course it’s a competitive environment as well. Some people love that, other people need to become accustomed to it.
SP: Yeah, you definitely need to have the right personality for it. I guess that’s with everything though, you find what suits you and go with it. You had this great experience working with Brian Massey, and I’m not going to lie, I did my research on you, and I saw that you’re also on the board of the Essex Regional Conservation Authority. How would you say these positions have shaped the kind of representative that you want to be?
KM: There are a number of different boards that I sit on, as a municipal councillor that become part of the job. ERCA certainly is one of my favourite assignments, that it has been very challenging, but also extremely rewarding. I consider myself an environmentalist. So, you know, I’ve been drawn to a lot of different types of committee assignments where there is an opportunity to apply an environmental lens, and I think ERCA’s probably the most aligned with that. The thing that’s really amazing is not only the people in the ERCA universe- staff, different people who support the organization through their volunteerism, and my colleagues on the board, a really incredible group of human beings who care about protecting the planet- but one of the most important roles is managing where things are built and where they aren’t. When things are built in certain places and development proceeds in such a way that it is sustainable, it’s called watershed management. This is really important in our region because we’re surrounded by water, and it’s relatively flat terrain. Think about the topography and what that means for the development process we have. We’re at a very high risk of flooding, as we’ve come to know over the years, and so conservation plays a critical role in when and where things are built so it can be done in the safest possible way. That was very important for me. I had some sort of an inkling of that, but the really vital role that the Conservation Authority plays in that respect is managing the public green spaces. We have beautiful properties like John R. Park Homestead, which is both a natural heritage destination and a learning space. In fact, just today my daughter is going there for a school field trip, which she’s really excited about. I told her “Liv, you know Daddy is kind of in charge of that place!” and told her to make sure to pay attention to what they have to say there. So again, it’s just part of the services that we offer through the Conservation Authority. I love that assignment, and it’s really been a terrific experience in terms of learning opportunities and professional growth.
SP: I definitely agree that environmental work is really important. Sometimes people think the environment is an issue that can be put on the back burner and dealt with later, but it’s truly the most pressing issue we have to face because the way that we build our community is dependent on how conditions will be in the future.
KM: We’re going through it with climate change. The environment is literally changing as we speak, so having folks and an organization specifically dedicated to managing and understanding what is happening in our region from an environmental perspective is very important. One of the things I always say when we’re talking about making investments is to support environmental sustainability. What’s the cost of doing nothing? Imagine if we did nothing to mitigate flooding in our region. In the last major flooding event, there were six thousand homes that flooded and caused close to a billion dollars worth of damage and insurance claims just in our region alone and had incredibly significant economic impacts. The economic losses set aside all of the economic benefits that the Conservation Authority and different environmental groups bring with their advocacy. The economics of managing climate change mitigation and adaptation is absolutely critical, purely from an economic standpoint.
SP: For sure. It can be costly to implement an environmental policy, but the cost in the future would be so much more. It’s better to act now than look back and think we should’ve done something when it’s too late.
KM: Proactivity is always cheaper than reactivity.
SP: What do your responsibilities as a councillor entail? What are you up to on a day-to-day basis?
KM: One of the great things about being a councillor is that every day is different, but if I were to boil it down: emails, phone calls, meetings. But, you know, every email addresses a different thing that a resident might be going through. The media may want to talk to you, and certainly all the meetings I talked about with the work of the Conservation Authority. Every board has its own policy framework and scope, so there’s different agenda that comes forward on a regular basis. I should also add reading into the mix. Every two weeks, there’s a council agenda. This is somewhere around one thousand pages of reports that I have to go through and be familiar with to make sure I’m doing my job in terms of the oversight functions that I’m here to provide as a councillor. I get asked a lot of questions, and if something doesn’t make sense, I’ll propose something different. There are also a number of things that I work on within the community from a policy perspective. A few meetings ago, I was asked to come up with a report to take a look at the different ways that we might be able to protect trees on private lots. This is where the challenge in policy development comes, especially for municipalities. Cities are going to develop, and we need to build things to address needs. Housing is a huge need in our community right now, so we need to ass housing stock, which means we need to build. When you build on vacant lots, you’re cutting down a lot of trees, which isn’t the greatest thing in the world to do, although you’re doing something good by adding housing. So, what I asked them to do is take a look at the possibility of creating a mechanism for the trees that are cut down to be replaced in a different area. You know, the most basic form of cutting a tree down, plant a tree in some other place where it makes sense. It sounds simple, but it’s not as simple as that because there are legal and ecological questions that need to be thought through. So, you have the meetings, the different committees, the responding to constituents, media requests and the variety of different platforms that they come, supporting people in the things that they’re doing, events and whatnot that align with the things that you want to support, and finding the time to do all of that.
SP: It sounds like there’s not enough time in the day!
KM: It definitely feels like that sometimes.
SP: What goals have you accomplished within the community throughout your career, and what do you hope to accomplish in the future?
KM: There’s a number of things that I’ve worked on, and the things that I’ve quote-unquote ‘accomplished’ have been the result of things that I’ve been a contributor to, which I’m very proud of. One of the things that I think a lot of folks might be aware of is that the Gordie Howe Bridge is going to have bike lanes, an issue that goes back to Brian Massey and I in 2007, and 2008. It was a big fight to get even the idea that there would be a separate bridge from the Ambassador Bridge in our community to service international freight traffic. That was a huge battle, and Brian and I kept pushing along with a number of community advocates. Ultimately, it was the Conservative government who decided that they were going to endorse the concept of a new bridge downriver, which was a huge win for the community. Once that decision was made, we started to think about what the infrastructure would look like, and then there was a battle around the Herb Gray Parkway before that was even a thing. How are people going to get there? Where was the new bridge going to be located? What was the best way to do this? We were looking for a solution to get trucks off our city streets and bring them to a direct crossing, and then we were looking at different major bridges around the world. We saw that these bridges were built to accommodate a number of types of users who may wish to cross to get to wherever you want to go. For example, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge. Both of these are iconic bridges that can be crossed on foot or on a bike, so why not Windsor-Detroit? I remember the first time we proposed this idea, we were literally laughed at. These are moments you remember, right? Nobody likes to be ridiculed or mocked, but it motivated us even more. This wasn’t anything crazy that’s been taken out of the left-field, so we fought and ultimately won. It took years. Finally, the bridge authority made the announcement that they were going to add this infrastructure. There’s an old saying: first, they laugh at you, then they get angry, then they try to co-opt your idea, and then you win, and that was exactly the kind of process that was undertaken for that. There are a few other issues that we’ve worked on that took a long time to evolve. For example, I wrote a motion that was passed in the House of Commons that banned plastic microbeads in cosmetic products. This might not sound like a big issue, but these little plastic particles that were in a lot of cosmetic products in Canada were making it into the watershed because you put them on your face, rinse it off, and it gets into the wastewater, which has all kinds of implications for natural habitats and fish populations. The way that we approached the issue was we actually approached the cosmetic industry, the people who were producing these products and had the most to lose from us forcing them to change the way they were producing these products. We found that they were very open to the idea of a regulation that would ban them from every company within the sector, so it really was a learning process for me when I realized that you could work with people whose financial interests may be impacted as long as you create a level playing field through the regulation that you bring forward. Nobody’s getting a competitive advantage. We passed a motion in the House of Commons where all of the parties agreed that this was going to be an initiative that they would work towards supporting, and then ultimately the government did introduce legislation to that effect. So, these are a couple of initiatives that stuck out in my mind, ones that were initially a bit challenging because there was some serious opposition to it. The discussions and arguments around it were built around why it’s a good idea and how we can do it in such a way to accommodate everybody.
SP: I think that’s awesome that you’re able to combine your career with things you’re passionate about. You’re able to actually see the fruits of your labour, which is awesome and very rewarding.
KM: I consider myself incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to do things like that, there’s no doubt about it.
SP: What would you say to young people looking to get involved in politics? Why is it important for them to take charge of their future?
KM: My career was launched because I showed up. The most important thing that you can do is be a part of something that you care about, and then start doing the work. Don’t wait for someone to call or for something to happen, show up somewhere where you know there are folks that are doing the things that you’re interested in doing and put yourself in that situation. While I was on campus at the University of Windsor, in addition to my studies and my volunteer work in the political universe, I got together with some of my colleagues who were in the Master’s program with me at the time and we would sit around the grad room having discussions. The views were across the political spectrum, so sometimes there were some pretty interesting and admittedly heated conversations about different things that were happening, and we got the idea that we should do this on the radio. The University of Windsor has a campus radio station, Cjam. We approached the leadership there and we started a radio show, we called it ‘Stuck in the Middle’ back then because we were trying to show that there were three different people who had different political views, and that was the concept of the show. That became what is now known as Rose City Politics, which has been airing in different forms literally since 2005, so getting close to twenty years now. There are currently three members of Windsor City Council who are alumni from Rose City Politics. So, the point I’m trying to make is to do the things that you love and be proactive in joining them and showing up. Be consistent and I can promise you that people will ultimately take notice and you will land somewhere. The Lance, by the way, is another great resource. I’m an alum of The Lance myself, I wrote for it for at least two years as a sports writer, and it’s definitely still a bullet on my resume because I love the media. Interacting with the media has been a big part of my career in lots of different ways.
SP: I love writing for The Lance, I’ve been able to talk to some interesting people and have good conversations. It’s good for both personal and professional growth.
KM: There’s no other realm of work that I think gives you the opportunity to have that breadth of conversations that you would that you do in the media.
SP: What are some ways that young people in the community can get involved?
KM: There’s a lot of different ways, it completely depends on what you’re interested in. I guess the best thing is, as soon as you sort of figure out what you want to do with your life or what you’re interested in, you can start to think about the kind of world that you want to live in. If you can answer that question, that would be helpful. If it’s a world that’s more environmentally sustainable, for example, there’s all kinds of groups and organizations that you could look at. There’s Citizens Environmental Alliance, there’s the Conservation Authority, and other groups that are doing advocacy in that space. There’s no shortage of things that you can do and groups and organizations that you can latch onto and work with. The one thing I would caution against, and I love social media more than anything, is thinking that posting and sharing on social media is enough, because it’s not. To launch a career, you have to show up and do the physically do the work, beyond just sharing information on social media. If you’re interested in politics, there’s lots of folks right now who would appreciate the help because there’s an election going on right now. Wherever your partisanship lies, whatever your views are, show up to a campaign and your help will be welcomed.
SP: That’s all I have for you! Thank you for taking the time to talk with me, I appreciate it.
KM: It was nice to meet you! Take care.