Eastern Ontario women make history in major leadership roles

The City of Cornwall and surrounding counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry have made history this year, promoting two women into two major leadership roles.

Shawna Spowart became the new Cornwall chief of police on Oct. 23, while SD&G Counties elected Carma Williams as their new warden, only the second woman warden in the county's 171-year history.

"It makes me feel pretty great," Williams said. "This is something I've wanted to do, I've been working towards this in my political career and it's a real accomplishment."

"I have had tremendous support from the community," added Spowart. "I think it helps that I've been working in this community for 26 years so I do have pre-existing reputation and people know my work ethic so I'm sure that has contributed to that level of support."

Both women are excited with their new positions, and feel like they are now role models to a younger generation of women across the region.

"I have a responsibility to all of the young girls and women that come behind me to demonstrate what female leadership should really look like," said Spowart. "At the end of the day, that's what I hope to provide to all the young girls, not just in policing but across all sectors."

"I would love to be a role model for young women and I'll certainly take that opportunity whenever I can," added Williams, who will be inaugurated into the warden position on Dec. 17.

"The truth is you have to be smart in your politics and you have to handle yourself with grace and character so that you are not marginalized. I have learned that over the years and I can pass that knowledge along to other young women," Williams said. "A friend of mine, her adult daughter is thinking about politics and we talk a lot, and she's asked me, 'So what are the opportunities, what are the challenges?' And because I have that experience, I can give her those details that will actually give her a leg up, and put her in a position where she knows that she can be successful, and some of the do's and don'ts of women in politics."

Williams has been in politics since 2010, elected then as a councillor for Maxville for two terms. She then became deputy mayor of North Glengarry.

The SD&G warden is nominated and elected yearly, with Williams only the second woman nominated to the role. Estella Rose was the other woman to hold the position in 2008.

"My thoughts on women in politics has changed over the years," Williams said. "I felt very much when I first started in politics that I was quite alone as a woman because there weren't a lot of us and there still aren't enough of us; however, I do feel there has been a shift.

"There used to be times when women weren't voted or supported in leadership positions because they were women. I think we are seeing a shift now where women are actually being invited into leadership positions or elected into leadership positions, specifically because they are women and the skills and abilities that they have that are unique that sometimes men share and sometimes they don't share, and that actually gives women a leg up in these leadership roles."

Spowart agreed with Williams, saying women sometimes still face hurdles in climbing that ladder into leadership roles.

"My daughter is four and she came home from daycare a few months ago and she said to me, 'Mommy, Johnny says girls can't be chiefs,'" Spowart said. "It made me realize that there really is unconscious bias that exists and it continues to be passed on to young children so we need to do something to change that.

"I've had the luxury of having some very strong female leaders in this community that have helped to inspire me and motivate me and again demonstrate what female leadership could look like," Spowart added, noting former Cornwall mayor Bernadette Clement, who is now a senator.

"She's been a tremendous inspiration and a great example for an entire community and I wish her all the best in her new role," Spowart said.

Williams is also excited to have a female leader just down Pitt Street in Spowart.

"I plan on reaching out and saying, 'Okay, you know what, we are the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry, you're Cornwall, we're neighbours. As neighbours, we really need to collaborate. How can we do a better job at that?'" she said.

"I'm looking forward to sitting down with her, having coffee or lunch!"

"I think women need to support women," Williams added. "I think, generally speaking, we do, we're fairly good at that, but we need to better at it and I think that if we do support each other then we can all be more successful in our roles."

"I think any time you can demonstrate diversity, being a female in a role like this, and for the warden, this is diversity," added Spowart. "I've been asked the question before, you know, 'What will change because you're a female in a leadership role?' Really, it's just about a different perspective. I'll likely bring a different perspective because I'm a white, female woman."

Spowart plans to work on strengthening partnerships in the community to help tackle issues such as mental health and addiction calls.

"We've realized that there is no way we can do this alone. We need to have stronger partnerships than ever before and we need to work together to overcome these complex issues," she said. "We know there is a correlation between the social determinants of health and crime and so we need to recognize that and we need to take action."

Both women are now determined to lead their respective positions the best they possibly can.

"In politics, it's like anything, it's what you make of it and I plan on making this a fabulous year," said Williams.

"I said to the board the day that they appointed me and I'll say it again - they will get all of me. I will give 100 per cent to my role as chief of police," Spowart said.

"Mayor clement said something and I've stolen her tagline; I chose Cornwall and this is the place that I choose to raise my family," she added. "I owe a lot to this community. They embraced me 26 years ago when I was just a young constable. I had no family here, no friends here, and they wrapped themselves around me and my intention is to give all of that back to them and I look forward to that."