Mayor Christina Smith commits to continuity in Westmount

Christina Smith can’t forget the day a runaway car came close to crushing her, together with her growing family.

It was in September 2011, and Smith was heading to Miss Vicki’s pre-school at the bottom of Church Hill, to drop off her two toddlers.

“I was pushing my two-year-old on a stroller, my three- year-old was on the buggy board, and I was pregnant with a third,” recalled Smith, the interim mayor of Westmount.

Suddenly the driverless car hit another car, which then pinned her stroller against the wall.

Luckily no one was hurt, but a “very rattled” Smith was furious.

“It was a near miss, but I called people at city hall, I screamed and yelled, and I got results.

“Westmount launched an information campaign and gave tickets to drivers who were parked on hills without turning the wheels to the curb.

“There were signs all over Westmount and I was astounded at how quickly you can effect change in your community.”

That incident, she says, “opened my eyes to the power of municipal politics in doing good for people and making effective change.”

A former aide to federal Liberal cabinet ministers Sheila Finestone and Stéphane Dion in Ottawa, Smith, 42, got to know Westmount council and  how it operates, including her then councillor, Gary Ikeman, and told him, “If you are not running I would be interested.”

Ikeman left municipal politics and in 2013 she ran in the ward where she and her family live, and won.

That experience taught her a lot, she recalled.

“Gary was incredibly supportive with sharing information and speaks to how Westmount is run: We’re all independent, but you get a whole lot more done when you’re able to work together.”

“I truly believe that you can bring about very positive change, manage this city well, and it can be a wonderful place for people to live: it’s got something to offer to everyone.”

Her overall goals: “I want to continue the work of the previous council, which was reinvesting in the city, whether it’s infra-structure in our parks, in our bike paths, or our programs, which are a key component of what makes this a wonderful city.”

The official campaign starts September 22, but her opponent, newspaper editor, Beryl Wajsman, threatens to make this election a real battle.

If his campaign takes off, it could resemble the 1987 election when upstart publisher May Cutler upset incumbent Brian Gallery.

Smith, the unanimous choice on council to replace Trent when he retired earlier, has broad support on council, including from Cutler’s grandson, councillor Philip A. Cutler.

In an email, Cutler said he’s “definitely supporting” Smith’s candidacy:

“She is hardworking and driven to make change in Westmount, as she has proven time and time again. Having had the chance to work closely with her for the last four years, I would be hard pressed to find a better candidate for the job.”

Smith grew up in Beaconsfield with three older brothers.

Her mother Sandra was a tax planner, father James a mechanical contractor. She attended Sacred Heart high school and graduated with a B.A. in Political Science from Bishop’s University. She had volunteered with the federal Liberals, and after graduation worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa as an aide to cabinet ministers Sheila Finestone and then Stéphane Dion when he had sponsored the Clarity Act.

From there, she switched to Coca-Cola as head of government affairs for Canada when, she recalled, “I lived on an airplane, flying to Atlanta and Toronto for meetings.”

“I went from government to the ultimate corporation. I wasn’t a fan of the product – it never sat well with me – but I was hired to increase recycling rates and to find a way to pull soft drinks out of schools, to protect the brand, and replace it with two-dollar water,” she said with a smile.

“I was at odds with the sales part of the company but I was able to convince them to get on board when it came to recycling and replacing the product in schools.

“It was tough work, I worked like a dog, but I learned a lot.”

Smith says she is used to juggling a full work load, being the married partner of Joshua Cundill, an e-commerce marketing consultant, and looking after their children, Isabel, 5, Robert, 8, Mary, 9, who attend both public and private schools. Her husband fully supports her political career, and living six blocks away on Grosvenor with several baby sitters and a supportive mother-in-law, Smith says she can juggle being a full-time mayor and family responsibilities. During the 2015 federal election she also found time to volunteer for Marc Garneau, “the kind of politician I like.”

Smith says her support crosses traditional political lines, noting that all candidates are independent.

A prime mover in her campaign is councillor Victor Drury, the son of the late Pearson and Trudeau-era Liberal cabinet minister Bud Drury. He’s not seeking re-election.

“All sorts of people are volunteering in the campaign including some I didn’t know beforehand,” she said.

Asked if they are out to stop her opponent, Beryl Wajsman, she replied: “A lot of people like the positive impact that this council, which I have been part of, has made on the city.

“(Former mayor) Peter Trent was very clear: he felt it was time for a generation change. I am clearly the generation change.

“He is a true mentor to me. We have a city because of Trent (who opposed the forced merger of island municipalities and campaigned against it). We lost some powers, but we are our own city and have an ability to make many of our own decisions.”

Of Trent, who has endorsed her campaign, Smith noted she was commissioner of administration while he was mayor and worked well with him.

“We made some great changes in modernizing, changing the structure of how some departments work, to deliver better services to citizens, in public works, the finance department, and budget.”

When it comes to regulations regarding urban planning and architecture, she is for streamlining, but not at any price.

“We can certainly make it faster and more efficient, but I won’t sacrifice the architectural heritage of this city.

“It’s precious. Yes, we have to modernize certain aspects of it. These houses weren’t built for air conditioners, WiFi, and two cars, but collectively the architecture you see and what your house looks like on the streetscape is part of a great community.

“I get that the process is too long, and we have great people in urban planning who want to fix that process as well. We do have to update our bylaws and guidelines.

“For families who move here, it may take a year and a half to get to urban planning and that’s a deterrent to living in this city.”

While her opponent wants Westmount’s mayor to become involved in issues affecting the broader community – such as the campaign he co-founded challenging the elimination of the provincial riding of Mount Royal – Smith disagrees.

“What Westmounters want and expect are mayors like Karin Marks, Peter Trent, Brian Gallery – they dedicated their lives to making this city better for the residents that live in it, and understanding the role that this city plays with the City of Montreal and the other suburban mayors.”

“Westmounters expect that type of dedication, but also having someone who can work well with the other mayors.

She is happy with the policies, programs, and projects that the outgoing council has approved.

“We’re doubling what we spend on infrastructure, rebuilding roads that we built 60 years ago, but as our population ages – some 22 or 23 per cent of residents are seniors – we have to think about how we build our sidewalks, how we have our crosswalks, how much time we need for crosswalks to ensure that seniors feel safe.”

As for Wajsman saying that if elected he plans to continue editing The Suburban, her only comment: “It will be the only job I have, it will be my main focus, and there will not be any conflicts with any other responsibilities. That is a commitment that I make to my fellow citizens.”

Smith said she has “lots of volunteers who are ready to knock on doors with me.”

Smith is hoping that voter participation will increase in this contested campaign.

“If you don’t have a mayor’s race, people don’t tend to vote. I would just like people to vote, because no level of government touches you the same way that the municipal does.”

She is gearing up for a vigorous campaign. “I’m going to hit every door. I have a plan — and a very busy schedule.”

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