Sometimes she still feels like a small-town hippy girl who gets to sit at the big boy’s table.
Kootenay politician Leah Main was first elected to municipal office in 2009, earning a spot as a councillor for the Village of Silverton. Since then the 70-year-old spitfire has been chosen as her constituents’ representative at the Regional District of Central Kootenay (RDCK), and now she’s voicing rural concerns at the federal level through her work with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM).
She’s passionate about this work, and enjoys it. But sometimes it still feels a bit weird to rub shoulders with the more conventional politicians she’s faced with in Ottawa, especially when she’s sporting purple hair.
“It certainly makes people smile when I walk into a room full of suits and I have a rainbow on my head. It takes them a little off guard,” Main told the Star.
“When I walk into a room they see my hair first, and my stature, which is small — I’m exactly five feet tall — but then when we’re engaging they realize it’s not about the hair or the height, it’s about the intellect I bring and the commitment to community.”
Main is one of approximately 80 board members of the FCM, which is an advocacy and professional development organization with representatives from local governments across Canada. They meet four times a year, in a new city each time, and that has given her the chance to broaden her perspective on rural concerns and to find unique areas of consensus with far-flung communities she’s never been to.
Although it’s unusual for a representative from such a small community to be on the board, she’s actually joining a non-broken lineage of representatives from the RDCK that began in the 1990s with Hans Cunningham and continued through former Nelson Mayor John Dooley until she took the spot.
“I love that this area is so involved and committed to the process of developing programs, in developing democracy, and in creating community at all different levels of government. I’m proud to be part of that tradition.”
‘We’ve got skin in the game’
During her time on the FCM board, Main has been on committees tackling such issues as the environment, aboriginal issues, municipal infrastructure and increasing the involvement of women in politics. She’s worked most closely with the seven other members from B.C.
In her words: “We’ve got skin in the game.”
She said it’s been enlightening to see the overlap in concerns between communities that are vastly different than one another. Prince Edward Island, for instance, has ferry issues that mirror ones faced in B.C.
One of the biggest problems? Rural communities being left behind when it comes to communication technology — she knows people in Nakusp who are still on dial-up, and that’s an issue facing similarly sized towns all across Canada.
Housing is another topic Main spends a lot of time thinking about, and for months now members of the FCM have been in discussions with the federal government about such initiatives as a poverty reduction plan and a national housing strategy.
She’s feeling “moderately” optimistic about what will come from that.
“My view of the reality of the situation is that the current Liberal government is corporation-based and not citizen-based. A lot of the things I see coming out of this government, in my personal opinion, support corporations and not communities.
“This isn’t going to be solved overnight, but I think things are going to start changing, public policy is going to go back to an environment that supports rental housing. Not just social or subsidized, but rentals, because across the country we’re experiencing a real crunch.”
Making a tangible difference
Over the course of her education, Main was drawn to the concept of the social contract. She believes that there needs to be a set of ground rules for everybody, and the attitude should be “We do together what we can’t do alone.”
A perfect example of that ethos is the Nelson and District Community Complex’s latest pool renovation, which was made possible by multiple governments contributing financially to a regional resource. She was there when the ribbon was cut, and she loves seeing projects like that succeed.
“It’s about protecting the greater good. Not everybody is going to get everything they want all the time, but we want to create an environment where people don’t have to worry about starving to death, where we have roads that support our economy, and where we’re giving people an opportunity to participate and benefit.”
According to her, she’s “quite a socialist.”
“It’s the job of all of us to solve these things. Government has a bigger role to play (in crises such as the opioid crisis) because we have the opportunity and ability to muster a lot of resources, if that’s what we choose to do. And that’s the sort of thing I push for doing, in big or small ways.”
But in her day to day work, she’s not exploring big philosophical questions but focusing instead on the mundane tasks in front of her.
“Our roads need fixing. Our playground needs to be rebuilt. Our gallery needs to be fixed and reopened. On practical terms I’m dealing with physical infrastructure, but on another level I’m helping build the community and helping it to be a full community.”
From Brooklyn to Silverton
Main has lived in the Slocan Valley for nearly half a century — she settled in Silverton in 1981 — but she was born in the U.S., spending her childhood years in Brooklyn, New York before fleeing the country in the lead-up to the Vietnam War.
“I emigrated to Canada in 1967 after a number of years working with the American Civil Rights movement, participating in the social democratic political movement. I consider myself to be a legitimate draft dodger since at the time the draft was still a law and it was a federal offence to counsel men to avoid the draft.”
That’s exactly what she was doing at the time, and there were warrants out for her arrest. She fled with her husband, not returning until years later when she was offered amnesty. The experience has deeply informed her worldview ever since.
“I’ve always been a political animal, in many senses, since my teens getting involved with the civil rights movement. In the early 60s there was informal segregation and a lot of racial incidents that I saw around me, and it just struck me as being wrong.”
The same thing went for the war, and the way society seemed to be progressing in general.
“I was very aware of the back to the land movement and those sensibilities, so even though I was raised in the suburbs something called to me to make a big change in my life.”
She wanted to be somewhere she felt she could make a difference.
“When I left the United States I felt politically powerless, but I was coming to a smaller country where I hoped my vote would one day eventually count. It developed into a strong sense of wanting to find and build community.”
She travelled a bit, living in Montreal and Vancouver and Desolation Sound, but it wasn’t until she came to the Kootenays that she discovered the home she wanted to invest in long-term.
“I realized it wasn’t going to be that I was going to choose a bunch of people and choose a piece of land and build a new community, it was ‘where am I going to find myself and how do I contribute to the community I’m in?’”
‘I’ve been kidnapped by citizen science’
It’s difficult to summarize the spectrum of projects Main is working on these days, but one thing she’s particularly excited about is an eco asset management initiative she’s started in the Village of Silverton that will see them do a tree inventory and compile a report on how they currently benefit from their natural surroundings.
“We’re looking at what trees do for us as a village, in the village and around it, for storm water management, carbon sequestration, temperature management and increasing or decreasing the risk of forest fire,” she said.
“I’ve been kidnapped by citizen science. I just love doing this stuff.”
At the end of the day, some political issues are out of Main’s scope. When it comes to cannabis, for instance, she thinks local communities aren’t being properly consulted by the federal government, but there’s not much she can do about that.
“This part of B.C. is pretty far down the road to having a thriving cannabis industry but we’re going to have virtually no input. The Liberal government is going to make their decisions regardless of what they’re being told. They’re not basing their decisions on what’s actually happening on the ground.”
Main is starting to feel more comfortable in her politician role, and is proud of her track record so far. She said even when her constituents disagree with her on a specific issue, they know she has their best interests at heart.
“I just love that I get to take an active part in my community, in my region and my province and now in my country. It’s mind-boggling to find myself in Ottawa every November, talking to ministers and MPs and actually seeing the concepts and ideas I worked with spreading, because many people have those same ideas at the same time.”