Since late 2008, the Bowmanville, Ont., branch of the Clarington Public Library has been like a second home to Osgoode Hall Law School student Corinna Traill. After winning her spot at Osgoode, she decided to move home to her parents’ house in the town east of Toronto, and make the 80-kilometre commute for class. With the law school undergoing major renovations, and its library severely shrunk, Bowmanville filled the gap for Traill’s study space.
The eight-year-old library building incorporates the municipal offices for the city of Clarington and was designed to complement the 19th century town hall next door. From Traill’s preferred spot on the second floor, she could look up from her notes and watch the mayor and city councillors going about their business in shared space and individual offices behind glass walls.
By October 2010, 27-year-old Traill was on the other side of the glass, having sent off three rivals with 44 per cent of the vote in the race for local councillor in Clarington’s Ward 3. The seat became vacant when the incumbent decided to take a shot at the higher regional council. Traill hadn’t thought about running until just two months before the vote, when she chatted with a few friends who were as unhappy as she was about the candidates, one of whom had parachuted in from outside Bowmanville.
One friend, who is heavily involved with the Liberal party, agreed to run her campaign, although Traill has no political affiliation herself. “This is my community, I grew up here, I know the people, and I think they should have a representative that actually has that connection,” says Traill. “We registered in mid-August, which is a little late, but after that, we ran a tight ship.”
The next two months were a frenzy of sign-planting and hand-shaking for Traill, who couldn’t escape the campaign trail entirely, even for a law school formal. After getting her hair put up for the occasion earlier in the day, her campaign manager phoned in to check up on her. “Get out door-knocking. I don’t care. It’s not until later,” he told her. Still, it had the desired effect, as Traill made an impression on at least one voter. “I had a constituent say one time, ‘oh yes, you came to my door and your hair was beautiful.’”
Not everybody was convinced though, says Traill. “Part of the reason I ran too was to get a youthful voice in politics. I’d go to some doors and they’d say you don’t look old enough, but at least it’s a different voice; it’s a new voice. I’m going to shake things up a little.”
Traill has stayed true to that promise, making an impact within weeks at council by brandishing a flip-flop to protest councillors who reneged on a decision to appoint one of her council allies, Joe Neal, to a particular board. “That pissed me off. This was clearly an episode where you had some kind of back-room lobbying going on, because all of a sudden everybody changed their mind,” says the new councillor. “It was really frustrating because it isn’t what I expected. Even here at the municipal level, you can ask questions, and be as transparent as possible with the public and do everything in a way that you think is meaningful and still not see that happening among your colleagues.”
Neal, who is councillor for Clarington’s Ward 1, and a practising lawyer, says he has been impressed by her direct and forthright approach to issues. “She reminds me of what I was like starting out as a lawyer. I was a lot more feisty, and as you become more experienced, you develop a different style,” he says. “She’s certainly not afraid to go straight at an issue and really confront people.”
Neal and Traill have also teamed up to challenge a controversial waste incinerator planned for Neal’s ward that will service all of the surrounding Durham Region, using their legal backgrounds to pick holes in an agreement reached by the previous council to host the site. But a motion to challenge the agreement failed, and Traill believes her fellow councillors were scared off by the threat of legal action from the regional council and its chairman, Roger Anderson. “At times, when I needed support she was the only one supporting me,” says Neal, who is also a council newbie. “We tend to support one another, although there are things we disagree about, and we try to keep a sense of humour about it.”
On another occasion, the pair was ejected from council after the mayor objected to Neal’s questioning of staff over a report commissioned by the mayor. Neal and Traill felt the report painted a misleading picture of the city’s financial health. “This is very undemocratic. You don’t just eject a councillor because they’re asking the tough questions of staff. This is exactly what we were elected to do,” says Traill. “This has come up a few times, where it might seem as though we’re cross-examining. Perhaps that’s the lawyer coming through, and I have to admit I’m getting a great legal training in trial advocacy here.”
Traill says she’s still feeling her way around the job, and admits the “diplomatic aspect” of her political work may still need some improvement.
The commotion Traill has caused on council will come as no surprise to those who know her, since her rabble-rousing past extends all the way back to elementary school. In Grade 5, she was almost suspended for labelling a teacher a “chauvinist pig” and “discriminatory” for his decision to ban girls from the softball team. She says her parents, both retired university professors, bred into her a concern for social justice issues. “Growing up in Bowmanville, which is very blue collar, especially with the proximity to Oshawa, a union stronghold for years, we grew up caring about workers’ rights issues, and human rights issues in the workplace,” she says. “I’ve always really been very concerned about those kind of issues and never afraid to stand up and argue.”
When it came to law school, Traill says she was drawn to Osgoode for its employment law stream, which allows students to focus almost immediately after the first year.
In her first term at law school, she had her ideals tested when staff and faculty at York University went on strike. Traill was one of two students who refused to cross the picket line to attend classes at Osgoode, which was virtually unaffected by the strike. Although she kept up with coursework, the strike dragged on so long that Traill had to miss the final exams for the first-semester courses, instead rolling them over into a painfully packed spring term. “The experience actually confirmed my interest and I was proud to say I didn’t cross the legal picket line and I expressed my solidarity with the workers. I think they had legitimate complaints and I’m kind of disappointed that more students didn’t sympathize,” she says.
Despite juggling the transition into her new job alongside her final year of law school, she looks like a seasoned pro, carrying two BlackBerrys (one for personal use and one for council business) and reeling off the most important issues in her constituency.
At the recent Doors Open Clarington, which showcases local heritage sites, she breezed through a potentially awkward meeting with one of her defeated rivals for the Ward 3 seat at Bowmanville Zoo, and thanked volunteers at various sites for making the event possible. One constituent took the opportunity to complain about the length of the presentation at the zoo, which she said had cut down on her time for other attractions. “I’ll be sure to let them know,” Traill reassured her.
She says she relishes any opportunity to meet people in the ward, whether they voted for her or not. “Constituency work is great. We get e-mails and we get phone calls, usually complaining about something, but then you look and you say, how can we fix this. That’s why they elect us, although the bigger issues are important, too.”
During her final year at law school, Traill gravitated towards courses that complemented her new job, such as planning and land development, but her central focus remains on labour law. Over the last summer, she worked at Belleville, Ont.’s Community Advocacy & Legal Centre, helping clients with employment and human rights matters. “These groups who I’m advocating for are often disadvantaged citizens,” she says. “You see young moms who are supporting a couple of kids and have been wrongfully dismissed from a place of employment. I absolutely love writing a demand letter and sticking it to the employer. It’s so incredibly rewarding.”
Having graduated from Osgoode in June, she is waiting to hear on articling positions at union-side labour firms. Since those would not start until next summer, she’s looking forward to being able to focus entirely on council for a while.
“I plan to use this year to learn the ropes as a young politician,” she says.
Neal says this is just the beginning for Traill. “We’ve developed a really good working relationship. She has a bright, exciting future ahead of her and I’m sure we’ll be seeing her again in higher office.”