Brenda Halloran is a name most residents of Waterloo Region will recognize. The retired mayor of Waterloo (2006 – 2014) had a reputation for her open-door policy and empathetic approach. As a woman, often outnumbered in the field of politics, she was fuelled by the desire to stand up to those who aimed to intimidate her – a burden she often enthusiastically carried.
Halloran sat down with CityNews to share the influential experiences that led her to become a spokesperson for change, which eventually inspired her to run for mayor, despite having no previous experience.
Raised by a father she referred to as a "feminist," she recalled a solid bond with her dad - one that would unknowingly arm her with the stamina to succeed in a male-dominated world. As a young girl, the confidence and resilience he instilled in her became the armour that protected her as she journeyed through workplace harassment, domestic violence, and sexism.
Years later, she speaks openly about finding the courage to leave her abusive marriage and quitting an administrative job, in the 80s, for being asked to "dance" for visiting clients – a time when women weren't commended for standing up for themselves.
As a voice of the Women's Crisis Services #SHEISYOURNEIGHBOUR campaign (2019), the former nurse shared how her fairy tale marriage soon became a story of survival, which transcribes much like a binge-worthy screenplay.
These experiences, she admits, compels her to this day to be a voice of strength to younger women.
"I am always humbled when people want to hear my story," she admitted. "It's been a long time since I left that abusive situation, and I'm still affected by it."
Now a grandmother, she recalls the night she left her husband after a terrifying fit of rage.
Determined to do better for her then three-year-old daughter, she left with nothing to her name but fear and regret.
"My daughter is now 32; we've gone through a lot together," she shared
"None of my life experiences had prepared me for an abusive relationship. I kept thinking, 'This can't be happening to me. This happens to other people.'
"I was ashamed."
Halloran moved in with her parents and saved every spare dollar she had to purchase a home for her daughter.
Time would expose that her happily-ever-after was built on a contaminated landfill site.
The single mother, "working three jobs at the time," formed a committee that "fought City Hall for many years."
Yet, despite an arduous battle, her house of cards folded, and once again, she lost her home.
But, at this point in the narrative, if we've learned anything, it's that Halloran finds strength in her pain.
"It was 2006, I was having lunch with a friend, and I said, 'I think maybe I should run for council,' and my friend said, 'You should run for mayor.'".
With very little funding for her campaign, she had to "get creative." In the end, Halloran received more than 50 per cent of the votes, winning two consecutive terms.
"At the time, it was about stepping up to make the changes I wanted to see made," she recalled.
Today, she faults a lack of responsible leadership for our "divisive and weak" society.
"No one wants ownership" and failure to "take a stand" is a result of fear of "being torn apart" on social media.
"[As Canadians], we've always been smug about how nice, and sweet, and kind we are. But the statistics are dismal; we have one of the highest levels of bullying in the world."
And she admits she's not likely to take an extended break anytime soon. The wedding officiant continues to speak up for women in the workforce through Startup Canada.
"We have a lack of women on executive boards, as CEOs and positions of authority. There are fewer and fewer women engaged in politics because it's getting nastier," she said.
"It's raising alarm bells to me that we must support women who want to attain these roles."
When she's not lending her voice to a worthy cause, Halloran said her focus these days is her two grandsons.
"I need to make sure that I'm heavily involved in making sure the world's good for them."