After 30 years of service, Joan Gatward is retiring as the longest-serving woman council member in the County of Brant.
“It’s a lot of mixed emotions,” she said about her decision to retire. “There are definitely things that I wish I could have done but at some point you have to draw a line. I believe life is short and you have to grab it by the horns.”
Gatward was first elected as a councillor in the former Township of Oakland in 1982. She was 31 at the time and had one young daughter.
“I did a lot of volunteer work and was looking for other ways to contribute to the community,” she said. Her mother-in-law, Margery Gatward, was the first woman clerk-treasurer in the province and inspired her to get involved in municipal government.
Gatward was re-elected two more times, serving nine years. While in her seat, she grew her family adding two sons, one in 1983 and the other in 1985.
In 1991, after completing her third term, she decided to step away from council to spend more time with her young family.
“The kids were all in school at that point and with meetings in the evenings, I felt like I never got to see them,” she said. “My husband was disappointed that I wasn’t running again so he decided to run and was elected. We really are a municipal family, it gets in your blood.”
After 10 years away from council, she decided to run in a by-election following the passing of a councillor in the former Ward 11. Gatward won the seat out of seven other candidates and has won consecutive elections since 2001.
“I think I owe my success to the fact that I never made promises to people,” she said. “I always knew that I was only one voice on council and I couldn’t necessarily keep those promises.”
Gatward described herself as “a champion for the small communities.” She served one of the largest wards, with nine villages and hamlets including Mount Pleasant and Oakland.
“There are a variety of rural, country areas in the ward and I have especially enjoyed representing them,” she said. “It was always very important for me to fight to keep all of their services intact over the years.”
After her 30 years of service, she said she looks fondly back on the work that she has done. Her first big project was saving the Oakland Township Library and some of her other notable projects include the Oakland playground, saving the Onondaga Town Hall, creating one of the first recycling programs in the area, the Brant Business Park, and most recently, the new OPP detachment.
While her career was filled with proud moments, she also faced her share of challenges. Becoming the longest-serving woman on council meant that she was often the only woman in the room, especially as the only woman on council in her final term.
“Throughout the years, there were definitely times that I didn’t always feel like I was being heard and it did get frustrating,” Gatward said. “Women often have a different perspective, and I think it is very important to have them on council. I hope that more women are elected in the near future.”
Despite the frustrations, she explained that it was all worth it to represent her neighbours and other residents.
“Sometimes people say this is a thankless job, but in the last four years I have gotten so many phone calls with residents expressing their gratitude,” she said. “I have enjoyed all of my time in this position. I have always liked helping people and it was really hard for me to decide to step away, especially with all of the amazing work on the go right now.”
Gatward most recently sat on the Grand River Conservation Authority Board and the John Noble Home board, which is currently working on a new 40-bed development, which she said she would have loved to see through.
“I think I might keep my finger in the pie somehow, whether I go back to volunteer work or I just sit on a board,” she said. “But I’m 71 and after another four year term, I would be 75. I want to be able to spend time with my grandchildren, and to do that I can’t spend every weekend reading all of the material for meetings. If I can’t be completely committed to serving the taxpayer, it’s time to step away.”