Stepping up

By Joel Ceausu

With few exceptions, the stands, galleries and hallways of political venues are filled with gripers, shouters and critics. For many people, it’s easy to lob advice from the safety of the cheap seats.

But few people ever step up when faced with overwhelming odds, or put themselves out there in service of others and what they believe. “It’s easy to complain,” says Sherlyn Figueira, whose recent bid for an EMSB council seat is a perfect illustration.

Helplessness, indifference, apathy and deflection: those were the regularly encountered by the Notre Dame de Grâce mother of four as a school volunteer, governing board member and parent. “It got me to think a little more about stepping up,” she says, and that’s precisely what she did, running in Notre Dame de Grâce–Montreal West.

“I was facing this consistent look of helplessness of all facets from teachers to administrators,” she recalls, struggling to make heads or tails of the system to get help for her kids or those of other parents. “It’s terrible when you don’t know where to turn, or if you do then there is no help there.”

“Everyone I heard from at the board, including elected officials, spoke through rose-coloured glasses.” Everything is fine; she was told, “There is never any urgency and were always bigger issues at play.”

Depressive principle

She was stunned by the closure of St. John Bosco school “that was held together by a community for 50 years,” and equally incensed knowing parents can wait two years for necessary professional assessments of their children’s difficulties, with little choice but to submit to a sclerotic system or shell out thousands from their own pocket, not even a remote option for many. “I realized that the only way to know what was really going on was to roll up my sleeves and find out for myself.”

She say the Quebec government “dropped the ball” when it came to election registrations, “which undermined the English-speaking community…It’s a very depressive principle that here in Quebec we have come to learn to live with and accept so little despite working so hard and paying so much in taxes to all levels of government.”

So the mother of four, with two jobs took on another tiny task—running for office. “Not easy,” she laughs, “after a full day at work getting all the kids home, fed, and then heading out to knock on doors.”

At many of those doors, she listened to people “who felt disenfranchised, who needed to be heard. It’s our humanity that more than anything else, we all want to be heard. For so many people with kids who have special needs, for so many parents who feel no one’s listening to them because they are not part of the system, well,” she says, “I was going to try and change that by going right through the front door.”

“I look at American schools—many of which are underfunded—and yet they can still function with a strong sense of purpose and camaraderie that makes kids feel secure, be it around a sports team or sense of community. I don’t think we have enough of that here, and it’s so unfortunate because if there is anything I wanted to convey, it was that we can only survive in this world if we stick together, link arms and be part of the change for the greater good.”

All in the trying

Those lofty ideas don’t necessarily jive with the rough and tumble of local politics, which included loaded audiences lobbing hostile questions; local publications bizarrely refusing advertising to non-residents, and the chilling effect of money, even for a school board race.

“I tried to contribute by stepping up to plate while distancing myself from all that negativity. I wouldn’t be good at it anyway; I’m too positive a person.”
Despite the breakneck schedule, lack of experience, and strength of her rivals—a popular incumbent; a longtime union leader; and a former teacher, principal and administrator—Figueira earned 915 votes, only 72 ballots behind incumbent Joseph Lalla.

Yet with all that, plus the extra little legacy of campaign debt, there’s no hint of bitterness or regret in her tone. “It would have been wonderful to win, but it’s really all in the trying.”

“No one can win every battle, but if we all win a bit, we all get ahead. This is how I was raised. Whether it’s for me, my family or my community, I give it my all,” she says. “I think of my children and their future, and I don’t know what other life lesson to give them.”
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