Joanne Bernard has been there, too

Joanne Bernard says she knows what it’s like to go to the Food Bank because there’s no money for groceries. She has had to tell her young son he couldn’t have the toys he wanted because it was just not in the budget.

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The Liberal candidate for Dartmouth North says she wants constituents to know that she can personally relate to many of the problems faced by low-income families. She is open about these pieces of her past, and is proud of the successes she says balance her previous struggles.

In 2000, she completed a master’s degree in political science at Acadia University.  She has received awards for her work with non-profit groups and the homeless, and is a nominee for the 2013 Women of Excellence awards.  She developed Marguerite House for women recovering from abuse and addiction in the early 2000s, and for the last eight years she has served as executive director of Alice Housing, another transition home for women escaping dangerous situations.

Bernard, 49, says she is running for public office because the current government is ignoring problems in the riding, which has been her home for the last eight years.  ”It was irritating to me.  You know, I live and work in this community, and as a voter I thought ‘we’re really getting short-shifted here.’”

Crime is one of those issues.  Rather than attack it head-on, however, Bernard wants to focus on the problems in the community that she feels lead to criminal tendencies later in life.  One of the ways she plans to do this is through improved education.  She has found that “when communities support their children in education, the crime rates go down.”

The Dartmouth North Association funded an education study in April 2012.  The study determined if Dartmouth North was eligible for the Pathways to Education program, which helps schools in low-income communities reduce dropout rates and encourage graduation.  The program requires that high schools in the community have a minimum 40 per cent dropout rate.  The consultant who conducted the study found that large parts of the riding met the eligibility requirement.

Bernard says communities that have taken part in Pathways to Education have seen a measurable drop in crime rates.  She finds that home and community support for children can exponentially decrease their risk of getting involved with crime.

However, this support may be sidelined when a family’s most immediate issue is safe and affordable housing.  Caralee McDaniel, a coordinator at the Dartmouth Family Centre, says that Dartmouth North has a lack of safe housing.  She says more attention should be paid to accommodations that don’t sacrifice safety for price, and take into consideration the conditions of the building, and possibility of dangerous tenants.

Bonita Shepherd has been a resident of Dartmouth North for two decades, and feels there’s a lack of safety on the streets surrounding low-income housing.  She says better nighttime lighting on dark corners and more police patrols could help prevent unlawful activity.

Cost of power is another concern that Shepherd says affects low wage-earners.  Last year, Nova Scotia Power increased their rates by an average of three per cent.  The year before saw a residential increase of 6.1 per cent.

Bernard says that financial struggles with power come up regularly in her discussions with constituents.  She hears from families that face a dangerous cycle: if they pay their power bill, they can’t afford their rent; if they pay their rent, they can’t afford childcare.  Each month, these unpaid expenses add up.

Shepherd understands this difficulty: “We either pay high power bills or go without. And we shouldn’t have to choose between groceries versus staying warm, you know? I don’t think that’s a fair choice.”

Bernard feels changes, like those sought by McDaniel and Shepherd, are possible as long as members of the community are willing to get involved.  “When you do for everyone, you’re tacitly telling them that you don’t trust they can do it themselves,” she says.  She believes it’s the job of government to stand at their side and help them achieve those goals, not just take command and overlook local input.

Candace Redden also believes in the need for a better sense of solidarity among constituents.  The owner of CD Heaven, a second-hand music store in the riding, says that people need to work toward “anything that builds a stronger community and brings people together, instead of pushing them apart.”

That involvement must extend to taking part in government decision-making processes, Bernard says.  This factor comes into play at election time.  According to a recent CBC profile of the riding, Dartmouth North has had one of the lowest voter turnouts in Nova Scotia in the past few years.

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Disenchantment with the political system might be a factor in the apparent lack of voter interest.  Redden thinks some candidates see politics in “a sinister way, like ‘what’s in it for me?’”  She says a political representative should be honest and straightforward, and ready to work for the community.

On her Facebook page, Bernard pledges to say what she means, and do what she says in her campaign.  However, one person chose to focus on a topic completely unrelated to her candidacy.  Bernard, who is openly gay, recently received an anonymous, homophobic letter in response to a line in her bio stating she “is married to Annette”.  The letter called her disgusting and told her she would never be elected.  Bernard responded to the author in a Twitter post, saying “I will gladly represent your voice as well without prejudice.”

Bernard hopes that sharing her experiences, even the personal ones, and her vision for the community will help people see her as more than just a politician.  She wants every potential voter to know she won’t let them down.

“At the end of the day everybody wants success for their children, everyone wants to feel safe in their home, everybody wants to have good opportunity … Those are common things.”