To many in West Nipissing, Ward 5 councilor Kaitlynn “Kati” Nicol is an unknown quantity. She and her husband and young son, now aged 6, moved to Field in February of 2019, a year before COVID. She has no former connections to the area but has come to love her new home and wanted to make some contribution. When she decided to run for office in 2022, she raised some eyebrows by announcing her candidacy prior to the election call. She won her seat by 9 votes, campaigning ardently, unseating the incumbent Chris Fisher, who did not appear to campaign much at all. The 34-year-old is third youngest on a council where everyone is young or youngish. This was also her first foray into politics. “Initially it was just to bring the community events back, things for the kids, and just feel connected after the years of COVID. We all kind of fell into that slump of not being together and I just wanted to bring that community feel back and just get things happening.”
Coming from Southern Ontario, living on a homestead in Field, she says, “I appreciate it’s a slower pace up here, but at the same time I wanted to just bring some things I learned and enjoyed… more music and culture and different sports. I know hockey is important to everybody in the north, but just to branch out, explore the other options. Actually, I’ve seen quite a few individuals who are just doing it on their own. They’re spearheading things, which is beautiful to see, and there’s a nice community engagement now.” Nicol has come to respect her opponent since her election win, acknowledging “I just wanted to try and do good things and I know he did too.”
Kati Nicol has stepped up, and she’s determined to do her utmost. She knows she has challenges. Her lack of French is one challenge, one she is remediating by taking courses and practicing. Another may be her inexperience and lack of knowing just how big West Nipissing is, the diversity of the landscape and the communities – but she is learning quickly by attending conferences such as FONOM and taking every opportunity to meet people from across West Nipissing.
But one challenge she was not expecting was to be attacked personally because she took a position unpopular with a certain element in the municipality. She voted with the majority of council to support a change in portfolios which removed Anne Tessier from the board of Au Château. “I stand behind my decision,” she insists, despite a petition and public pressure for the resolution to be reversed.
There are consequences when one seeks public office, one being scrutinized as a public persona. But what happened to Kati Nicol crosses a line. Nicol was harassed. She is concerned that if this is allowed to happen, people will not choose to go into politics, out of concern for their family’s safety and well-being. It is the undermining of democracy by the vindictive, and Kati Nicol wonders why she was targeted. Does the perpetrator think she is vulnerable, she wonders. “I anticipated to get backlash for decisions I make. I fully support the decisions we make [on council]. I just never expected certain decisions I made to be the ones that people focus on.” Nicol is very careful about explaining what happened, not wanting to cause a negative impact on a council she finds is working very well together. “I want us to focus on the good.”
Someone out there undermined Coun. Nicol’s ability to communicate with her electorate by tagging photos of her son on social media as “Child Neglect” and photos of her farm animals as “Animal Cruelty”. Facebook responded by shutting her account. “I think I’ve had that page since high school… We have a homestead. I share pictures of our animals and all the little babies. We have pictures of my son. It was just unprecedented attacks for no reason, like over 100 photos were reported for animal abuse which, if you saw any of my photos, that’s the furthest thing from the truth. There was a picture of my son sitting on our tractor, 2019 maybe 2020, and it was reported for child negligence. There were so many reports that the whole account got shut down… such a low blow because… I don’t do those things and I hope that nobody else in the community thinks I do those things. It hurts.” Nicol contends that two other people on council are experiencing similar attacks. Asked if she thinks it is from the same source, she responds, “I would assume yes. I don’t know for sure because Facebook does not tell you who the report was from, but it just seems very targeted after what happened.”
Nicol believes whoever is conducting these cowardly attacks has identified her as vulnerable, a weak link, that she could be compelled to flip votes on certain issues under this kind of pressure. In addition to the anonymous accusations against her, she has also faced vitriol in person. She goes to take her son to hockey and finds fingers jabbing in her face. This she kind of expects, but not the sneak attacks. She feels she is an honest broker who entered local politics because she felt she could do better after watching some council meetings. “I said “OK, well, if I want to do better, how can I do that?” … I figured I can at least try, share my ideas and perspective on things and I never thought I would win, to be honest. It was an experience campaigning. It’s hard to put into words.”
She believes that Chris Fisher’s family was also put through a lot when he was in office as well. The whole issue of personal attacks on council members is troubling in the extreme, especially when the family is targeted. “I felt bad for my son because I didn’t want to not go to hockey and not support him for the fear of seeing certain people. I also don’t want to put him through seeing me upset in public places either… When they’re in your face with the finger pointing at you, it’s really hard to just walk away and, trust me, there’s lots of things I would love to say, but yeah, obviously I can’t.”
Nicol says her family is over the worst now. For a few days her husband was locking down the farm gate at night, and she would not answer the telephone calls. She says no-one physically came on the property, but there was some concern for awhile. “We seem to be past the worst of it right now. The last week has been really quiet. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.” Nicol opened a new Facebook page, and it was promptly attacked and shut down. “I can’t use Messenger. I can’t like posts or comments. And it’s sad because there’s so many beautiful things happening right now that I’d love to share with [the public]. It’s just like a dull account; I can see, but I can’t do anything.” She says the accounts are frozen for 30 days, but it does affect her ability to celebrate family events, such as her son’s birthday, as well as communicate publicly.
The unfairness of the attacks is galling, but also serious since social media is a platform so many rely on these days. She has a shortlist of people whom she suspects it might be. Asked if she has contacted the police, she says, “I thought about opening a file just so it’s on the record, but there’s really nothing substantial. Nothing’s a [real] threat. Nothing’s really crossing the line too much. It’s just somebody with too much spare time trying to drive me crazy. I don’t know if they want me to quit. I don’t know if they want me to snap. I don’t know exactly the motive.”
As for being a young woman in politics, on a new council, Kati Nicol is grateful for the supportive nature of her counterparts. “Everybody’s been welcoming and supportive, and they encourage me to go out and do things on my own. Nobody needs to hold my hand. For the most part, I feel pretty confident just approaching people and sharing ideas.” Even though she appears quiet, Nicol is very busy taking on roles. She says she doesn’t speak so much at the council table because she’s spare with her words. “If there’s a point to make… I would share it, but otherwise, I don’t want to repeat what they’re saying just for the sake of repeating it… If it’s something I feel strongly about, I will voice that.” Her main objective right now is to make sure the roof for the Field rink comes to fruition. “We’re close. We might need a little bit of extra funding… but I would love to see that finish, to break the ground this fall so it’s ready for next winter.”
She’s working on some beautification for Field, wanting to redo the library signage. She made an effort to obtain a grant for community gardens through Hydro One, but was unsuccessful. “But I’ve been pursuing doing it slowly on the side, on my own. I approached the sawmill and they’d be willing to donate lumber and Rolly [Larabie] said he could try to build some beds with his class. So that would be nice… A lot of volunteers, they want to get involved now. They see it as a fresh start to give back to the community. So there seems to be a lot of community engagement to want to help.”