At Home with Holmes

By Julie Gauthier

Diane Holmes chats with Janice Manchee about life after municipal politics, her record and being a grandmother.

The ceilings in Diane Holmes’s Centretown apartment are twice the normal height and word is that it takes that much space to contain the former councillor’s energy.

Holmes ricocheted through the halls of power from 1982 to 2000 as a member of city council and later regional council. Retirement has not slowed her down.

Kanata councillor Alex Munter, who is a friend and was a member of regional council with Holmes, says she has had a significant effect on Centretown.

“If you were to paint in bright, fluorescent yellow everything that had been affected by Diane Holmes — every park bench, every housing development, every new sidewalk, every building where there’s expanded community programs — and just mark Diane’s impact over almost 20 years, Centretown would be pretty blinding!”

The awards she’s gathered share the walls of her home with paintings and sketches from local and international artists. They speak to her range of interests: social justice, sports, health, pesticide reduction, cycling and business.

Holmes decided to retire in 2000, she says, because good replacements were coming along. Plus, she still had her health and there was no time for a life in politics.

“I thought I’d contributed my piece of the action.”

But retirement has been a bit of a surprise for Holmes.

“I must say, it’s more of an adjustment than I thought it was going to be. And so I’ve joined some groups.”

She laughs and then launches into the list. Holmes is on the board of the Women’s Action Against Violence and the Ottawa Field Naturalists Club.

She’s on the grants committee of the Ottawa Community Foundation, which supplements municipal grants to social service and arts groups. The Foundation has a Diane Holmes Fund that this year, she proudly reports, bought sleeping bags for sex trade workers attending a two-day program mirroring John school.

Holmes also squeezes in time for the Tree Committee of the Centretown Community Association.

But Holmes’s activities also give her some personal time. She skis, downhill and cross-country, and belongs to a bookclub, which she attends, having read the books.

And then there’s the Sunday Group, which meets once a month. This group of women does something different each time: plays poker, eats out — next month they’ll haul buckets of maple syrup at a member’s maple syrup farm.

But politics is never far from Holmes’s mind. She shakes her head and growls: “We’re just fighting two big developments now. The Gilmour one and the CNIB one. It’s the 1960s all over again.”

She shakes her head, referring to the period when developers successfully challenged the by-law prohibitting buildings higher than the Peace Tower.

In retrospect she is particularly proud of her record in two areas.

“We turned more parking lots into housing. It’s a close tie with traffic-calming, because it has cemented the residential neighbourhood, people are so pleased with it, generally.”

She frowns and gives a sharp pull on her bright patchwork vest. One of her regrets is not being able to spend more time with her children, who are now in their 30s.

“The job was so consuming. Even though the kids were in junior high and high school, I regret not being around more.”

Holmes’s youngest son, Thane, was in his mid-teens when Holmes was first elected. He says he has had mixed feelings about her work.

“When you hit the teenage years, not having your parents around is a wonderful thing! Part of me says it would have been nice to have had her at home, but the other half is just proud. She loved what she was doing.”

Holmes will soon be a first-time grandmother, thanks to Thane. She grins and says she’s looking forward to spoiling the baby.

Holmes, 63, was born in Montreal. She graduated from McGill University with a degree in physical education and has the slim, strong body of an athlete.

Her community activism does not come from her family background, she says. But she always wanted to live downtown, where her three children could walk to school and her husband, Jeffrey, to work. Once her children began school and she got involved in school associations, she began to see the complicated problems faced by downtown neighbourhoods.

The Holmes lived in Ottawa briefly in the late 60s, moving to Halifax where Holmes unsuccessfully ran for municipal office.

The family returned to Ottawa in 1978 and, within a week, a friend stopped Holmes’s husband on the street and suggested he join the Centretown Community Association. Holmes says he replied, “I don’t do that. Diane does.”

Brian Bourns, alderman for Wellington Ward (Centretown) at the time, worked with Holmes.

“She’s always been that kind of bubbly, energetic, enthusiastic — just totally disgusting person! She was determined to make a difference in the city.

By 1982, Holmes was volunteering almost full-time. So, when a group of community organizations were casting about for a municipal candidate in the up-coming election, the leap didn’t seem too big for Holmes.

“We didn’t think I had the least chance of getting in,” says Holmes. “This woman from nowhere — who knows who she is?”

But win she did — by 400 votes.

And serving on this council sold Holmes on elected municipal service. With a group of like-minded councillors and Marion Dewar as mayor, a series of “get people downtown, keep people downtown” initiatives were won, she says, including the transitway, the Rideau Centre, new housing and getting the buses back on Bank Street.

But the high ended in 1985 with the election of a council she characterizes as right-wing: anti-arts, anti-culture, anti-affordable housing and anti-public transit. For a good 10 years, she says, neither the City nor the Region were interested in Centretown.

“Centretown wasn’t a neighbourhood, like Alta Vista. It was a redevelopment zone.”

By the mid-’90s, new council members were appearing with more compatible ideas. Munter was one of these people. He says he learned a lot from Holmes.

“Diane raised a glass after every fight, because Diane was always able to see the victory in everything she did. Diane understood that important issues comprise many fights over a long period of time.”

Holmes says she probably wouldn’t run federally or provincially because she’s not a “party person”. “We have a good representative,” she says of municipal politics. But what if that changed? She raises her eyebrows and laughs.

“Well, now. That would be a different story.”