Bedford’s first mayor never intended to go into politics. But she also didn’t intend to stand by as a dump got dumped by Jack’s Lake.
The lake is located in a quiet wooded area, just north of Basinview Drive on the far side of Highway 102. But when Francene Cosman moved from Ontario to Bedford Village in the 1970s, plans were afoot to put a new dump in that area. Cosman, who swam regularly in the connected Paper Mill Lake, worried runoff would contaminate both bodies of water.
“I think it’s fair to say that people get mobilized when a community issue directly affects their own life or their family’s well-being,” she says today from her Bedford home.
She joined a group to stop it and, with a stop off at the Supreme Court of Canada won. Some of the group suggested she run for council in the old District 17 for Halifax County. She put her name in and prepared for a tough race with the incumbent, but he unexpectedly dropped out days before voting and she was acclaimed in 1976. “I think it’s a shame to go in by acclamation, because it’s sort of fun to have a contest,” she says.
Cosman is a nurse by training and had worked as a clinical instructor, but politics took over. She helped lead a local movement to have Bedford made a town with its own mayor and council and in 1979 she ran for the top spot.
“I remember being told that I was too much of a newcomer in Bedford and that I should stay home and bake cookies,” she says. “It happens to women in politics. They get told they’re nitpickers when it really means they pay attention to detail.”
Her winning vision focused on building Bedford as a strong, historic town that could attract business and tourism.
In her first term as Bedford’s first mayor, Cosman sought to curb the growth of new apartment buildings and the destruction of historic homes. Some battles she won, and others she lost. For example, the Presse Mason legal offices on Meadowbrook Drive and the Bedford Highway sits on the site of a building designed by architect Andrew Cobb. She opposed plans to replace the house with a muffler shop. “The muffler shop didn’t last long, but the history was destroyed in a hurry,” she says.
From 1982 to 1986, she held the presidency of the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women. In 1989, she began a four-year term as executive director of the Nova Scotia Liberal Association. After that, she returned to front-line politics, winning the MLA seat for Bedford-Fall River in 1993. She won the seat again in 1998, defeating Progressive Conservative Peter Christie. During her first term, she served as whip, Deputy Speaker, and as Minister of Community Services. In her second term, she was the minister for the Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
Sexism plagued Nova Scotian politics for much of her career. She “put up with a lot of crap” and developed a thick skin. “Probably every female politician of my generation in the ’70s and early ’80s, and into the ’90s, would have experienced those things,” she says. “It wasn’t just me. You become strong in that atmosphere and learn how to be strong. It was never easy to be a woman in politics, but I did it and I enjoyed it.”
She thought she would like politics at that higher level, but a cartoon from her then eight-year-old daughter cleared things up for her. It read: “My mommy knows how to bake a cake. My mommy knows how to represent people.”
Cosman keeps it in a scrapbook still today as it represents what she likes best about politics: representing her community. “I liked being mayor better than any political job I did,” she says. “I can look back on that with a huge amount of satisfaction. We really shaped up a new town from scratch.”
In the fall 2016 elections, she felt that “fire in my belly,” but not enough to run again. “I think Tim [Outhit] does a good job here and he’s very responsive to people,” she says of Bedford’s councillor. “I didn’t have enough fire that I would think of putting my name on a ballot at this age, because I’m 75.”
Today, she works on some of the same causes that started her career. Stop by Scott Manor House and you’ll likely see her. She volunteers as a board member and curator and has done a lot of the recent work to bring more Bedford residents into the museum. “It’s fun to be part of that volunteer group,” she says. “We’ve got great people there making the house look interesting and refreshed. It helps bring visitors in.”
She’s also on the board of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Cosman watches developers buy up land around the Bedford United Church, sees the vacant lots in the main section of Bedford, and opposes plans to build a bigger condo building on her own Moirs Mill Road. The original application was for a five-storey building, but now the developer wants 11 storeys “That just really shocks me, because it’s at the end of a residential area on an overcrowded Bedford Highway,” she says. “We’re just going to be a highway going through a condominium neighbourhood and I don’t think that’s a pretty picture.”
She’s not discouraged, because she knows people can shape their community for the better. “I always have the fire in my belly.”