Back to basics

After two terms on Halifax Council, introvert Jennifer Watts finds peace and purpose out of the public eye

The night was “perfect” according Jennifer Watts. She was camping earlier this autumn and found a remote spot near a lake, where she slept without a tent.

Fully dressed, laying directly under the stars, wrapped in a muggy sleeping bag, “with a hat and everything,” Watts found peace. “The feeling of just being there, looking up at the stars, feeling the breeze across your face all night long,” that was where Watts felt connected, despite the cold. And it was cold.

The former North End Councillor says that’s how she reconnects: slowly stripping away the barriers between herself and the environment. She calls it “being present in a different way” or “just being there.”

Watts was a popular Councillor who didn’t re-offer, opening the way for a historic election that saw Lindell Smith become the first black Councillor elected in the city in almost 20 years.

Her career as a politician ended not because of scandal or an election loss, but because of a promise she made well before announcing her first campaign. She promised she would not run for a third term, instead stepping aside to help new candidates understand public life and the realities of municipal government. She says if not for the freedom to step aside and make way for more diverse candidates, she never would have run.

After the announcement, she approached Smith and asked if he knew anyone interested in running. “That was strategic on her end,” he says. “When she came to me she said ‘I know you’re not really interested in politics, and it might not be something you want to take on.’ She said that only to spark my interest because she knew I’d be like, wait a minute, I could do this!”

Politicians often pretend to be reluctant about accepting power and responsibility. Politics is perhaps the only profession where it’s strange to actually want the job. Skeptics wonder if the reluctant politician is a myth, an easy way to brush off the question, “why did you run for office?”

The most common answer is “because I was asked to.” Watts was also approached by community members to run for office, but her eye was always on leaving the job. “I was very clear to myself when I initially started out that if I was successful in getting elected and got elected again, I would really only do two terms,” she says. “For me, the model is standing aside and having people consider themselves whether they want to run, and for the community to think about who they should be supporting.”

Watts didn’t approach her family about campaigning for office until incumbent Sheila Fougere announced she wouldn’t re-offer. That made room for Watts in 2008. Watts stepping aside in 2015 made room for Smith, who won, surprisingly, on the power of black and white votes in a historically segregated district of the inner city. “When there is no incumbent,” she says, “people have to do their homework… Stepping aside allows for new diversity and new people to come forward.”

In any case, she never much enjoyed the attention that came with the job. “I don’t particularly like being in the media,” she says. “I do take on a public role but it’s not the preferred way that I engage with the world. I do it if I feel it’s important, particularly in the role I’m in now.”

Smith takes a page from Watts’ book. “If you look at Council now,” he says, “there are folks who will take any opportunity to speak to media.” Instead, he carefully selects when to engage and when to let someone else’s voice be heard.

Even after her life in politics Watts is a public figure, but at her new job there is no media scrum after board meetings, and when people call it’s usually about one subject: immigration.

Looking at her resumé when she applied for a CEO position at the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS), she was stuck: how would she describe the job of Councillor in just a few lines? Finally she wrote “professional decision maker.” ISANS hired her in April.

In her office, blue and manilla folders line the window sill. “When I was a Councillor… people would say, ‘she’s a paper person’ and now I’ve carried that with me,” she says.

During Council meetings, she could prepare but she was one decision-maker among many. Watts could spend days trying to decide how she’d vote on a topic, but when the time came to vote she might have heard an argument that changed her mind entirely. In those few minutes between enlightenment and decision, she had to almost immediately decide how to vote and how to explain herself to the public.

In other ways the work was anything but immediate. Staff reports, consultations, committees, Watts spent eight years getting familiar with bureaucratic procedure. Working at an agency is more direct, but just as intense, she says. “I can go into a meeting tomorrow morning, have a discussion with a staff team, then say we’re doing this.” On the other hand: “The complexity and the depth of this work is unbelievable.” In her new role at the immigration agency, she still flexes her council muscles, but she says she has a lot to learn.

As a Councillor, she was a generalist, learning about new issues daily. As CEO of ISANS, she’s focused on one topic. “Listening to the stories and meeting people that are learning a new language, who are here, and their family members are back from dangerous situations, or that have come and left things behind, or came to start a new life of their own,” she explains. “It’s really amazing.”

She says “the incredible stories people bring to this province” inspire her. “People come for a variety of reasons, but what is most inspiring is people arriving here, often under very difficult circumstances. Circumstances they’ve lived with for many years, like in refugee camps; their gratefulness, their resilience, and the incredible things they have to offer this country; it’s often refreshing and inspiring to see that.”

Watts sighs as she pulls her glasses over her head, and eases back into the chair. Despite years of experience working with the public, interactions with media can be exhausting. “That’s true for lots of people,” she says. “For those of us that are introverts… it’s costly but we certainly know how to do that and can function very well.”

Back at home, she’ll slip past her family and quietly recuperate over a warm cup of tea. “My family has learned that often, when I’m coming home—” she cuts the air with her hands, suggesting silence. “I love you, I’m really glad to be here with you, but we don’t necessarily have to talk,” she laughs.

When she talks about hearing immigrant stories or shivering in a damp sleeping bag without a tent, her face naturally illuminates. She says, “For me, a top priority is connecting. As an introverted politician, an ex-politician, or a camper without a tent, Watts will always find new ways to engage in her environment, natural or otherwise.

Halifax Magazine