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The women taking over Kelowna's 'old boys club'

Women are well represented in leadership roles now. Gail Given (left) is chair of Central Okanagan Regional District, Renee Merrifield (middle) is MLA and Tracy Gray is the MP.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED
December 18, 2020 - 7:30 AM

When Sharon Shepherd was elected as Kelowna’s mayor in 2005, she was not only the first woman elected to the position, but it was a sign the notorious, fabled ‘old boys club’ in the Okanagan’s largest city could be breached.

She defeated popular long-time incumbent Walter Gray in a stunning upset few saw coming. 

The City has come a long way since then.

“Women feel more confident that, when they do have an opportunity to be put in a leadership role, they will do a really good job,” Shepherd said.

Fifteen years later, Gail Given is chair of the Central Okanagan of Regional District, Renee Merrifield was just elected as MLA and the federal seat is held by Tracy Gray. All three are speaking at a Kelowna Chamber of Commerce Zoom event today, Dec. 18, called Women in Leadership: Politics.

Shepherd recalls a very short list of women who predated her time as a councillor, let alone mayor, and now there are three women around the council table: Given, Mohini Singh and Maxine DeHart.

“I look at the world and see the changes that are happening – and still the struggles women have – and it’s very exciting to see,” Shepherd told “I’ve got a granddaughter who is seven who I hope will do amazing things. Right now, she thinks she will take on the world.”

While the chamber event focuses on politics, it could have broadened its focus to nearly every sector of the community.

Moyra Baxter was first elected chair of the Central Okanagan’s Board of Education in 2002. She served in that role until 2008 then was re-elected in 2012 and continues as chair today.

In October, Supt. Kara Triance became the first woman to lead the Kelowna RCMP detachment.

RCMP Insp. Kara Triance
RCMP Insp. Kara Triance
Image Credit: Submitted/Kelowna RCMP

Dawn Himer is the executive director of the John Howard Society and Shelagh Turner is CEO of the Central Okanagan branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Two newcomers who have made a difference by getting emergency homeless shelters open this fall are Carmen Rempel, the new executive director for Kelowna Gospel Mission and Amber Webster-Kotak, the new executive director of Metro Community that runs the Welcome Inn.

Sinead Scanlon is the chair of the Southern Interior United Way while Stephanie Ball is executive director of the Central Okanagan Journey Home Society.

Kelowna Community Resources president is Laura Thurnheer and the executive director is Ellen Boelcke.

Susan Brown is president and CEO of the Interior Health Authority that covers the entire Southern Interior of the province.

Susan Brown, President and CEO of Interior Health.
Susan Brown, President and CEO of Interior Health.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Interior Health

And let’s not forget about private business.

Before she was MLA, Merrifield was a leader in a business not known for leading women, as founder and CEO of Troika Developments. Corie Griffiths is the director of the Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission and recently named chair of Accelerate Okanagan. Krista Mallory is the manager of the economic development commission.

Brea Lake took over as CEO of Accelerate Okanagan in October 2019 and Jennifer Dixon is executive director of the Okanagan chapter of the Urban Development Institute.

Kim Heizmann is the president of the Okanagan Mainline Real Estate Board which recently announced its merger with the South Okanagan Real Estate Board, also led by a woman, Lyndi Cruickshank.

And that’s to just name a few.

The true impact of their ascenscion might not be know for years as they open doors for women who will follow them.

Shepherd says her role models were her mother and grandmother — strong, independent women who encouraged her to follow their lead. Her daughter and granddaughter are now doing the same.

It all came full circle for her when she contemplated running for mayor after serving three terms and nine years as councillor, topping the polls in 2002.

Despite the scarcity of women in local politics in the 1990s, she never hesitated about running for city council in 1996.

But, after nine years in office, Shepherd felt she really had nowhere else to go and contemplated retiring to pursue other interests.

It was her daughter who changed her mind to run for mayor in 2005.

“My daughter said to me, what can you lose?” Shepherd said. “Your other option is you retire and do something else if you don’t make it. That was my decision making time and I just wanted to, maybe, put a different slant on the direction the city was going under a potential female mayor.”

She defeated incumbent Walter Gray and served two three-year terms before being defeated by Gray in 2011.

She sees women today being encouraged to strive for more non-traditional roles and being supported in those efforts.

The Chamber of Commerce forum is today, Dec. 18, noon to 1 p.m. Get more information here.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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