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Diane Deans, who served on Ottawa City Council for 28 years, has died at the age of 65

Diana Deans, seen by the public during countless heated debates on Ottawa City Council, was passionate and fiery and at times open and vulnerable, qualities that her colleagues and friends say persisted even when the cameras turned away.

A veteran Ottawa city councillor died Tuesday at age 65, five years after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and nearly two weeks after she announced she was beginning palliative care.

"Diana died peacefully, surrounded by her family", said a statement released by her family Tuesday afternoon.

According to family members, despite her diagnosis, Deans lived "each day to the fullest, maintaining her fighting spirit, unwavering tenacity, courage and compassion".

"My mom has been a role model for me, as well as many other girls and women, proving that no dream is unattainable", Megan McGovern, Deans' daughter, said in a statement.

"She wore her heart on her sleeve", said Maria McRae, who sat on the council with Deans for 11 years. "People who knew her privately would probably say the same thing, that she was as vigorous in discussing issues at home as she was at City Hall".

Marianne Wilkinson, another former council member, said Deans showed "a lot of empathy" for everyone, supporting colleagues, constituents and her beloved daughter Megan.

  • Longtime City Councilmember Diane Deans is moving into palliative care
  • Diana Deans has been diagnosed with "insidious" ovarian cancer.

Deans served 28 years in the southeast neighborhood that has been Gloucester-Southgate County since 2000. But even outside her district, Deans will be known for holding the public accountable for solving the biggest citywide problems.

Smart, strong and tough

Many who worked alongside her at City Hall, from bureaucrats to members of the media, say Deans was a tough as nails politician who never stopped working, carefully reading and questioning every report that came across her desk.

According to several former board members, she respected the staff's work but always questioned it.

"Diane led the fight for accountability and transparency", says Catherine McKenney. "She was so smart and strong that I often say she forced me to be braver than I might otherwise have been to take risks and push issues forward".

According to Wilkinson, Deans didn't like to speak out when it was unwarranted, but fought passionately when something needed to be said.

"She was unwilling to accept people who were trying to hide something or make it someone else's fault", Wilkinson says.

Joanne Cianello, who wrote about Deans before working for CBS as a municipal analyst, agrees: "She wasn't a rubber stamp. Let's put it this way".

Life before politics? Not for the Deans.

Longtime friends say there was never a time when Deans wasn't involved in politics.

After graduating from the University of Guelph, she became involved in national student politics, joining the newly formed Canadian Federation of Students and then leading it in the early 1980s.

She then became a Parliament Hill staffer before winning her first municipal election in Ottawa before amalgamation in 1994, a seat she held until her retirement from politics in 2022.

Deans' long tenure has earned him a reputation as someone who knows and understands the inner workings of City Hall better than anyone else.

She has taken many newcomers under her wing.

John Willing, now a journalism professor at Algonquin College, covered Deans from 2009 to 2022. He said Deans was a counselor who always had time to give interviews or just chat informally.

"She was very helpful to me, especially as a new reporter coming into the station", he says. "When we talked business, she had credibility because she had corporate knowledge".

"When her microphone came on, you were listening".

Deans has flirted with the idea of retiring from municipal politics on more than one occasion, losing twice in his bid for the Liberal nomination: first at the federal level to MP David McGuinty in 2004 and then at the provincial level to current MP Yasir Naqvi in 2006.

"I think it's good that she stayed at the municipal level because she brought a lot of sunshine to important issues", said Cianello, who developed a friendship with Deans after stepping away from journalism.

Cianello and Willing say Deans was a counselor to watch, especially late in her career.

"When her microphone was turned on, you listened", Willing says. "She was at the center of many heated debates, many heated discussions at council meetings".

This includes years of advocating for transparency in the creation of LRT.

Deans, who had a frequent and persistent feud with then-Mayor Jim Watson, was one of several council members who criticized him for focusing more on sticking to a set budget than on ensuring accountability. During one particularly heated debate in 2021 over whether to investigate, Watson infamously cut off her microphone.

Procedural disagreement leads to virtual scuffle at Ottawa city council

Several council members argued with Mayor Jim Watson over procedural rules at Wednesday's council meeting about Zoom, leading to confusion and the departure of at least one council member from the screen.

Fighting for "what's right

Cianello also recalled how Deans sought answers to questions about whether SNC-Lavalin (now known as Atkins RĂ©alis) met technical requirements in its bid to build the $4.7 billion Trillium Line extension.

"I want a simple answer", Deans told the committee. "But I didn't get that simple answer. I got the song and dance, I got 100 different ways to dance around it. That led me to believe that they didn't fulfill the technical credit".

"I didn't get that simple answer".

Diane Deans expresses dissatisfaction that City staff has refused to confirm whether SNC-Lavalin meets the technical requirements of the Trillium Line construction contract.

Former Mayor Bob Chiarelli said that this "never die" attitude made Deans a truly "unforgettable" politician and friend.

"I can vouch for her tenacity in never giving up on what her constituents need", he said.

Loss of faith

When Deans had to leave the mayor's office because of her cancer diagnosis, she showed a new vulnerability.

Deans told CBC host Lucy van Oldenbarnevald at the time that she has always been a closed-minded person and didn't realize the wave of public support she would receive.

"Maybe someone like me can give others hope", she said at the time. "That's an opportunity for me".

The cancer diagnosis left him "in shock and disbelief", Deans says

Diana Deans tells us what it's like to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

After returning to council and as head of the Police Services Board, becoming the first woman in that position, she faced another major challenge that changed the way she looked at politics.

The unprecedented Freedom Column protest, which dragged on for weeks in early 2022, put pressure on everyone in the city, including Deans in her role as a police oversight board member.

The resignation of Police Chief Peter Sloly after criticism of his actions during historic civil unrest led Deans to a decision that led to her own removal from office: she hired an interim police chief from another city without competition and without notifying the council.

Deans was voted off the police board in one of the most emotional city council meetings ever, with two other council members resigning in protest. But she didn't go down without a fight.

"You are destabilizing the Ottawa police oversight body in the midst of the biggest crisis in the city's history", Deans charged at the time. "This is ridiculous politicking".

Watch Wednesday's contentious council meeting in 7 minutes

Ottawa city council voted Wednesday night to overhaul the police services board amid an ongoing occupation of downtown, leading to accusations of political posturing and calls for the mayor to resign.

According to several people, that moment changed Deans' political trajectory.

"She never got over it because she felt her coworkers had let her down", Cianello says.

By writing your story to the end

A few months later, Deans will end his political career and his bid for mayor.

But those who knew her say she never stopped fighting for what she believed in, including equality at City Hall for all genders and walks of life.

Perhaps as a "born politician", in the words of John Fraser MP, she had no other choice.

"She was totally involved with people, with what was important to them", he said. "She left her mark".

Even in the last days of her life, friends said she was in complete control of herself. In her hospital room, she held conversations with her husband Ron Richards, discussing the past as well as planning her funeral.

According to McKenney, when they went to see her, they found "the same Diane from a year ago", with the same passion as decades ago when they first met.

"The Diana you saw was the Diana you got until the last moment", Cianello said. "And I wish I had one for myself. I think I would wish that for anybody".

The honoring ceremony will be held on May 25 at 2 p.m. at the Infinity Conference Center. It will be open to the public.

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