The following piece is one of several that appears in the special summer edition of our INSIGHT Magazine celebrating Cambridge’s 50th anniversary as we recognize just a few of the people, businesses and institutions that have made our community great.
Feisty. Fun. Skillful. Dedicated. Hard-working.
These are just a few of the words those who knew and worked closely with Claudette Millar were quoted in various tributes to describe Cambridge’s first mayor following her death in February 2016 after a battle with stomach cancer.
Born in Belleville in 1935 but raised in Kitchener, Claudette obtained a degree in sociology in Mississippi before taking a job in the travel industry which led her to move to Ireland for a time before returning to Canada to marry her husband, Clare Millar.
At the age of 35 in 1969, she was elected as Mayor of the Town of Preston making her not only Canada’s youngest mayor but one of the first female mayors in the country.
Standing firm on a platform of open government to ensure residents knew how things in their community were being handled, Claudette became the first mayor of the newly formed City of Cambridge following the amalgamation of Galt, Preston, Hespeler and Blair in 1973.
Bringing these communities together in an uneasy alliance was a big job for Claudette who used her outstanding leadership abilities and forward thinking to get Cambridge on track, only to be tested early on in 1974 when the Grand River overflowed its banks flooding downtown Galt causing millions in damages. And on the personal side, a month after the amalgamation a fire at her Blair home claimed the life of her 81-year-old father-in-law, Bertrum Millar.
Claudette persevered and went on to be lauded for her advocacy work to preserve the city’s cultural and environmental heritage. She was a vocal opponent against a proposed freeway bypass that would have disrupted the Dumfries Conservation Area and the Rare Charitable Reserve, but also knew how to have fun winning the annual mayors’ bathtub race in 1974 for the second year in a row at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.
Claudette also sat on numerous boards and committees as mayor, as well as Region of Waterloo Council where she gained the admiration from many of her political colleagues for being astute politically and never confrontational, always considering regional interests.
“Claudette never worked behind your back. She was upfront. We could have some great arguments about things, but it was always done with respect,” former Regional Chair Ken Seiling was quoted as saying in a 2016 Waterloo Record article upon Claudette’s death.
She served two non-consecutive terms as Cambridge mayor from 1973 to 1974, and again from 1978 to 1988 and played an instrumental role in bringing the Toyota plant to the community, creating a massive economic impact throughout Waterloo Region.
However, throughout her municipal career Claudette did set her sights on a provincial political career and ran three times unsuccessfully as an Ontario Liberal Party candidate to represent Cambridge. The first time was in 1975, again in 1977, followed by a third attempt in 1987. She made a final effort for the local Liberal nomination in 1999 long after her mayoral career ended but lost to Jerry Boyle.
Prior to that political attempt, Claudette was appointed to the Ontario Municipal Board when she retired as mayor and served on the board until 1992.
But her love for municipal politics brought her back and in 2003 she returned to serve on Waterloo Regional Council representing Cambridge before announcing her retirement in 2014.
And when she wasn’t busy trying to make Cambridge a better place, Claudette could be found relaxing at her very rustic cottage located on a Sharbot Lake island, just north of Kingston.
“She’s a person who had a lot of extraordinary skills. Everything she did, she did well,” her good friend Justice Paddy Hardman was quoted as saying by the Record upon Claudette’s death.
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