Seven years after leaving Queen’s Park to launch an ultimately unsuccessful bid for mayor of Toronto, George Smitherman is attempting a political comeback, with his announcement that he intends to run for one of the newly-created wards in downtown Toronto in the 2018 municipal election.
First elected in 1999, Smitherman was the first openly gay man to serve in the Ontario legislature, and served as deputy premier, minister of health and minister of energy and infrastructure in the McGuinty Liberal government from 2003 until he left provincial politics. As health minister, Smitherman reintroduced public health coverage in Ontario for gender-confirming surgery after a long campaign by trans activists.
Smitherman says he wants to return to politics to fight for the marginalized, including the queer and trans community.
“The downtown continues to be a place where LGBT people are calling home, amongst them are many that are struggling against marginalization,” Smitherman says over the phone. “I think in particular about the trans community, where I’m proud of the history that I have, but I recognize that collectively we’re all failing to meet the needs of the community.”
“Toronto Centre is home to an increasingly diverse population of LGBT people that have come to Canada as a safe haven. I look forward to continuing my history of queer activism around issues of refugee health,” he adds.
One of the most fraught municipal issues the community is dealing with in Toronto is its relationship with the police, in the wake of the Project Marie sting and the ongoing dispute with Black Lives Matter Toronto over police harassment of people of colour, trans people and sex workers. Smitherman says he hopes he can be a conciliator as a councillor.
“I’m a gay man of a certain age and to some people that’s white privilege and I accept that. I’m also the father of a mixed-race child, and I’m disheartened by the systemic racism . . . that I think is still prevalent in our society,” he says.
“I’m sure that Black Lives Matter and trans people have very legitimate concerns about their treatment and relationship with the police, but I remember the police too. I went to my first Gay Pride in 1986 and the police that were there that day were not a happy police presence,” he says.
“Over time the community worked very hard on the relationship and I think the police did too, so I know improvement is possible,” he adds. “At the end of the day, there are social justice concerns that are legitimate, and I want to be part of helping to bring those to light and finding common ground that’s based on a commitment to progress.”
Building consensus will be a new thing for Smitherman, whose hyper-partisan style earned him the nickname “Furious George” in Queen’s Park. He now says he has no desire to return to the legislature, and the non-partisan system at Toronto City Hall is what’s drawing him to municipal politics.
“I don’t want to work in a place where the desks are set up two sword-lengths apart and you wake up in an opposition mentality,” he says. “I look forward to the kind of environment at city hall where you can strike consensus with people who are not necessarily of like point of view on everything.”
But, although Smitherman and Mayor John Tory sparred frequently when they sat across the aisle in Queen’s Park, he has no desire to challenge Tory at the polls.
“There’s a reasonable prospect in the next election I’ll vote for the mayor, and if I’m elected I’ll look forward for all opportunities possible to work alongside him,” Smitherman says.
After losing the 2010 mayoral race, rumours constantly circulated that Smitherman would run for the federal Liberals, but he was repeatedly passed over for star candidates the party recruited to run in downtown Toronto.
In 2013, Smitherman’s husband Christopher Peloso passed away after a long battle with depression. Since then, Smitherman has been a single father to their two children, Michael and Kayla. He says the city’s services have been important to his family.
“As a parent it’s given me a much broader, clearer perspective of a lot of the issues that affect the city,” he says. “I have survived the last three years because of the community that has wrapped itself around me and my kids, that’s our school environment and our after-school programs.”