Just steps from Toronto’s gay village, Kathleen Wynne made history by becoming the first lesbian premier of Ontario, beating Sandra Pupatello in a close race to the finish at the Ontario Liberal leadership convention Jan 26.
Wynne vowed to “get back to work” Tuesday morning right before outgoing premier Dalton McGuinty joined her onstage at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, in the former Maple Leaf Gardens.
“We will show the people of Ontario that we can govern in a minority parliament,” said Wynne, who some pundits predicted will not appeal to voters outside Ontario’s largest city. “And can we just get this Toronto thing out of the way? I will be the premier for the whole province.”
Before voting started, Wynne also put the “gay question” to rest in her speech to more than 2,000 delegates.
“Is Ontario ready for a gay premier? You’ve heard that question. Let’s say what that actually means. Can a gay woman win? Not surprisingly, I haven’t answered that question.”
“There was a time not that long ago that most of us in this leadership race would not have been deemed suitable: a Portuguese Canadian, an Indo-Canadian, an Italian Canadian, female, gay, Catholic,” she said. “We would not have been able to stand on this stage. But this province has changed. Our party has changed.
“I do not believe the people of Ontario judge their leader on the basis of race, sexual orientation, colour or religion. I don’t believe it. They judge us on our merits, on our abilities, on our expertise, on our ideas, because that’s how everyone deserves to be judged.”
With Wynne’s victory, she becomes the sixth female premier in Canada.
Jules Kerlinger, with the Queer Liberals, says having a lesbian premier is a triumph for queer rights in Ontario. But, he adds, it will now be up to her to reach out to rural areas and show that she is about more than just gay rights.
“Twenty years ago this never would have happened,” he says. “Even today, there’s still those who will say she’s not electable because she’s a lesbian. Her sexuality does not define her. Her ideas and leadership go beyond that . . . She will send a message of equality.”
Wynne may not have campaigned on a queer-rights platform, but her sexuality was very much in the spotlight, in part because others thrust it there.
Those on her team were more than happy to talk about her sexuality and praise Wynne as a champion for gay rights.
When asked why there were no colours in Wynne’s black-and-white logo, Liberal staffer Milton Chan said, “The campaign is gay enough without rainbows.”
Wynne was the first out lesbian elected to Queen’s Park in 2003. In 2006, she became the province’s first lesbian cabinet minister. As education minister, she introduced a groundbreaking inclusive physical and sex education curriculum in 2010, which drew fire from ultra-conservative groups. The province shelved the curriculum until further consultations with parent groups could be completed – it has yet to be retabled.
Wynne came out as a lesbian at age 37, after 13 years of marriage to a man with whom she has three children, now aged 32, 31 and 28. She is a grandmother to two granddaughters.
In 2000, Wynne was elected as a public school trustee in Toronto. During the campaign she was targeted by anonymous hate literature that described her as an “extremist lesbian.” In 2001, she helped pass a measure that encouraged public schools to purchase teaching materials that reflect the presence of gay and lesbian parents.
Wynne was elected to the Ontario legislature in 2003, defeating Progressive Conservative cabinet minister David Turnbull.
Wynne inherits a laundry list of problems as Ontario’s new premier. For more than a year the Liberals have been plagued by scandal. McGuinty resigned from office in October and, in doing so, prorogued provincial parliament, leaving behind serious questions about the province’s troubled Ornge air ambulance service and the party’s controversial decision to relocate two gas plants. Wynne will also have to deal with increasing economic uncertainty in the province, ongoing labour unrest with teachers and a swelling deficit.
“I don’t deny that we as a party have had challenges, but now is the time to show we have learned from our mistakes and say they will not happen again,” she said as thousands of protesters gathered outside to voice their frustration with Bill 115, the province’s anti-strike legislation brought in to enforce contracts on teachers.
Even though the Ontario government officially repealed Bill 115 Jan 23, many protesters said Wynne will need to build bridges with the province’s angry teachers.
Martine Stonehouse, who works at the Toronto District School Board, says she expects Wynne to have an understanding of the needs of teachers and those working in education. Out of all the leadership candidates, she says, Wynne is still in the good books with teachers.
“We need a leader who will fight for working people, teachers and people living in poverty,” she says. “We need to do more for the homeless. We need affordable housing. We need to get people off the streets. We need our government to stop attacking people.”
Education Minister Laurel Broten tells Xtra Wynne is in the best position to rebuild the government’s relationship with the education sector. “We need a new pathway forward, and I hope Kathleen begins that conversation right away,” she says.
MPP Glen Murray, who dropped out of the race for leader earlier in the month, pledging his support to Wynne, says the new premier will tackle the scandals and hurdles “in stride.”
“She’s a remarkable woman. She has personal integrity. She is committed to transparency and will be a very ethical leader. I think you’ll see a real energized party. It’s now Kathleen Wynne’s provincial party.”