Kathleen Wynne’s first provincial election, in 2003, made history when she became the first out lesbian elected to Queen’s Park. Three years later, she became the first lesbian cabinet minister in Canada when she was appointed minister of education, a post she held for four years before being shuffled to the transportation portfolio in 2010.
She also faced down a battle for her political life in 2007, when then-PC-leader John Tory challenged her for the seat in her Don Valley West riding. She trounced Tory, pulling in an absolute majority of votes.
The past term has not been without challenges, however. In 2010, a new inclusive physical and sex education curriculum that she helped create drew fire from ultra-conservative groups. The province backed off on the sex ed portions of the curriculum and promised further consultations with parent groups before implementing it.
Aprovincewide equity and inclusive education policy that she helped author has been similarly contentious, with Catholic boards altering the policy to allow them to prevent queer students from forming gay-straight alliances or talking about queer issues.
More recently, as transportation minister, she’s had to watch as the province’s transit expansion plans for Toronto were derailed by the election of Rob Ford and his negotiation of a new plan directly with Premier McGuinty.
But Wynne says she’s confident those roadblocks will be cleared if the Liberals win the next election. As she talks about the gay-straight alliances, it’s clear that education issues remain close to her heart.
“I’m very disappointed by [Catholic school boards' refusal to allow GSAs]. When I was minister of education, I made it clear to directors that in the publicly funded Ontario education system it was extremely important that we had equitable policies in all of our boards across the province, and I think that’s well understood,” she says.
“I think that the Catholic boards will all come around. And the premier has been very clear that if students want to form a group that deals with these issues of equity and homophobia, and allows kids from different backgrounds to have conversations about these issues, that those students must be allowed to do that.”
Wynne doesn’t cotton to the compromise some Catholic boards have proposed, which allows students to form groups as long as they don’t use the word gay.
“To suggest that using the word gay is problematic, to me that’s nonsense. I think that the school boards need to listen to the students on this,” she says. “I think that masks a whole issue over, whether certain educators are comfortable with having students express themselves and explore these issues, and where their parents are. And I understand that. I understand that there’s fear. I understand homophobia, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important that students can explore these issues.”
But Wynne also suggests that the debate over GSAs is itself a healthy process for schools and students to go through.
“One of the first questions I was asked as a new minister of education in 2006 was whether some young people in a public school should be allowed to form a GSA, and my response was that they should be able to have that conversation with their principal and administrators and teachers and work it out,” she says. “The process of forming a group and having the conversation about what it’s okay to explore and what it’s not okay to explore is important for kids in high school or middle school, wherever they are. For us as adults to suggest it’s not okay to have that conversation when the kids are saying, We need you to talk to us about this, I think it’s wrong.”
While the province has not yet taken the Catholic boards to task over their failure to implement the equity policy, Wynne says the government won’t back down.
“It’s not going away. The expectation is that they will have an equity and inclusive education policy and will allow students to form these groups to have these discussions in every school board in the province,” she says. “I think what the province can do is provide the professional development supports to the boards to get them to the point where they understand how to do this.”
Still, she would rather let the system “evolve” than engage in battle with the Catholic boards or defund Catholic high schools.
Wynne advocates the same wait-and-see approach for the inclusive sex ed curriculum, which is still going through consultations with parent groups.
“There were parents in some parts of the province who felt that they hadn’t had an opportunity for input, although we did talk with many groups across the province,” she says.
The process is not unusual or specific to the sex ed curriculum.
“We always talk to people in the field, we always talk to parents, but we do not take public referenda on curriculum. That’s not the way curricula are done in this country or any other country. We will get that rewritten. In the meantime there is a robust curriculum in place.”
Education issues are hugely important to the queer community because of schools' central roles in kids’ lives through their formative years, when they’re first discovering their sexuality, she says.
“Those issues are critically important, and we have to develop, not just in our urban centres,” she says. “It’s all very well for us to talk about what goes down in downtown Toronto or downtown Ottawa, but we’ve got to make sure that those opportunities exist for all of our kids in all of our towns and villages around the province.
“I think the education system is probably the single most important venue for education of a new generation that will be able to deal with homophobia in a much more intelligent way.”
Heading into the election with so many controversial items on her agenda doesn’t faze Wynne, who says she’s not worried about homophobia marring her run for a third term.
“Every single time I have run for office, beginning in 1994 for school trustee, there has been an undercurrent. There’s always homophobia. I’ve never let it deter me and I’ve always tried to confront it head on. That’s just a reality of an out gay politician’s life,” she says.