After almost 20 years as our MPP for Don Valley West, Kathleen Wynne is retiring from politics. She has been Minister of Education, Transportation, Indigenous Affairs and, for two terms, Ontario’s first woman and first openly gay Premier. Her defeat in 2018 was colossal, but she remains as hard-working and determined as ever. In early April, Leaside Life contributor Robin Dickie asked her about the state of the province and our riding and her plans for the future…
We are in a strange world. Covid is still with us, and there is war abroad, fears of nuclear war and people divided over issues big and small. What’s your take on all this as you prepare to retire from public office?
More than ever, we need people to be involved. It sounds like a contradiction because you are right about the polarization, but that’s exactly why we need people to pay attention to our democracy and find a way to build a strong future. And I’m optimistic! In Ontario we have so many advantages, and it’s a shame if we lose those advantages by not listening to each other. That’s the biggest danger.
Now that Covid numbers are again rising, how do you feel about mask mandates and vaccine passports being rescinded?
A lot of decisions have been made for political reasons. I think we have come through the pandemic pretty well as a country, but there has been a lot of confusion around policies in this province. When kids went back to school and were told they didn’t have to wear masks anymore, the government didn’t give school boards the respect to allow them to make that decision for themselves. That was a mistake. We moved too quickly to say “we are done” because the Premier wants to be done. There is an election coming, and he wants it to be over. But just because you want something doesn’t mean it happens. We needed to move more slowly. I don’t think it would have been a big challenge to leave mask mandates for schools in place, because there’s anxiety among families now. There’s been a lot of politics, and not enough consultation with people on the front lines.
The epidemic has devasted our system, and nurses are burned out. What can we do about that?
We start with making sure we have the staff we need. Full disclosure: my daughter is an Emergency room nurse. There will be lots of conversations in the election campaign about building hospitals, but making sure we have the personnel we need in our Emergency rooms, ICUs, long-term care and home care, and that those [mostly] women have the conditions that allow them to come back to work, and stay, is number one from my perspective.
Through this pandemic we have heard from doctors and epidemiologists. But we didn’t hear from nurses. Yet they have held us together. My mother was in a retirement home and there were months where we didn’t see her. And if we hadn’t had PSWs looking after her, she would have been in a very bad way. So we’ve really missed the mark in terms of “Who’s the backbone of the healthcare system?”
Another issue is your sex education curriculum. I was the Chair of Council and Home & School at Rolph Road when it was coming to a head, and that was a real eye opener. Where does that stand? Is it being taught?
Yes it is. Ford courted social conservatives, but once he was elected, he heard from parents. He thought he was going to hear “Repeal the curriculum.” He heard “We need this, do it now,” and it took him a year or so, but he did. But, like all curriculum, it needs continual review. There’s always more online risk, and kids will have questions. I have faith in teachers’ ability to inform what the curriculum needs to be. It’s just a matter of the government listening to them, which is what we did when we got that curriculum in place.
I don’t think it’s anything Doug Ford wants to touch. The majority of people supported an updated curriculum. A curriculum written in 1998 was not going to suffice for 2018 – that’s just ridiculous. The media finally got that it wasn’t a story, and the Ford government got that they had lost the battle. There are still people on the right wing who would like to stir it up, but there is nothing to stir now.
The proposed Metrolinx maintenance and storage facility is a big issue for Leasiders. You have been trying to get Metrolinx to rethink it. Where does that stand?
It’s very discouraging. I’ve been engaged with the community, particularly Thorncliffe businesses and residents, to try to get Metrolinx to adjust the plan. And we have not been successful. There hasn’t been any political engagement. Metrolinx brings plans to the government, but the final signoff and funding for these projects lies with the government. When I asked Caroline Mulroney [Minister of Transportation] to come to the consultations, she sent her Chief of Staff once, and we never heard from them again. There has been no political will to pay attention to the concerns of the people in Thorncliffe, so I can’t tell you what will happen. It may be that the discussion will pick up again after the election. But I can tell you that Stephanie Bowman, the Liberal candidate, will be raising this issue, because it’s been very frustrating for the people who are going to be most affected.
I met with the Leaside Ratepayers group who are concerned about what the community benefits are going to be. There’s already a community benefit in place for the mosque in Thorncliffe. We are trying to impress upon Metrolinx the need for broader benefits for the whole community, and so far we have not had any word on those. There’s a community centre needed in Thorncliffe Park as well as upgrades to parkland and buildings to provide amenities for that community.
Another issue for many of us is Truth & Reconciliation. Where do we need to go on that front?
The first thing all of us need to do is to educate ourselves. It’s not up to First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, it’s for us to know the history and listen to Indigenous voices. That’s why supporting the teaching of history in a different way in our schools is important. It’s why I wanted mandatory education on Indigenous peoples in the curriculum. The [current] government cancelled that; there are optional courses, but we need kids to learn a different history than we learned. We didn’t learn the truth. There are church and community groups in Leaside asking Indigenous people to come and speak and trying to educate themselves, and I believe that’s the most important thing we can do.
What are the biggest issues going forward for Don Valley West?
There are some immediate and urgent issues. Development along Eglinton is a huge concern, and is going to be for years. One of the reasons why I fought so hard for changes to the Ontario Municipal Board was that I believe municipal councils should have as much authority as possible over development in their jurisdictions. Obviously there has to be a provincial plan, and there is a provincial policy statement, but there’s a lot of latitude. Giving councillors the responsibility to decide what is built and what it’s going to look like is the way it should go. We changed the OMB so council had more responsibility. Ford changed that back, and I’m very worried about the influence of developers in city planning.
The province seems to have taken over what should be municipal affairs.
Right. They are using ministerial zoning orders in a way that they were never supposed to be used. I think we used two in my term as Premier, and they have already used dozens. That overrides the municipal process and community input, and that is a big issue for Don Valley West, because the Eglinton Crosstown is going to open and there will be a lot of changes along Eglinton. We need to make sure the amenities are in place. I’d like to see it be gentle density, not all 30 storeys. Development will also be a concern when the Ontario Line is built, and the maintenance and storage facility is part of that, but there will be other questions associated with the Ontario Line.
The whole province has education issues as a result of the pandemic. Don Valley West is no different, but the overcrowding is particularly acute here. We have very full schools. It’s one of the things I was working on before we lost government, and even since with Trustees Rachel Chernos Lin and Shelley Laskin. We need more space for our kids, and the next MPP is going to need to work closely with the school board and the government to make sure those issues get on the radar. School boards need to have the authority to distribute their students and access development charges. We were working on a plan that would allow the TDSB to access development charges on a regional basis from developers. I hope that will go forward so they can do the building they need to do.
The final issue is housing. The issues people get in touch with me about most are housing issues. Some involve newcomer housing, others are people just trying to find reasonable housing. We put rent control in place, but that was taken off by the government so I’m worried. More than 50% of people in DVW live in rental accommodations, and affordable housing, in terms of both renting and buying, will continue to be an issue.
Let’s talk a bit about your legacy. What are you most proud of?
Some of the things I am most proud of are individual successes—people who were looking for support to help them through a tough time, or for home care for their parent or grandparent, and I have been able to help them. Those issues change people’s lives, and I’m really proud of the cumulative legacy of that work. I’ve had wonderful staff who have stayed with me. We have worked to build community. We created festivals in Thorncliffe Park around Eid and Ramadan. I spent a lot of time doing community gardens. We worked together on keeping the lands up by the Donwood. I’m proud of those local successes—those are the things people elected me to do.
If you had more time, what would you want to do?
So much more. I had hoped that we would have completed the basic income pilot and had some good information to add to the discussion about guaranteed annual income for people living in poverty. That would have affected millions of people across the province. That’s a major regret, and it’s at the top of my mind because people are struggling with the cost of living.
What comes next for you?
Lots of grandma time! One of the reasons we moved to the Alliston area was to be closer to my grandkids. We built a house with my youngest, Maggie, so we are living in an intergenerational semi, and it’s lovely. We are very happy.
I’m teaching at U of T, and I will continue that because I love spending time with young people, it makes me hopeful about the future; and if I can use my experience to help people get a more realistic view of how politics work, that’s a valuable contribution. Beyond that I don’t know. I am serving on the board of the Woodland Cultural Centre on Six Nations reserve. Our government gave money to rebuild one of the residential schools as a museum, and there is a cultural centre this group is raising money for. I’m trying to do things that are useful and helpful going forward.
You put up with a lot of vitriol. It takes a special person to go into politics and risk all that these days.
Thank you! But it’s a team sport for sure. I feel really blessed. Jane has been a strong supporter, and my kids have been supportive, if sometimes chagrined that I wasn’t around so much. They were such a help to me through those years. It’s important to have a strong team— not just family, but people you can rely on —and to reinforce how it’s worth it to have the ability to have an impact on people’s lives.
Do you have any advice for your successor?
I just love the riding. It’s so diverse. I feel it’s a microcosm of the country because we’ve got some of the wealthiest people and then people who have just arrived with $10 in their pockets. I met an Afghan doctor who is working as a nurse and contributing so much to our society. We are blessed. So I say to whoever comes after me, savour it, and really listen to the people of the riding. I always felt I had them with me at Queen’s Park when decisions were being made. That’s why I spent so much time knocking on doors, because that’s how you get to know what people are thinking.
The Conservatives have brought in a heavy hitter, and there’s an NDP and Green presence which we haven’t had much of in the riding because they figured it was safely yours? Any comment on that?
All I can tell you is that I’m going to be out knocking on doors for Stephanie. She’s a great candidate and, you know, the people will decide….