Kennedy's non-profit work built skills for leadership bid

Gerard Kennedy says he has a strong sense of duty as he takes a second run at the leadership of Ontario's Liberal party, with years of experience in politics and non-profit work.

Former Ontario cabinet minister talks of capacity to draw people together

Former Ontario cabinet minister Gerard Kennedy talks about his bid to succeed Dalton McGuinty has premier and leader of the Ontario Liberals. 10:43

Gerard Kennedy says he has a strong sense of duty as he takes a second run at the leadership of Ontario's Liberal party, with years of experience in politics and non-profit work.

His view of the world and political events in Canada began with his upbringing in a small town in northern Manitoba in a family of six, where "there was four of us [children born] within four years."

Kennedy, 52, remembers "rambunctious" debates around the lunch and dinner table.

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"We took an interest in the world around us even though we were in an isolated community at that time," he says in a CBC year-end interview, part of a series profiling the seven candidates vying to become Ontario's next premier at the Liberals' Jan. 25-26 convention in Toronto.

His father was involved in the local school board and minor hockey and was mayor of The Pas in the 1970s. He says he learned the importance of sacrifice from tales of his great-grandfather, who broke sod in the Prairies for a sod house; a grandfather who worked on the railway; and another grandfather, who "cruised timber for 44 years."

The married father of a 14-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son says he has long had a sense of social justice.

"I do what I say and I feel strongly about the things that affect other people. I've been that way for quite a long time.

"When I was a student in university I used to go to court for people on welfare that lived in my building. I lived there because it was cheap, but they lived there because they had to."

Kennedy ran food banks for 13 years and spent a decade as head of Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank, starting in 1986 when he was still in his 20s.

The leadership hopeful had the chance to see "people with a lot of dignity" in difficult circumstances and "a lot of generous people, who always wanted to be anonymous."

"I found that character reinforcing. But I think my upbringing was like that of a lot of other people, although a sense of duty was certainly strong in that formation."

He says he also learned about being a consensus builder in those days.

"I found from the beginning when I was in food banks that my job was to appreciate where  everyone was coming from.

"The first food bank of the country had business people, and social justice people and charity people. All took themselves very seriously, but nobody was understanding each other.

"And so I found that my ability to sit back and watch and learn gave me the capacity to draw people together and ultimately come up with some solutions."

After his work in the not-for-profit arena, he spent another 10 years at Queen's Park as an MPP, starting in 1996, the same year he finished second to Dalton McGuinty in a race for the provincial Liberal leadership.

Kennedy says Conservative Mike Harris's time as premier, when he was "changing the rules of engagement" with measures that included welfare cuts, convinced him to get into politics.

The leadership hopeful served three years as education minister under McGuinty before resigning in 2006 to make an unsuccessful bid for the federal Liberal leadership.