PROFILE: Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty

Dalton McGuinty is hoping to secure a third term as premier, a feat no Ontario Liberal has accomplished since the late 1800s.
Education is one of the top priorities of Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty, seen here with Taylor Neuman at Stoney Creek Public School in London in Oct. 2010. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

Dalton McGuinty might never have become Ontario’s premier had his father not dropped dead of a heart attack while shovelling snow.

That was 1990. McGuinty had a young family, and had just set up his law practice. His father, Dalton McGuinty Sr., was an English professor in his first term as MPP for Ottawa South.

Vital signs

Born: July 19, 1955 in Ottawa.

Education: Bachelor of science in biology, McMaster University. Law, University of Ottawa, 1981.

Political life: First elected to legislature in 1990. Elected Liberal leader in 1996. Elected premier in 2003 general election.

Personal: Married wife Terri in 1980. The two have four grown children.

After his death, the younger McGuinty was approached to follow in his father’s footsteps. He agreed, some say out of a strong sense of duty, and won the ensuing byelection. Fast forward two decades and he’s now the longest-serving Liberal premier of Ontario since the 1930s.

McGuinty grew up as the oldest in a family of 10 children, and in many ways the singular dynamic of that home environment made him the person he is. He talks frequently of the demands on his mother, Elizabeth, who also worked as a nurse, and the responsibilities he had as the eldest of so many siblings.

A sense of personal responsibility pushed McGuinty into running in his father’s old seat, and his staff say that same sense of responsibility drives what he does as Premier. He’s been derided as "Premier Dad" and the "Nanny Premier," dismissed as the "boy-next-door of Ontario politics". His critics have tried to cast him as dull, lacking charisma, aloof and out of touch. 

His supporters counter that he’s a truly decent man, driven by a real and fundamental desire for public service. His staff say he wants to bring in policies that will work, not ones that will win him a lot of votes. McGuinty says the public cares little about his personality – they just want him to do his job.

Failure before success

McGuinty was by no means the favourite when he vied for the Liberal leadership in 1996. It took five ballots for him to emerge on top in a tight race against Gerard Kennedy. 

The party was still smarting from its humiliation in the 1995 campaign, bruised by the internal conflict of the leadership fight, and the internal grumbling continued when the Liberals failed to win the 1999 election, a campaign in which the PCs tarred McGuinty as "not up to the job".

But he got the job of premier in a landslide in 2003 and won handily again in 2007. Only Quebec’s Jean Charest has been running a Canadian province longer.  Now, as McGuinty aims to win a third straight term, something no Ontario Liberal has done since the late 1800s, this election becomes very much a referendum on his record. 

Now 56, McGuinty barely looks like he’s aged in the 15 years since becoming leader, keeping his trim physique when most men have given in to middle-aged spread. He works out on a rowing machine most mornings, and in the summers likes to go hiking with his sons.

An early knock against him was that he appeared awkward in front of the cameras, but he’s gained a certain confidence in scrums over time. He’s always polite to reporters and doesn’t lose his cool no matter how challenging the questions. He often turns down the heat with a little wry, self-deprecating humour. 

'I continue to bore the heck out of people'

When it was revealed last year that Newfoundland & Labrador’s Danny Williams was named in a WikiLeaks cable, McGuinty was asked if he was mentioned in the diplomatic scuttlebutt. No, he replied.  "I continue to bore the heck out of people, and sometimes that’s not a bad thing."

McGuinty is probably at his most comfortable when he does a media event in a kindergarten classroom, what he calls one of his favourite places to be in Ontario. 

He is visibly proud of being the driving force behind making Ontario the first place in North America with full-day kindergarten for four & five year olds — a program that seems bound to survive whether McGuinty wins or not, since both the NDP and the PCs have endorsed it.

Perhaps not coincidentally, McGuinty’s wife Terri is a kindergarten teacher. She was his high-school sweetheart. They married in 1980 when he was still in law school. Their three sons and one daughter are now all grown. Family matters hugely to him. He’s the premier who brought in the Family Day holiday, and his favourite conversation starter with any parent he meets is to ask them about their kids.

McGuinty earned a science degree at McMaster, majoring in biology and intending to go to medical school. But he switched gears to study law at the University of Ottawa, getting his degree in 1981. He’s the only one of the three party leaders who speaks French, boosting his appeal with the half-million francophones in the province.

There are some in the Liberal party who wish McGuinty had stepped aside a year or two ago, so this election would be less about him than about the party’s record in government. The opposition invoke his name as often as they can, trying to capitalize on what they see as public dissatisfaction with McGuinty. Have Ontarians really grown tired of Dalton McGuinty? We’ll find out on Oct. 6th.

Liberal party platform: