Kathleen Wynne and the L word at Queen's Park
The row over sex ed has taken a personal tone in the Legislature
A little over two years ago, Kathleen Wynne found herself mostly alone on a stage at Toronto’s Mattamy Centre — the former Maple Leaf Gardens — doing a mic check for what would be, the following the day, the most important speech of her political life.
It was the Liberal leadership race, a race whose back story was all about whether an openly gay woman could become party leader and premier and, at some point, win a general election.
Wynne was determined to address what many called "the elephant in the room." But even some of her staunchest supporters wanted her to steer clear of it.
Sensing the tension in her campaign on that Friday afternoon, Wynne began her practice speech reciting some Shakespeare: "Romeo, Romeo," said Wynne, then paused without finishing the line. "Juliet, Juliet," she said instead, "wherefore art thou?" Laughter filled the almost empty arena.
It helped her campaign workers and underscored Wynne’s belief that the worst thing she could do in her speech was not to be herself.
So she wrote her speech and the following day delivered it, directly addressing the so-called issue of her sexual orientation.
Her speech electrified the convention. Wynne went on to win — "the easy part" as she would say later, with the big test still to come.
'The issue' was unimportant to voters
It did, in June, 2014, and the Liberals, a party headed for third place, ended in first with a majority. What some referred to as "the issue" of her orientation was unimportant to voters.
Now, fast-forward to the ongoing discussion over the government’s new sex-education curriculum. Suddenly, "the elephant in the room" has returned — printed on homemade picket signs carried outside the Legislature and in coded phrases inside the building.
Conservative leadership candidate Monte McNaughton has led the charge against the new curriculum.
"It’s not the premier of Ontario’s job — especially Kathleen Wynne — to tell parents what is age appropriate [in sex education] for their children," McNaughton told reporters after the introduction of the new curriculum.
But what did he mean by "especially Kathleen Wynne"?
The premier believes she knows, and she was determined to address "the issue" directly, just as she has in the past.
In the Legislature, facing McNaughton’s questions about the OPP investigation into the bribery allegations in the Sudbury byelection, Wynne asked, "What is it exactly that the member [McNaughton] thinks disqualifies me from doing the job that I’m doing?"
But the premier didn’t stop there, and, as even fellow Tory MPPs acknowledge, McNaughton sat uneasily in his Legislature seat.
"Is it that I’m a woman? A mother? Have a master’s of education? Was a school council chair? Was minister of education?" thundered Wynne, staring directly at the PC MPP.
As Wynne spoke, those in the House at the time say, Liberal MPPs heckled McNaughton that Wynne’s personal and professional resume was not "the real reason" he is complaining about the curriculum.
"Ridiculous" was the word McNaughton used to reporters, in strenuously denying Liberal suggestions that homophobia was behind his "especially Kathleen Wynne" comment.
McNaughton says Wynne is not qualified, in his view, to take on a new sex-education curriculum because she faces "so many scandals" being investigated by the OPP. McNaughton believes schools should be able to opt out of the new curriculum.
But Education Minister Liz Sandals stepped into the debate, making it clear she doesn’t buy the McNaughton explanation.
"Quite homophobic," said Sandals, adding fuel to the political fire already raging in the House.
"I would assume if he was premier, you could vote to opt out of teaching about evolution too," Sandals told the House, to the delight and clearly the amusement of Liberal MPPs.
A day later, also in the House, deputy premier Deb Matthews wanted to turn the political screws a little tighter, saying she wanted to congratulate the PC caucus for being the cover story in the latest edition of National Geographic magazine: The War on Science.
But Matthews then added that she thought for the Tories, Evolution Never Happened would be the cover story.
"Climate change does not exist," said Matthews, would be "a wonderful synopsis" of the Ontario PC Party.
Away from the rhetoric, coded phrases and cheap shots, this debate will rage on inside and outside the Legislature as the Liberals move to put the new sex-education curriculum in place.
Put it in place they will, with Kathleen Wynne determined to make it happen no matter how nasty or how personal it gets.