On track to be a new kind of leader
Ontario’s new premier, Kathleen Wynne, is known as a team-player and a consensus builder. It turns out that she began honing these skills during her years as a star sprinter on the Queen’s varsity track team.
Imagine sipping your morning coffee every day while you wonder if protesting teachers or warring politicians or a media scrum will be lying in wait for you when you arrive at work.
Long gone are the days when Kathleen Wynne, Artsci’77, Ontario’s new Liberal premier – the first woman and the first openly gay person ever to lead Canada’s most populous province – had nothing more to dodge than her kids’ bikes, helmets, and skateboards as she made her way out to, say, a parents’ association meeting.
The challenges of being Ontario’s top politician might scare off a lot of people nowadays, and even though Wynne admits it is scary sometimes, she’s ready to “lean in,” as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg advises all women to do. Says Wynne, “I still wake up in the morning and think, ‘Wow, what have I done? It’s exciting, humbling, and kind of terrifying, all at the same time.”
Mind you, Wynne is certainly no stranger to a competitive, high-pressure life. As a teenager she played basketball, competed as a gymnast, was a cheerleader, and starred as a member of the track team at Richmond Hill High School, where she impressed coaches and fellow students by setting a regional record for the 440-metre dash of one minute and three seconds.
Not surprisingly, when Wynne arrived at Queen’s in the fall of 1973 she went out for the varsity track team. It was the camaraderie and the chance to be a member of a team, more than a hunger to set more records, that drew her. “The track team really included people who were very supportive,” she recalls. “During the years when you’re trying to find your legs and figure out what you’re going to do with your life, it’s important to have a group that’s inclusive. I found that on the Queen’s track team.”
The satisfaction of working with others to achieve common goals was important to Wynne, and the competition was good training for a political career. (“You win sometimes, you lose sometimes.”) She credits both her coaches and teammates with playing a big part in her life and is especially complimentary about Rita Sue Bolton, MPA’92, Ed’98, and the late Rolf Lund, who shared track and field coaching duties back then.
Bolton recalls working with Wynne in 1973-74, her first year as a Queen’s women’s track-and-field coach and Wynne’s first as a varsity athlete. “As a coach, you love it when you see an athlete duplicate her training over and over and, in Kathleen’s case, doing it so successfully. In the years since, I’ve watched her follow the same principles and steps I believe in, and she’s been successful with the various roles she’s taken on.”
Wynne co-captained the track team with Janey O’Rourke, Artsci/PHE’75, Ed’76. O’Rourke, a retired teacher who still lives in Kingston, says she’d never have guessed that Kathleen Wynne would one day become Premier of Ontario, although she’s not surprised that she did so. “Kathleen and I had the job of acting as the go-betweens for coaches and the athletes. You had to be able to get along with people and show leadership.”
O’Rourke remembers Kathleen as “a very caring, fun-loving and charismatic person – really pro-active and a problem solver. She didn’t let things fester. [In politics] she makes people feel that she’s heard them, empathizes with them, and helps them find answers to their problems. She was good at all those things even back then.”
Wynne, who majored in history and English, notes it was no accident that she chose to attend Queen’s. “I went because my great-uncle, Arthur Wynne, BA’1913, MA’1915, adored the University. I grew up with stories of Queen’s being really the only university in Ontario. My Uncle Arthur loved the fact that the school was small and didn’t have sororities and fraternities.”
While Kathleen wasn’t politically active during her student days, she did get involved in campus life. “I loved the extra-curricular activities, as well as my classes,” she says.
It was also at Queen’s that Wynne met her partner of the last 25 years, Jane Rounthwaite, Artsci’76.
Wynne was applying for the job of floor proctor at Chown Hall, and it was Rounthwaite who interviewed her. Wynne remembers, “We were in history classes together and she had a confidence about her that I hadn’t encountered before. I found Jane’s wit and ability to push back at the professor pretty interesting. That was a life-changing thing for me.”
In fact, it made a lasting impression. Soon after graduation, Wynne married Phillip Cowperthwaite, Artsci’75, and they had three children together. However, after their marriage ended in 1990 and Wynne “came out” at age 37, she and Rounthwaite became a couple. Wynne has been forthright about her relationship with Rounthwaite from the beginning of her political career.
“Everyone knows that I’m a lesbian; I’ve been open about that,” she says. “For that reason it was really important for me to confront it. That’s why I did that throughout the leadership campaign and in my leadership speech. I didn’t want anybody thinking I was trying to win [the party leadership] without understanding the implications of my being gay. I wanted to confront it head-on. Doing that has helped to establish my determination to tackle difficult questions and not be cowed by a contentious subject.”
Wynne has two Master’s degrees to her credit – one in linguistics from the U of T, the other in adult education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She also completed a mediation training program at Harvard and has worked as a practitioner, implementing conflict mediation programs in more than 60 schools across the province in the 1990s.
That brief period of training at Harvard and her subsequent work as a mediator, in particular, have served her well in her political career. One of Wynne’s signature words, as journalists at Queen’s Park well know, is “conversation,” and the fact that she has urged her own party members to resist “vicious party politics” is an indication of how she wants to work through issues to accomplish her goals.
She admits that becoming premier was never a lifelong dream, but rather one that evolved.
Wynne entered politics in 1994, running unsuccessfully for a seat as a school board trustee in Toronto. When she ran again in 2000 and won, she assumed that she’d simply continue on as a school trustee. However, the 1999 re-election of Conservative Mike Harris to a second term as premier so troubled her that she found herself getting more and more involved in opposing the Tory leader’s “Common Sense Revolution.”
“Once Harris tried to change the rules on civil society in the province, that got me involved,” she recalls. It also got her noticed around Toronto.
Wynne was elected to the Ontario legislature in 2003 in the Toronto riding of Don Valley West, and in the 10 years since she has served as a cabinet minister in a number of high-profile ministries, including Education, Transportation, Municipal Affairs and Housing, and Aboriginal Affairs.
Despite the fact that as Premier Dalton McGuinty’s successor she inherited a number of political hot potatoes – teachers’ contracts, canceled gas-power plants, casinos, and space for all-day kindergarten – Wynne insists she has her own vision for Ontario. Not shying away from the controversial and sometimes unpopular aspects of the Liberals’ previous agenda, she says she initially wants to build on the progress made in McGuinty’s nine years as Premier. After all, they were her years, too; and Wynne is always a team player.
“We need to find our niche in terms of the new global economy,” she says. “We have huge opportunities in the new economy with young people creating their own businesses. It’s about having venture capital and infrastructure in place and making sure our education system helps prepare those young people for that changing economy.”
Though her own offspring are adults, being a former teacher and now a grandmother, Wynne is also sympathetic to the challenges facing young people in educational institutions.
“The pressure on kids today to get high marks and to perform is enormous; we didn’t have that when I was a student. There are more supports for kids on campus, but more has to be done.
People want government to succeed. They want good things for their kids. I’m trying to be as accessible as possible because people want to talk to me and I want to hear from them. That gives me courage.
“As we roll out our mental health strategy, we have to look at what supports need to be in place for young people. Kids in elementary and secondary school are in a contained environment. When they get to university and that’s removed, it can create issues. University campuses and administrations need to follow in the lead of Queen’s and Bell Canada [in spearheading mental health initiatives and] in asking if the right conditions are in place.”
Helping others and providing them with opportunities to succeed are what Kathleen Wynne has always tried to do. That same caring extends to her own life. She works hard to maintain a career-life balance.
Surprisingly, her new responsibilites as premier haven’t added all that many hours to her workdays, which have always been crazy busy. Says partner Jane Rounthwaite, “When Kathleen got involved in provincial politics she started working a lot, especially as a cabinet minister. This job’s a different responsibility, but it’s not that many more hours. How could it be? However, there’s no question the weight of the responsibility is definitely heavier.”
Not only is Rounthwaite supportive of Wynne’s work, she managed her first four election campaigns. “We got into this as a team. I’ve always been involved in Kathleen’s campaigns and her politics because I’m a good organizer and have done fundraising and all those other backroom things that make political campaigns run,” she says. “My role is not unlike that of any of the spouses who are politically active in their partner’s campaigns.”
In addition to Rounthwaite’s backing, Wynne says many other people have been integral to her success. She points to the support staff in her office, several of whom are also Queen’s alumni (who prefer to remain nameless and to stay out of the media spotlight), as well as “a terrific caucus” and a great many Ontario voters.
“People want government to succeed. They want good things for their kids. I’m trying to be as accessible as possible because people want to talk to me and I want to hear from them. That gives me courage.”
Wynne continues, “People come up to me everywhere I go telling me, ‘Stay the course, you’re doing a good job!’ I can’t tell you how supportive and helpful that is. I’m not alone in this.”
There’s that old Queen’s team spirit again.