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Jim Rondeau, Manitoba's First Openly Gay Politician, Looks Back On Career

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WINNIPEG — The early 2000s were not that long ago, but seem like a different era to Jim Rondeau.

Back then, Manitoba's first openly gay legislature member sat on the government's backbench and watched opposition politicians vote against his right to adopt children, enjoy spousal benefits and have other rights equal to heterosexuals.

"Even though the (Progressive) Conservatives said each person had their own option to vote how they wanted — it was a matter of conscience — I was really upset that not one Tory voted for it," Rondeau said in an interview at his home.

He was referring to a 2002 bill in the legislature that extended equal rights to same-sex couples.

jim rondeau manitoba
Jim Rondeau, left, Manitoba's first openly gay legislature member, is retiring from politics after 16 years in office. Rondeau poses with his husband Dennis Tam, inside the couple's Winnipeg home on Dec. 17, 2015. (CP)

"It bothered me because ... a number of Tories that I know personally and get along with didn't stand up for the law ... I think in spirit they would have. It's just politically, they didn't."

Rondeau watched as people at public hearings said same-sex couples such as him and his partner, Dennis Tam, should not be given equal rights.

"It was very stressful," Tam recalled. "I asked Jim, 'How do you deal with very difficult topics such as this?' And what he told me is, 'You have to do what is right.'"

The bill passed, thanks to the NDP's majority, and soon afterward same-sex marriage — an issue under federal jurisdiction —was legalized.

Now 56, Rondeau is preparing to leave his 16-year political career behind, knowing things are a lot different than when he started. 

"I asked Jim, 'How do you deal with very difficult topics such as this?' And what he told me is, 'You have to do what is right.'"

He is used to uphill battles. 

The former teacher ran for a legislature seat in 1999 in what was then a Tory stronghold — a suburban Winnipeg seat called Assiniboia. He didn't make an effort to highlight his sexual orientation, but didn't hide it either.

He won the seat in a very close race, then was re-elected by wide margins in three subsequent elections.

"In the four elections I ran, two people brought it up in a negative sense," he said. "I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't an issue."

Rondeau quickly developed a reputation as a hard worker who kept in close touch with his constituents. He was tenacious when he had a goal in mind and same-sex rights was but one of his aims.

Jennifer Howard is a longtime NDP activist who worked in advisory roles for the government during Rondeau's first term and would be elected to the legislature in 2007. She remembers a groundswell of support for same-sex rights from the party's grassroots.

jim rondeau manitoba
NDP Jim Rondeau celebrates his victory on Sept. 24, 1999 in Winnipeg. (CP)

There were some New Democrats who resisted the push, including those who thought the party was moving too quickly and risking a political cost. But Rondeau, along with Justice Minister Gord Mackintosh, were among the politicians who saw the effort through.

"Jim was a huge part of communicating ... and making the case why these rights were important," Howard said.

"When I look at the Christmas calendar I sent out this year, there's a picture of me and my wife and our children on there. And I know that without the work of people like Jim, and Gord Mackintosh, probably that picture wouldn't be on that Christmas card."

"Jim was a huge part of communicating ... and making the case why these rights were important."

Rondeau's tenacity led to other new measures being introduced after he was elevated to cabinet in 2003.

As minister of healthy living, he introduced a ban on smoking in indoor public places, including bars, and managed to get almost everyone on board. He pushed through a law requiring children to wear bicycle helmets despite internal opposition from some who thought it heavy-handed. He also convinced the government to offer free flu shots.

"You talk about fundamental beliefs ... and when people start talking about fundamental beliefs, then you very quickly see eye to eye. You can then argue about the details, but you can get it done."

During his decade in cabinet, Rondeau helped out newer caucus members. Kevin Chief, who was elected in 2011 and soon elevated to cabinet, remembers Rondeau helping him prepare for question period.

"... when people start talking about fundamental beliefs, then you very quickly see eye to eye."

"He took time to write about a whole bunch of questions. Twice a week, I had to go into his office. He'd grill me on questions," Chief recalled.

Rondeau was dropped from cabinet in 2013 — a move both he and Premier Greg Selinger have said was designed to give younger New Democrats an opportunity in the inner circle.

Rondeau announced earlier this year he would not run again in the April election. His new career involves working with Tam on two digital media companies, one of which has won two Emmy awards for graphic design work on sports broadcasts.

"I'll also have a bit more time to relax," he said.

"I like politics and long days, but I also like walking my dog."


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