NEWS

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

12/27/2015 04:52 EST | Updated 12/27/2016 05:12 EST
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."

 

Also on HuffPost

  • Russia goes backwards
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    When Vladimir Putin signed the ban on "gay propaganda" into law on June 30, 2013, it was only a glimpse of what was to come.

    The law criminalised LGBT-friendly public acts and demonstrations, which in turn set off a firestorm of events including arrests, international protests, boycotts, and outrage from public figures and celebrities alike.

    Which brings us to 2015. With the "gay propaganda" law still in place many events have occurred within the year and without the media attention of the Sochi Olympics, many activists have been left to fight the battles alone.

    In July, Putin's party unveiled a "straight flag" which one of its politicians described as "Our answer to same sex marriages, this mockery of the very concept of family. We must prevent gay fever in our country and support traditional values."

    By November it became clear that a law could be passed in the state that would make the act of coming out illegal. The proposal was made in an attempt to expand upon the 2013 propaganda ban.

    Two elected officials made the announcement that they are seeking to criminalise the act of coming out. The proposed amendment to the Russian Administrative Code would make "public expression of non-traditional sexual relations" a violation punishable by a fine.

    But the the penalty is more severe--up to 15 days in jail--if the "offence" takes place in an educational or governmental setting.

    The future for LGBT in Russia is uncertain, and there has been small victories. In March the Dzerzhinsky District Court of Nizhny Tagil overturned the January 23rd conviction of an activist, Elena Klimova, for "promotion of homosexuality," in what could be described as a landmark ruling.

    A spokesperson from Russian LGBT Network told the Huffington Post UK about the feeling on the ground in Russia in 2015.

    "Right now, the situation with LGBT rights in Russia is quite complicated. The consequences of the so-called "propaganda law" itself are numerous.

    "One the one hand, now everyone in Russia know who are gays and lesbians - before we had to explain just the fact that we exist. We got a lot of new allies and supporters. On the other hand, the hate crimes against LGBT became numerous.

    "Moreover, now the perpetuators know that the state supports them. In mass media, LGBT portrayed almost exclusively as perverts, sick people or "agents of West."

    "Indeed, the Olympic Games attended a load of attention to the violation of LGBT rights in Russia worldwide, but unfortunately, it had very small impact on the situation in the country,".
  • Islamic State persecuting gays
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Arguably the biggest LGBT crime of our time is happening under the brutal rule of the so-called Islamic State.

    Notorious for their gruesome methods of killing, Islamic State, also known as Isis, Isil and Daesh, reserves one of its most brutal for suspected homosexuals.

    Videos it has released have shown masked militants dangling men over the edge of buildings by their legs to drop them head-first or tossing them over the edge.

    At least 36 men in Syria and Iraq have been killed by IS militants on charges of sodomy, according to the New York-based OutRight Action International.

    Gays often fear they could be turned over to the militants by friends or family because of the stigma against homosexuality.

    Islamic State's own announcements are the main source of information, but the group often does not name the victims, perhaps in deference to their families, who could lash out in anger at having their names publicly linked to homosexuals.
  • Saudi Arabia's human rights
    AFP via Getty Images
    Here is Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal (R) holding a joint press conference with his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle.

    Westerwelle, Europe's first openly gay top diplomat, said human rights issues were fully aired during a visit to Saudi Arabia. Prince Saud told the same news conference that during their discussion, he had made it clear to Westerwelle that regional, cultural and religious traditions must be respected.

    Fast forward five years later and the country's stance on LGBT rights has not changed.

    In September the country insisted that the UN remove its gay rights from the organisation’s Global Goals, saying it is “counter to Islamic law”.

    Homosexuality is illegal under Sharia law in Saudi Arabia and punishments for those engaging in same-sex relationships include execution, chemical castration and imprisonment.

  • Uganda makes a U-turn
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In 2014, a tough anti-gay law was reintroduced by Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, threatening anyone convicted of homosexuality with a life sentence, and banning the promotion of gay rights.

    Two years prior the country had gained international notoriety when the original version of the anti-gay bill came to light, involving references to a severe death penalty for "numerous offenses".

    In September this year Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said he would not pursue further anti-gay legislation in the country, because of the country's existing laws that punish gays.

    "That law was not necessary, because we already have a law which was left by the British which deals with this issue," Museveni told reporters.

    Uganda's existing homophobic legislation already punishes gay sex with up to life imprisonment under a colonial-era anti-sodomy law, and same-sex marriage is also banned as part of the country's constitution.

    In addition to the laws, most recently the country has passed a bill that allows repression of activist groups.

    The Ugandan parliament unanimously passed the legislation on 26 November that would give the government broad powers to disband any nongovernmental organization that it considered contrary to the public interest or "contrary to the dignity of the people of Uganda."

    Leaders of any organisation operating without government approval could be imprisoned for up to eight years, according to the original text of the bill.

    The specific language of the bill, as passed, was not immediately available, but its original text was condemned by a wide range of organisations, including groups seeking recognition of the human rights of LGBT Ugandans.
  • Australia faces reality
    PETER PARKS via Getty Images
    When beleaguered former prime minister Tony Abbott refused to advocate marriage equality he might not have realised just how popular such a measure would be.

    Just months before he was ousted as leader, a poll showed a record 70% of Australians and many senior figures in his cabinet supported the move towards marriage equality.

    In August he acknowledged it was "OK to be gay" while still advocating "the traditional position that marriage is between a man and a woman".

    The major competitor in resistance against same sex marriage has been the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) - a grass roots movement of people who want to inject Christian ethics into national politics.

    Managing director of the lobby Lyle Shelton, claims that the views of traditional marriage supporters have been drowned out by gay lobbyists and the media. The Australian struggle for LGBT rights hit an important point at 2008, when 84 laws were amended that discriminated against same-sex couples.

    The future of its progress could be held back by such lobbyists, and by conservative powers.
  • Little Britain
    Charles McQuillan via Getty Images
    Meanwhile in the UK - although death sentences and chemical castrations are not in the picture for LGBT people, there are still advancements to be made.

    Long since the days of Section 28, an act that banned local authorities from "promoting" homosexuality or gay "pretended family relationships", some activists are still calling for changes.

    In December a protest was held at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards taking place at the SSE Arena in Belfast.

    Grassroots LGBT activists protested in opposition to the addition of Heavyweight champion Tyson Fury to the short list of BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2015 following his comments regarding homosexuality.

    Elsewhere in Northern Ireland the fight for same-sex marriage rages on. Pressure is mounting after its southern state passed a referendum for the act earlier this year.

    Not just a fight for LGB issues, Transgender rights are coming to the forefront of debate in Britain. The right for transgender prisoners to be held in the correct gender prison to which they define is one of the talking points.

    This comes after a number of female inmates took their lives when they were moved to male prisons this year.

    Statistics exclusive to the Huffington Post UK revealed that 62% of trans people have experienced transphobic harassment from strangers in public places, and 81% have had to avoid public situations out of fear.