Inside a beautiful holiday reception hosted within the TD Bank towers in downtown Toronto a year ago was where I first met then Ontario Liberal candidate Kathleen Wynne.
This was an event hosted by the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada. The once neglected ethnic press has become more influential since the federal Conservatives and in particular Multicultural Minister, Jason Kenney eloquently used them to build a strong foundation yet unlikely certain Harper majority government in 2011.
There was Eric Hoskins at the reception, looking nervous in his usual self and in his trademark black suit, soliciting for support for a bid to become Liberal leader and Premier. Hidden among a diversity of faces wanting to shake her hand and converse with her -- there was Kathleen Wynne. Friendly to a fault, confident and complementary words courtesy of an assistant who was whispering information into her ears. I shook her hand and wished her well.
That very same night, I knew of a public event that was organized for her by a friend from Toronto's politically engaged Tamil communities. I courageously asked if I could get a ride with her entourage with a friend. As her assistant quickly attempts to push me away and gives the big "NO", Wynne invites me to come along and tells me it would be a real pleasure to have me in her own private car.
Inside a rented car, I was with one of Ontario's most visible and top elected officials and, I knew, an eventual Premier.
She was organic and relaxed as it seemed she must have sensed an eventual win. There were neither talking points nor anyone whispering words in her ears to impress me. We were two people having conversations about politics -- in its idea of doing great things as well as the game of it. She asks me to assess each candidate and her own chances. I pointedly told her it was hers to lose.
I also added how this was perhaps my only chance to converse with an eventual Premier. She swallows the compliments and promises that she would be an open and engaged Premier. I heart her words.
In a party of elitists and lawyers, she was unique. Her activism was born not from the boardrooms of Bay Street but from protesting against the Mike Harris government and building a coalition of passionate activists around a cause. She was a woman and an educator. She was also on the verge of making Ontario history and how could I, as a black immigrant Ontarian, not be impressed. After 30 minutes ride to Scarborough, she eventually arrives to a beautiful banquet hall full of adolescent activists, gives a passionate speech and takes in questions from the audience. It seemed she was well briefed as she had Sound Bite answers tailored to the audience.
Everyone was impressed. I was. As she leaves, she calls out my name and asks me to get in touch and compliments me on how she enjoyed the conversation and how much she wants it to continue. She even promises to be accessible to events in the community if she became Premier. She never dared to ask me if I was a Liberal. For her, it seemed I was an Ontarian first. I was almost sold on the idea of Wynnemania.
It seemed she wanted to emulate an agent of change of grassroots leadership rather than just become the head of the Liberal machine in Ontario. After a month -- in an Ontario Liberal leadership contest that was between two formidable women from the start -- Wynne became leader on the third ballot.
I was excited for her. Even as a non-Liberal, I was excited for Ontario's first woman Premier. I was not the only non-Liberal that was excited by her as Ontario's most respected Premier, William Davis, also endorsed her as Ontario's top Liberal politician.
I celebrated her cabinet as young faces I knew were given top positions. There was Michael Coteau as Citizenship and Immigration Minister - a position that prepares an up-and-comer build contacts with leaders in the affluent and political engaged minority communities and make an eventual run for leadership. There was Yaser Naqvi, a very ambitious and likeable dynamo whom I knew from my Ottawa days as a Labour Minister.
I pursued an interest to invite her to events in my own "ethnic" community and even try to arrange a photo-op for milestone occasions in the community. Nothing seemed to work. Her assistant always ignored me with false promises to be in touch. Perhaps I felt I had made the mistake of not renewing my Ontario Liberal membership that expired half a decade ago. Should I have donated money to the Liberals to get a simple response I asked myself.
This past weekend, I met the now Premier inside a banquet hall hosted by the Liberal caucus for Toronto's ethnic media, which I am a member of. The room had an air of excitement with candidates and cabinet ministers. I lined up for 15 minutes to shake her hand and complement her for few seconds.
Her speech was no longer inspiring, her words are now calculated and the minute I approach for a photo-op and opened my mouth, I was handed a staff member's business card to stay in touch. The junior staff members I had communicated with in the past were sending a hand and eye signal for me to be pushed off the stage. She no longer wanted to listen to everyday Ontarians as she was obviously in the big league now. It seemed retail politics, her political signature, was no longer good political business. The magic was gone as well as the rare human-to-human connection the Premier once embraced. I was disappointed and took the business card that flew my way and placed it in the blue box nearby.
In Wynne, many saw a fulfillment of the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail". In the new Wynne, we are witnessing a career politician reliving the path most traveled.
That is sad as she could have actually been a great inspiring Premier.
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