Kathleen Wynne on her political downfall and the private advice she gave Doug Ford

The former premier of Ontario talks with Paul Wells about her tumultuous legacy, grappling with the province’s anger, and life after politics

(Photograph by Wade Hudson)

(Photograph by Wade Hudson)

Among the small number of Ontario Liberals who knew Kathleen Wynne would be speaking to Maclean’s, there was considerable nervousness. Wynne was Ontario’s premier for six years, the first woman and first openly gay premier. She won re-election handily in 2014, but in 2018 the party suffered its worst defeat since Confederation. Why talk now, with a new election coming in June? We told her: Because your opponents will run against your record anyway. So you might as well talk. She spoke with Maclean’s senior writer Paul Wells in Toronto. This version of the interview is considerably longer and more detailed than the version we’re publishing in print, but in both cases questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: This is the first election year since before 2003 where you’re not involved. What’s that like for you?

A: That is bittersweet. It’s hard. You know? I went canvassing with the new candidate in Don Valley West and I was saying to Jane, as I was driving into the city, it’s surreal that I’m going now to knock on doors that I’ve knocked on so many times. I just know I’m going to see people who I’ve worked with, who have supported me. And to not be talking about the work we’re going to continue to do is really hard. I love the job, you know? And I love that part of it, being a local MPP. I love the engagement with people on their issues.

In some ways it’s a relief. We’ve got a good candidate and I’m happy to be working for her. But it is a very strange feeling, not to be engaged in what’s coming,  and not to have any direct influence on what’s going to come next. That’s very strange.

Q: Are there things you don’t have to worry about that you’re not going to miss?

I won’t miss the vitriol — being directed right at me, but [also] at people I care about and people who I believe in. At least, when I’m not a member, I won’t have the obligation to be there and listen to it. Whether you’re sitting in government or not, and now I’ve sat in both, there’s vitriol that flies back and forth. It can wear you down.

Q: These last three and a half years have been the first time that you sat in opposition. Were there surprises about being on the opposition side?

A: Well, I mean, we’re not only in opposition. We’re the third party.

Q: So you’re not even the fun opposition.

A: We’re not even the fun opposition. We don’t even have the resources to be a functional opposition, you know? I think the freedom of being this tiny little rump and doing whatever we could to poke at the government and to make our voices heard — I mean, there’s been some freedom in that and that hasn’t been all bad. It’s been pretty much all bad but there’s been a sliver of — this is kind of taking me back to my activist days, you know.

Yes, this is the first time I’ve sat in opposition. But the time that I spent in the legislature before I was an MPP, Paul, a lot of the time I was on the verge of getting kicked out. Because I was so aggressively opposing what Mike Harris was doing. In fact, security people recognized me when I arrived at Queen’s Park as a member. But they thought it was because I’d been around as a member. ‘Oh, yeah, you’ve been here for years.’ Yeah, you’ve been kicking me out for years.

MORE: How Kathleen Wynne made me realize there was a place for me in politics

Q: After the 2018 defeat, was serving out your full term, until 2022, always the plan?

A: Right after the election there were a lot of people, including people related to me, who said, ‘Just get the hell out. How can you keep going down there?’ But I was elected in a sweep that went the other way. I just felt strongly that I needed to stay there. Obviously, I did not want to be the catalyst to a by-election. That felt like an unnecessary hassle for the party. And if I could be at the legislature and do no harm, that felt to me like the most responsible path.

(Photograph by Wade Hudson)
(Photograph by Wade Hudson)

Q: If you ran for re-election, would you hold Don Valley West?

A: I believe so. I think I would do better than last time. We didn’t win with a lot of margin — a couple hundred votes. So I actually think I would do much better this time.

Q: How come?

A: Because I think there are a lot of people who were mad in my riding who voted NDP. That still didn’t get them a progressive voice. The NDP still wasn’t able to to beat me. And they ended up with a Conservative government.

So I think they would come back to us in a riding like mine. And certainly, if you look at the polling numbers, Toronto is looking very Liberal right now.

Q: Liberals and New Democrats in this province still, and kind of probably always will, have unfinished business between each other. Sometimes it seems that the acrimony is fiercer between those two than between, say, Liberals and Conservatives.

A: It’s visceral. I think we are close enough in terms of our philosophies that we regularly eat each other’s lunch and I think that is really hard to stomach on both sides. You know, when Andrea Horwath brought out her platform in 2014 we were way to the left of her. She had, you know, a page on education. We had a full-blown education strategy.

So I think the Ontario NDP and the Liberals have done a dance over the years as to who is going to be the progressive voice. We’ve definitely carved out the centre-left. The NDP, for whatever reason, has not chosen to go far left. They’ve stayed in the centre with us. That’s made it really hard to impossible for them to be elected. But it hurts us. Obviously it hurt us in the last election. Enormously.

READ: Kathleen Wynne exits the stage, leaving tears, thanks and a party in ruins

Q: Are you surprised that Andrea Horwath seems set to run again as NDP leader and that the NDP seems content to let her run as leader again?

A: Yeah, I didn’t think she’d run in another election. This will be her fourth. I think it must have been a personally hard road for her. I believe if they were going to win an election, it would have been the last one. But you’ll have to talk to them about their perspective. That’s from the outside. I’m not a pundit, I don’t have projections. I don’t know where we’re going [in the next election].

Ford was — and I want you to take this in the right way — COVID has been very good for Premier Ford. Because before COVID, he really had no agenda. He didn’t know what he was doing. That’s my opinion, having watched him in the legislature and having watched his policy. He came in to tear down what we had put in place, and he did that for the first couple of years.

And then before COVID hit, there were real conversations among those of us on the other side of the aisle: ‘What are they going to do now? We don’t know what they believe in. We don’t know what they want to do.’ So what COVID did was it focused him. You know, it gave him a reason to stand in front of the people of Ontario.

I’ll just tell you a quick anecdote. He called me after a radio show that I had done with Jerry Agar in March of 2020, like the day after it became clear that this was going to be an issue. He had said to people at the beginning of March break, ‘Go away, have a good time.’ Jerry Agar asked me what I thought about that. And I decided I was going to give him benefit of the doubt, because it was such a serious thing that he was dealing with. I said, ‘You know, I think that the premier was speaking from the bottom of his heart. He was genuine. He was trying to give people support and he wants people to be happy.’ But I said, ‘You can’t freelance. You just can’t freelance in situation like that. You have to be very careful about what you say.’

And he called me afterwards. He said, ‘Thank you for that because I was trying to be genuine.’ He asked me if I had any advice and I said, ‘Now you need to be at the podium every day with your minister of health and you need to be telling people what is going on.’ He didn’t do it because I said that’s what he needed to do. But because he did that for the first year, people see him differently than they ever would. So I don’t know where the election’s going to go, but for sure the Doug Ford that emerged during COVID, because he could read the teleprompter, because he seemed to have a relatively even hand — even though there have been enormous mistakes — he’s better off than he was before.

RELATED: What happened to the old Doug Ford?

Q: Stay with that call for a second. Stipulating that everybody involved is operating in good faith, those calls must be the weirdest things to actually sit through. He spent 2018 trying to take your face off. And then he’s honestly calling to thank you and asking for advice. That must be surreal.

A: It is. And for my part, I’m trying not to be defensive and angry. I’m digging for my best self. It’s just, like, ‘Be kind. Be kind to this person.’ Because you know he’s at sea. I remember even during the ice storm that we had at Christmas 2013. I’d been in the premier’s chair for a few months. You just do your best. There’s nobody who can tell you exactly what to do. You make mistakes. And if you can talk to somebody who’s been in the position that you’ve been in, you want them to be genuine. That’s what I was trying to.

Q: Earlier, you talked about getting elected to the legislature after having gotten kicked out of it a few times. Once you get into a governing caucus is it hard to put that activist genie back in the bottle? Governing, almost from the get-go, is going to be a series of compromises. Was that hard for you?

A: I was a back-bencher for three years. I wasn’t in cabinet right away, which was a blessing for me because it gave me an opportunity to acclimate to the culture of the place. And honestly, I tried not to lose the activist impulse, the desire and the need to speak out when I thought something was going wrong, and to try to keep us as a group on track.

But what I understood, because I love a team and I understand a team, is that that activist person would be in the caucus. If I were going to rant, I would rant in the caucus. And I tried not to rant early and I tried not to rant often.

Q: Almost any government that lasts a while comes to office and they say, quite reasonably, ‘Everything’s broken. We’re here to fix it.’ But over time you you develop ownership over the processes, over the results, and it’s hard to escape the instinct after a while to say, ‘Everything’s fine.’ And instead of defending change you’re explaining why things can’t change. Is that something you feel while it’s happening?

A: It’s government-itis, right? I think it creeps up on you. I don’t think you’re really conscious of it when it’s happening. I think when we got into situations like defending what had happened around the decisions around the gas plants you realize, holy mackerel. How did this happen? How did we get here? Which parts of this were we not paying attention to?

READ: The one thing Kathleen Wynne should be sorry for

My taking on the role as leader gave us an opportunity to reset a bit. Although I was always adamant with my team that I was not going to pull out the howitzers and try to distance myself from everything that we had done. I’d been a minister in four ministries. If you’ve sat at the cabinet table for six or seven years, you can’t disavow everything that has been done.

It is a real challenge. I don’t know what the solution is, except continuing to pay attention to people on the outside of government and really listen to what they’re saying. We did that some of the time. On some files, we did not.

Q: Where would you score yourself lower on the listening?

A: Well, I score myself very low on the electricity price. I believed that the investments that we had made in the electricity sector were important. The first bill I ever spoke to in the House, before I made my maiden speech, was Bill 100 which was the beginning of the transformation of the electricity system. We were going to make big changes in terms of the the supply mix and greening the grid and investing in the grid. I think it’s 50 billion dollars that we invested in upgrading the grid. I believed in that.

But I remember sitting beside Gerry Phillips [Dalton McGuinty’s minister of energy at the time] in many meetings and he would say, ‘We’re piling up a lot of debt here. Electricity prices are going to have to go up. How are we going to pay for this?’ I heard it. But as a member of caucus and cabinet, I don’t think I took it seriously enough.

Then when I was premier, obviously the fact that I made the decision to sell off part of Hydro One fed into that — the conflation of those issues. It was absolutely a huge factor in my downfall.

Q: How do you read the backlash to the Hydro One sale? What was Ontario saying to you about that?

A: Well, I think the NDP capitalized really well on it. And what they helped the people of Ontario say is, ‘By selling Hydro One you have made our electricity prices go up.’ Which actually wasn’t true. It was all that other stuff that I was talking about. But that’s what people believed.

READ: Just how far can Andrea Horwath go?

I also think that people of Ontario were saying, ‘You’re selling off this precious resource that we’ll never get back,’ because I believe they understood the sell-off to be Niagara Falls. I believe they thought I was selling off generation [capacity] and I wasn’t. I was selling off transmission that had already been separated from generation. It was already partly private. But nobody cared about that. I really think the NDP were able to say, ‘Look, these are Liberals who privatize and they’re privatizing your hydro.’

Q: My own sense is that in the last years of the Liberal government, there was a sense of getting further and further away from hard tradeoffs. So the Hydro One sale felt like, ‘I need to improve my front porch so I’m going to sell the garage.’  And Ontarians were like, ‘We’re not ahead in this exchange.’ Then you put real effort into getting to zero deficit —and in your last budget, suddenly the deficit’s huge again.

A: Yeah, I know. I grappled with that call. The whole time I was premier we were working hard to balance the budget. We were holding healthcare costs down. If I had to do it again, given what I know about COVID, I probably wouldn’t do that. And people believed that I was a flaky left-winger, so I felt like I had to let people know that I actually am a fiscally responsible politician. Because I am in my personal life. I don’t live beyond my means. I’m not a wealthy person, I never have been. And I believe that we should pay as we go, to the greatest extent possible. But I also believe that human beings need what they need. And if as government we can provide supports then we should be doing that.

I still think about that 2018 budget. Had we stuck with balance and maybe just done one big thing — had we just done long-term care or if we’d just done pharmacare, you know, had we chosen one thing — would that have helped in terms of our electoral chances? Maybe. Or would we not have gone down as badly as we did? Maybe. Who knows?

Somebody who was very close to the McGuinty team, I had lunch with them after the fact, and he said, “We shouldn’t have won in ’11. We certainly shouldn’t have won in ’14. And you were never going to win ’18.” And I kind of believe that we were on that trajectory.

So I made a decision that I would be very clear in ’18 about what I thought we needed. And honestly, everything in that budget has been demonstrably needed. And COVID has exacerbated the need for those things. But there’s nothing that we put in that budget — whether it was the labor laws and sick days, and making sure people could piece together a full-time job and not have to go to a million different places, particularly PSWs, or whether it was childcare. Now, we didn’t have a federal government who was chipping in [on child care] at that point, but I perceived that putting it in our budget, like with pharmacare, was going to push the federal government. And I think it did. So I made a decision that the 2018 budget was going to point in the direction that I really believed the province needed to go. And I regret it politically, but I do not regret it in terms of substance and policy.

Q: The trajectory that your McGuinty associate described — 2011 was rough, 2014 you should have lost, 2018, you were always going to lose — are your federal Liberal cousins on any kind of similar trajectory?

A: Oh my God, you’re not gonna drag me into that. You know how hard I campaigned for Trudeau in ’15. I put a lot on the line to get him elected and I’m thrilled he’s there. And, you know, I think his government’s done an enormous amount of good. And I actually don’t think they’re on that trajectory. I actually think they can get reelected. Remember, they’ve only been in office, what? Six years? By the time 2018 came around, we’d been in office for 15 years. It’s a very different scenario. So, I don’t think they’re on that trajectory.

I just said I wasn’t going to weigh in, but now I have.

Q: Why were people so angry at you at the end?

A: Yeah. I will go to my grave not knowing fully the answer to that question. I mean, they were angry at an old government. They felt that we’d been there a long time. They were still angry about things that had happened under the previous government. [Our campaign director] David Herle will tell you that we heard more about gas plants in 2018 than we did in 2014. So there were some touchstone issues that could be dragged up and they were symbolic of scandal. But I don’t know, Paul.

I still think that there was an element of, “This woman just bugs us. We gave her a shot, and I’m not supposed to be homophobic or misogynist, so I either didn’t vote or I didn’t yell at my wife for voting for her, and I just sat on my hands or whatever in 2014. But goddamn, this time I’m gonna tell her what I think of her.”

We’ll never know where misogyny and homophobia played into that.

Wynne arrives to speak at the Bloomberg Economic Summit in Toronto, May 13, 2014. (Galit Rodan/Bloomberg/Getty Images)
Wynne arrives to speak at the Bloomberg Economic Summit in Toronto, May 13, 2014. (Galit Rodan/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Q: Steve Paikin interviewed you and I was a little surprised. The fact that you were a woman leader, you were inclined to attribute a pretty small fraction of your loss to that. But I guess in a political context, any drag is unwelcome drag.

A: I just don’t know how to quantify it. That’s the thing. It doesn’t show in the polls because nobody’s going to say, “I hate her because she’s a woman and I hate her because she’s a lesbian.” That’s not how Ontarians view themselves. We believe we are open. We believe that we’re inclusive.

And I will never blame the people of Ontario for not voting for me because they were homophobic or misogynist. I just, I just don’t believe that’s the case. If I had been a new premier in 2014, I would have had a much better chance, and then we wouldn’t even be talking about the female fact, you know.

So it’s complicated. Stuff adds up. It’s cumulative, for sure.

What I’m reading

Among the best books she’s read in recent months, Kathleen Wynne counts two novels by Richard Wagamese and a non-fiction work by two Toronto doctors. Also on her list: some bedtime reading. (Click through this gallery)

Q: Whatever else happens now, at some level, you’re free. What do you do now?

A: Well, I’m teaching a public-policy course at U of T and I will be doing that for the next two years. I love the young people, I love the questions, I love their openness and I feel like it’s important.

You know, I’m a pretty optimistic person. I really believe in the the ability of human beings to be good. I think we are good. I think life is hard on people and it makes them do bad things, but I think people are good. And I think we can solve our problems by supporting each other.

I feel with young people right now, there’s a real danger of hopelessness and pessimism. The world’s a freaked-out mess, you know. It really is. And I want to be somebody who’s been through a lot, and has been kicked, and I really want to say to young people, ‘We cannot give up. We have to keep trying.’

I’m going through the files in my office because the provincial archive wants everything. And so I need to pull out the things that I want to make copies of, and have close to me, as I go through whatever time I’ve got left on the planet.

And I look at the reports we did — whether it’s women in sports, or it was the sexual assault and violence policy we brought in, the work we did with Indigenous women — we really invested in things that hadn’t been invested in before, and we really listened to voices that had been silenced. And I know for sure that part of that is because I was a woman. And a woman in leadership can make a big difference.

And because I lost in 2018, that’s kind of my political identity now: I wrecked the Liberal Party of Ontario and I lost so badly. But that was not my work. My work wasn’t about getting reelected. My work was about doing the things I believed in and staying true to why I’d gone into politics in the first place.

So, I’m not making excuses. But where I am at in my life right now is, I need to talk about those things. I need to talk about why those things are important. Because we sure as hell haven’t gotten them all right. We’ve taken steps backwards. And we’d better listen to the people who know what kids need. And what old people need. And the people who are holding our society together, the caregivers. We’d better listen to what they’re saying because otherwise we’re going to continue to screw it up.

This article appears in print in the February 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.