Q&A Kathleen Wynne: I’m very eager to go to Israel

Kathleen Wynne

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne will be honoured by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto at the Words and Deeds Leadership Award Dinner to be held June 22 at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel here.

Wynne was chosen as the honoree because she “has been winning accolades across the province for building non-confrontational consensus,” Joel Reitman, Greater Toronto co-chair of CIJA and a federation board member, told The CJN.

“Her defence and championing of ethno-specific social services has been very important for the special needs segment within our community, and that support has extended to seniors, low-income and special-education needs recipients.”

As well, Reitman added, Wynne “has been and continues to be a stalwart supporter of Israel. We are looking forward to her first trip to Israel and her announcement regarding the establishment of a provincial trade office in Tel Aviv, which holds the promise of exponentially increasing two-way commerce along with cultural and educational exchanges – precisely at a time our adversaries are calling for boycotts and sanctions. For us and for Israel, this is the most powerful and eloquent way to repudiate the toxic BDS campaign.”

Wynne sat down for an interview with The CJN earlier this month.

Recently, Ontario and Israel invested $3 million each to renew joint research and development projects in the high-tech field. Describe what this means for Ontario.

There was a memorandum of understanding between Israel and Ontario signed in 2005 and renewed in 2009. So there’s already been $6 million that has been invested in this kind of research and another $3 million now with the renewed MOU. The projection is that this money will leverage about $1 billion in commercialization of tech and other kinds of initiatives. This is significant, because the partnership has worked and because there’s such a shared interest, whether in biotech or green tech and the entrepreneurialism that is associated with that kind of research.

It was your predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, who returned from a trip to Israel in 2010 with the idea to boost funding in Ontario for brain research. How have you have built on this initiative?

The Ontario Brain Institute was what came out of that trip Dalton McGuinty made to Israel. We’ve just made an investment [of $23.5 million over five years] working with Baycrest on further research [into] brain function. Baycrest is a world-renowned organization and a leader in brain research. That focus that Dalton McGuinty, because of his trip to Israel, has brought to this sector has meant that it’s one of our strengths. He really initiated that because of the people he met in Israel.

Ontario recently announced it is opening an office in Israel to help promote business and trade between the two jurisdictions. Is that a direct reply to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and when can we expect your trip to Israel to open that office?

I have got Israel on my list. I want to go. We haven’t made that trade appointment yet, but we very much want to, and my hope is that I’ll be able to be there when that office is staffed. It’s not for lack of desire that I haven’t been to Israel. It’s more of a scheduling issue. I’ve had many conversations with [Israel’s consul general in Toronto] DJ Schneeweiss, and I’m very eager to make my first trip to Israel.

And the BDS movement? Any thoughts?

I’m not going to weigh in. Our relationship with Israel is very strong at the national-to-provincial level. We’re going to continue to work with them and to support Israel in all its strengths.

We know that the issue of public funding for private and faith-based schools is off the table. But as a former school trustee, former education minister and now as premier, can you foresee a day when all faith-based education is publicly funded?

I think the tradition in Ontario is very strong in terms of parents having choice, of students having choice. Those choices aren’t all within the publicly funded system. Our focus is on the publicly funded education system. I don’t see a time when that will change in Ontario. I have worked with some of the Hebrew day schools. I have done peace and conflict work in the derech eretz part of the curriculum. It’s a very natural fit, and I know that they’re wonderful institutions. But given the diversity of Ontario and given the increased diversity, it will be very important for the government to stay focused on the publicly funded education system and to allow that choice and that diversity to be expressed in many ways in private education.

One reason you are being honoured is your “defence and championing of ethno-specific social services.” Some of those agencies in our community preferred the old way of having their own intake and outreach as a way of maintaining cultural sensitivities. Do you think it’s time to move back to such a system and away from the current model of centralized intake and placement?

We have to constantly review whether the system is working, and if there are challenges, then we have to be open to solving those problems. But what’s important for me is that the people who need the services get those services, that they have as streamlined a way as possible of getting to those services. Given that we live in this diverse society, again, we’ve got to find ways of meeting people’s needs in all that diversity. It’s not that we’re closed to making changes, but I think the more streamlined the process can be, the better.

Many members of our community are opposed to or skittish about the government’s updated sex education curriculum. What message do you have for faith groups who oppose it on religious and moral grounds?

Two things: the first thing I would say is that the curriculum has been written based on the evidence, based on research in terms of what kids need to know, when they need to know it and how to keep them safe. That’s what the curriculum is about. I would first encourage people to look at that, and if they are concerned, to look at some of the research that has led to the curriculum being written. At the end of that process, if people are still not satisfied or concerned about it, they have the option to withdraw their children from those portions of the curriculum when it’s being taught. That has been in place for decades in Ontario, and it remains the case.

Each year, an Al-Quds Day rally takes place at Queen’s Park. It sees protesters waving flags and banners representing organizations banned in Canada as terrorist groups and calling for the annihilation of Israel. Do you think Queen’s Park is an appropriate venue for these rallies? (Ed. note: this question was posed before the decision to deny a permit to the rally.)

I don’t think anywhere is an appropriate place for hate to be advocated. So that’s my starting point. Having said that, we don’t make the decisions. The government doesn’t make the decisions about the use of the precinct. That goes through the Speaker’s office. I trust that the Speaker looks into the activities that are going to take place. But I think anywhere that hate is being advocated, that’s not a good thing for our society or for the world, quite frankly.

But instead of having the Speaker’s office, under which the sergeant-at-arms works, sign off on this, could it go to a sponsoring MPP, the way the media gallery is run? Then, the MPP is answerable.

I don’t know what the mechanics of that would be. I really think it is better for these decisions to be made outside the political realm, because as soon as you have a member of a political party involved in sponsoring or supporting, you’re running the risk of the politicization of that process. So I think to have it in the hands of the people who make decisions about the precinct is the best way to go, because that is the most neutral decision-making entity that we have here.

The CIJA/UJA Dinner is entitled “Words and Deeds.” Which would better describe you as premier?

I hope both. I have worked very hard in my life, let alone in my political career, to translate my word into deeds. But I think words are important. I think it’s important what we say, and one of the responsibilities of a politician is to make statements that clarify issues that help people to understand the decisions of government and what the vision of government is. But those have to be followed up by deeds. I had a recent example of that, having been in Ottawa for the Truth and Reconciliation Walk. There have been a lot of words that have been used about the need for us to change our relationship with Aboriginal People. It is time for deeds, and it’s one of the areas I am pushing our government very hard to make changes on. That kind of conflict, and really neglect, that has been allowed to continue over generations has to stop. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.