Q&A: Mitzie Hunter, the new cabinet minister in charge of Ontario’s unruly school system

Q&A: Mitzie Hunter, the new cabinet minister in charge of Ontario’s unruly school system

Sex ed haters have a new target for their curriculum-based rage: education Minister Mitzie Hunter, who takes over the thorniest portfolio at Queen’s Park

Mitzie Hunter Mitzie Hunter
 Photograph by Erin Leydon

In three years, you’ve soared from little-known businessperson to minister of education. How did you get the news?
I was driving south on Church Street on my way to the Guildwood Tea Room in Scarborough to meet my aunt. The premier called and I answered.

This was, of course, a hands-free call?
Haha—of course! The premier said, “I would like you to be my education minister. This is an important area for me.” I accepted on the spot.

The new gig means you get to deal with sex ed backlash, labour disputes, a messy TDSB and probably a fresh raft of controversies this fall. Was education what you were hoping for?
Investing in the skills and talents of young people is one of our government’s priorities. I embrace the opportunity.

You’re now one of 11 women in cabinet. How did you feel about the latest shuffle being aimed at achieving gender parity?
Our government has set goals for public agencies to have 40 per cent female representation on boards. I see this as leading by example

The cabinet now has 30 members. Is that too big?
I don’t think so. The premier assigned people to areas that need attention. The number is what’s required.

The sex ed curriculum still rankles many parents. Will you change any policy?
No. It was 15 years out of date. Times have changed since I went to school.

You emigrated from Jamaica when you were four. What was that like?
Cold! In Jamaica, my dad was a mechanic for a bus company; my mom was a seamstress. They brought us to Canada in search of opportunity. Here, my dad owned a dump truck company and started a mobile truck wash. Mom did light assembly at an auto parts manufacturer. She started early but was always home for dinner. We lived on a cul-de-sac in Pickering, then moved to Scarborough.

After undergrad at U of T and an MBA at Rotman, you worked for Bell Canada, Goodwill, Toronto Community Housing and CivicAction. In 2012, you ran for office. Why?
My career has been all about city building—how we make Toronto better. But I wanted to be inside government, to be at the table, to make changes that will positively affect people.

Your first role as an MPP was handling the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, which was scrapped when the feds opted to expand CPP. How much money went down the drain?
The premier has said that she will make those numbers available at the appropriate time. My mandate was to strengthen retirement security for Ontarians. An expanded CPP achieves that, and the ORPP played a big role.

You represent Guildwood in Scarborough, so you must have an opinion about the subway extension, which is estimated at $3 billion–plus.
We need to get shovels in the ground.

Yet back in 2012, you supported the LRT, calling it the best choice in terms of ridership, available funding and timing. Did you change your opinion to get elected? You wouldn’t be the first.
No. We need a transit system and a broader network system.

What do you make of the recent Black Lives Matter protests?
I see a group of passionate, educated and articulate young people raising their voices, which is what democracy is all about. Groups like Black Lives Matter, who feel they have been denied a voice, need to be heard. It’s a conversation that needs to extend beyond one group and government. That’s why we established the Anti-Racism Directorate.

At the directorate’s first public meeting, people booed when the premier announced its $4.9-million budget. Is that enough money?
The budget is for foundational work, including research and policy development on how best to address and prevent systemic racism. I know we have more work to do.

What should be done next?
We need to look at everyone having an opportunity in our society. Our recent announcement about making post-secondary education free for low-income families starting in 2017 will certainly help.

Kids go back to school shortly. Did you store up some Zen over the summer?
Yes, I took some downtime. I started a new routine of doing nature walks in Morningside Park, Rouge Park, the Bluffs. It’s great for a sense of balance, which I will no doubt need in the coming months.