The Droz Report, Number 8

The perfumes of change waft across Ontario:

Is the personal political when the person is a politician?

Divorcée. Lesbian. Woman.

Outliers like Margaret Thatcher notwithstanding, 30 years ago just one of those traits would have automatically disqualified Kathleen Wynne from becoming the new leader of Ontario's Liberal Party — and so, the province's new Premier as well. No fan of Wynne's government, her selection is nevertheless a powerful reminder that not all change is for the bad.

"And I have to tell you, you know, I had a ball. If you couldn't tell I was enjoying myself, well you just weren't watchin', because I loved every minute of it. We had the guys on the run and Kathleen and I were out front from the beginning." — Sandra Pupatello concedes to new Ontario Premier-elect Kathleen Wynne, Saturday, January 26, 2013.

Photo by The Phantom Photographer; image manipulation by Geoffrey Dow.
Kathleen Wynne, CBC.CA screenshot
Ontario Premier-elect Kathleen Wynne, Saturday 26 January 2013. Image via cbc.ca screenshot.

We tend to be short-sighted animals by nature. Our moods can swing from elation to despair with the digestion of a meal, from placid affection to murderous rage with the stubbing of a toe.

And though most of us tend towards optimism about our personal futures, when it comes to the big picture, we can easily see only an enormous world moved by forces we can neither see, nor understand, let alone influence.

So in times like ours, when the Cult of Impotence struts the political landscape like the prophet of the great God, Economy, proclaiming, "Thou Shalt Not tax the rich!" and "Thou can not protect the environment!" no matter how rich we are as a whole; when imperialists and assassins are sold to us as the last best hope of progress; when our corporate masters close our factories even as they line their own pockets; and when our heroes are hunted and tortured for telling truths to power, despair is not only understandable but almost inevitable.

It takes no courage nor imagination to see in the setting sun no hope for another dawn, to believe that mere survival is our last, best, hope for the future.

What does take courage and imagination, is to look beyond the Now, to take a step back from the deluge of immediate news and trivia which fill our screens and to remember, there have been dark times before. Indeed, to remember that most of human history was a nightmare, a Hell of literal slavery, of endemic rape and of children murdered as casually as we change cell-phone providers.

The long view points to a surprising, counter-intuitive fact. For at least the past few hundred years, things (for human beings) have been getting better, in a great many objective ways.

As a percentage of the population, fewer of us live in absolute poverty; fewer of us are raped, enslaved or murdered. More of us are accorded full legal rights as human beings; and more of us than ever live with those rights more or less in practice. And more of us think it important that others are treated just as well as we are.

Kathleen Wynne's elevation to the Premiership of Canada's largest province, coincidentally coming just before the 25th anniversary of the landmark R. v. Morgentaler decision by the Supreme Court of Canada assuring (for good, one hopes) a woman's right to control her own body, is a modest example of the massive changes that have and still are sweeping the world in recent decades — in what is, historically, the proverbial blink of an eye.

It was only in 1918 that Canadian women were "given" (keep those quotation marks in mind, I'll get back to them) the right to vote in Federal elections. The first woman Premier did not appear on the scene until 1991. And Rita Johnston was arguably a sacrifice candidate, selected because all of the men who might have run knew damned well they would be tossed out at the next election. The same could be (and was) said about Kim Campbell's brief residence at 24 Sussex Drive.

But (only!) 20 years later, in 2013?

It is not just Ontario whose government is headed by a woman. Kathleen Wynne is Ontario's first woman Premier, but she is too late to be a real trail-blazer. Not even the fact that her closest rival in the leadership race was also a woman, Sandra Pupatello, is all that remarkable anymore. Last year, Alberta's Alison Redford led the Progressive Conservatives to victory in a race whose second-place party was also led by a woman.

In 2013, six of Canada's 14 federal, provincial and territorial governments are headed by women. Somehow, in a scant 20 years, not only do women lead nearly half of our governments, but it seems (to most of us) almost unremarkable that they do so.

And that is remarkable.

Take a moment and think about it. Who, even just a decade ago, would imagine that Ontario's governing party would renew itself with a race between two women — one of them a divorced lesbian, no less?

Looking back, the mind boggles. Not to put too fine a point on it, these facts represent profound changes in our culture.

And these changes have occurred so slowly (from our personal perspective, in which a decade is a significant chunk of our lives), that it is all too easy to think such change is like the weather, something that "just happens", beyond our control or even understanding.

But that is not the case, and never has been; the rights contained within the Magna Carta were not granted, they were taken. The Famous Five were not famous because the asked that women be recognized as "persons" under Canadian law, but because they demanded it. They fought for it.

I am not pointing to all these woman Premiers and declaring sexism as a thing of the past. There are many injustices in this world that still need fixing. Women's formal and real equality are necessary steps on the road to what some wag called a Just Society but they are far from sufficient.

As our American cousins have learned, oppressors don't come in just one colour or of one gender. In a time of gross economic reaction, in which the men (and women) who run the world's largest corporations are bent on rolling back so many of the gains made over the past few centuries — in particular, the rights of labour, of consumer choice, and especially of self-government itself — it is, as I said at the outset, easy to despair. The enemy is strong — or seems to be — and we are divided and weak (or seem to be).

All the more reason to take heart from the very real victories that have been won.

Let us celebrate the victory of Kathleen Wynne, a very real sign that the hard work and the sacrifices of those millions who laboured through the years and the decades and the centuries have not been in vain. And that we have no need — nor any right! — to despair.

Change came because women and men did not give up, did not despair, though they were mocked, beaten, imprisoned and even killed. For labour rights, for women's rights, for gay rights, for the freedom to speak and publish ... for human rights.

The election of Kathleen Wynne does not mean the Millennium is at hand. But it does show that some part of the road to it has been opened. With only a little vigilance, we will not have to return that way to clear the path again.

Spread the word!

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