Kathleen Wynne, Premier of Ontario Mark Blinch/Reuters

At a time when the U.S. is cutting investments in shared public goods, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne talks about her more progressive path forward.

Kathleen Wynne is a trail-blazer in many ways. She is the first female Premier of Ontario and the first openly gay person to hold that position. But she has also blazed policy trails. As Premier, she has quietly and methodically developed an integrated agenda for more broadly shared and inclusive economic growth. Ontario is a big province that is home to Toronto, an expensive superstar city; a thriving tech hub in Kitchener-Waterloo; and another large knowledge hub in Ottawa, the nation’s capital. But it also has lagging industrial centers like Windsor, across the river from Detroit, which has historically struggled with high unemployment rates, and large swaths of rural areas, many of which need basic infrastructural improvements.  

To cope with the mounting economic and geographic inequality that her jurisdiction faces, Wynne has developed a broad agenda for more inclusive prosperity which brings together strategies for more affordable housing, better jobs, better access to education and healthcare, and greater investment in transit—all emphasizing greater investment in shared public goods. At a time when the U.S. is cutting such investments at the federal level and across a large number of states held by the GOP, Wynne’s agenda is a model of more inclusive prosperity.

I talked to Wynne about the key principles and major components of her agenda.

As you know better than any of us, leading a province that’s bigger than many countries, one of the biggest issues facing the world today is the idea of harmonizing our economic growth and innovation, with a more inclusive prosperity that benefits everyone. Can you tell us a little bit about what brought you to focus your agenda on this challenge?

My whole reason for being in politics is because I think that government has the potential to be a force for good. I don’t believe that government should step back, as I think the farther right does, and I don’t think, as the farther left does, that government can do everything. So, I really believe that government has to work in partnership with everyone who’s on the front lines delivering services, building businesses, building infrastructure. That’s what government’s role is.

Fundamentally, we’re dealing with a world that’s not fair. It’s not a level playing field for everyone, and government has a role to play. That’s why I came into politics.

Let’s talk about the role of public support for education. Tell us more about your efforts to expand access to free tuition for low income students and other education initiatives?

My experience was as a school trustee and as a Minister of Education, and my background was in education. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and working in educational institutions. For many decades, we’ve done a pretty good job on elementary and secondary education. We’ve been building on that foundation. We’ve got full- day kindergarten for children at age 4. It’s childcare but it’s also, how do we have the right curriculum, how do we have those early years really be the best that they can be for kids.

At the other end, young people from affluent families were going to college and universities, and were getting post-secondary training at four times the rate of young people from non-affluent families. We took some tax credits that were benefiting the wealthiest, and we’ve applied that money to provide free tuition to kids really from middle and low-income families.

When kids get an education in Ontario, it doesn’t matter what neighborhood you live in, you’re going to have teachers who are provincially trained and who are high quality; you’re going to have resources that are up to date; you’re going to have a school that’s decently built and lit and heated, and with great equipment in it. Of course, there’s some variation: There are new schools and there are older schools. But, the evenness of the education system is a really important difference, particularly between us and the United States.

Ontario is a fast-growing place, and many parts of it, notably Toronto, have become increasingly unaffordable. Tell us about your housing strategy and how you are trying to address the Province’s housing needs, especially its need for more affordable housing. Do you see housing as a basic human right?

I firmly believe that housing is a fundamental right. Housing bridges a whole lot of what government does. And you can’t have good health if you are inadequately or under-housed. There’s an affordability issue around the cost of housing. I introduced the fair housing plan to stabilize the market for home buyers and for renters, and we brought in about 16 measures to try to interrupt the frenzy. We also expanded rent control, because what was happening was there was a two-tiered reality in Ontario where buildings that were built before 1991 were under rent control, and so they were much more predictable in terms of rent increases, whereas buildings built after 1991 were not and there were exorbitant rent increases there. We expanded rent controls to protect tenants from sudden rent increases.

We also recognize that we have to deal with the supply issue. We’re working with the development industry. We’ve put $125 million over five years to support and encourage the construction of rental apartment buildings. We’ve seen a big boom in condos, and that has become the rental market. But we haven’t seen purpose-built rental apartments in a long time.

We are in the midst of a culture shift. When I was growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, people wanted a detached house with a pretty big yard, and two or more cars. We are trying to encourage density, so that a different kind of housing can start to be the norm in our urban centers. That’s a challenge, because there are lots of people who want to continue to see the big single-family dwellings with big yards and many cars in the driveway because that’s what they’ve aspired to all their lives. But we are working really hard with municipal leaders to get a different kind of housing built. We’ve also put in place a 2-million-acre perpetual greenbelt that defines where new building can happen, and where we’re protecting agricultural land. We’re making surplus government land available for developers to build new rental and affordable housing. We’ve given municipalities more control over the money that flows to them to deal with housing issues. We’re also working with the federal government to retrofit social housing.

Transit and mobility are key issues going forward. Big cities and metro areas like Toronto have reached the limits of sprawl and congestion based on the car, so better transit is needed. Transit can also connect outlying places like Hamilton to thriving hubs like Toronto. And high-speed rail could create a larger economic corridor that could stretch from Toronto to the Kitchener-Waterloo tech hub and potentially even Windsor across the river from Detroit. How does transit and high-speed rail fit into your strategy for more inclusive economic growth?

It’s really fundamental in a geography like Ontario and for the Greater Toronto region to come up with solutions. It’s an environmental issue and also a convenience issue. Where a commute would take half an hour even five years ago, it’s now taking an hour or an hour and a half. That is making people very unhappy. When I was Minister of Transportation, I discovered the degree to which we were not thinking systematically about building transit. Back in 1916 the ministry was called the Department of Highways. It was all about building roads, so we had a very well-oiled machine around highways. But, it’s the exact opposite around transit: No plan, no systematic approach, and no belief that the building needed to be ongoing. Transit building in this Province for a hundred years has been stop and start. It’s been at the whim of politicians. My mission has been to get us thinking about building transit the way we think about building roads. Because if we had done that then we wouldn’t have stopped building higher order transit in 1947 for example. Every year we would have built more subways, we would have built LRT, we would have built rail. So, now we’re playing catch-up.

We’re spending billions of dollars on light rail, on subways, on local transit. Yes, transit building is local. And we’ve got municipalities that are our partners. But the Province is driving those investments and supporting those investments by for example taking 2 cents on the gas tax, which we’re going to double over the next couple of years, and giving that to municipalities based on their ridership and their population.

Tell us a little more about the universal income pilot. What it is and what motivated you to do it?

There are very real questions about people in transition, the nature of work, the dislocation of people from jobs because of technology. The basic income pilot is across three sites: Hamilton, Brantford, and Thunder Bay. And we’re also doing a parallel pilot on a First Nation community to co-create and design a project with indigenous partners. It’s about 4,000 participants across those three pilot sites. It’s a three-year project. Applications have been coming in over the last several months, and the study will be a random selection of people. It’s for people between 18 and 64 years of age. We’re looking for evidence around what happens to education outcomes, what happens to job retention, what are the impacts on family and community. This is a pilot that will provide up to $17,000 a year for a single person and about $24,000 for a couple.

At the same time, we are also reviewing our social assistance programs. When we look at social assistance, it has often been a pretty punitive system. We are looking into ways of making it work better for people and actually help those people who are able to get off social assistance and get back into work.

One of the big issues facing us today is the absence of good high-paying jobs. Family-supporting blue collar jobs are disappearing and there are not enough high-paying knowledge jobs to go around. Tell us about the new minimum wage, which will be $15 an hour by October of next year, and what you are doing to upgrade low-paying and precarious service jobs that are disproportionately held my women and members of visible minority groups?

The people who are looking after our elderly loved ones, the people who are serving us in our communities every day, these are essential jobs. The increase in the minimum wage was driven by that realization that people are not making ends meet. The other uncertainty in the workplace is the inability to have any personal emergency leave days or any sick days. There are people working in Ontario who don’t have either. They’re not protected by collective agreements and they don’t have any paid sick days. So, we’re putting in place two sick days for all workers. We’re putting in rules around scheduling and requiring that people know their schedules, and any changes, in advance. We’re putting in place vacation pay, so that after five years with a company workers can expect three weeks of vacation.

Ontario provides free universal health care for all of its residents. You’re now expanding this to provide more free prescription medicines to those under 25. Tell us a how health is part of an inclusive prosperity agenda?

Healthcare is right there beside education in terms of fairness and a level playing field in our society. Senator Bernie Sanders came to to visit us recently, and he brought some American nurses and doctors with him. We had what I think of as a myth-busting session so they could see our system as it really is. Our publicly funded healthcare system is really part of who we are as Canadians. It’s very close to people’s core. It’s something that people want to protect, that they believe in.

We know that there are gaps. We’re starting in January to provide free medication for kids until their 25th birthday. That will make a difference in the health of those young people, not just as children but over their lifetime. It will also ease a burden for those families. It’s about taking on the challenges that people are feeling day-to-day.

There has been a move away from people having an expectation that government is actually going to help them. As much as anything, I want to re-establish that faith in our democratically elected government to tackle the things that people can’t tackle by themselves.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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