Sometimes, it’s abundantly obvious when politicians make history. Think Barack Obama as America’s first Black president. Or Kim Campbell as Canada’s first woman prime minister. Or Kathleen Wynne as Ontario’s first female, and first openly gay, premier. They all knew the very fact that they got elected would leave a lasting mark.
This has not been the case for Julia Munro, who’s been an MPP since June 1995. Her legacy is coming into sharp relief not at the start of her political career, but as it winds down.
“I got an email from the Clerk of the Legislature’s office telling me I had just become the longest-serving female MPP ever,” Munro told me earlier this week in her Queen’s Park office. “Since then I’ve been overwhelmed by the response.”
One of those responses came from Elizabeth Witmer, a former caucus mate of Munro’s — and the woman whose record Munro broke. “I’m happy to be handing it off to you,” Witmer told her.
It’s entirely possible that despite her unique place in the province’s history, you’ve never heard of Munro. That’s probably because she’s rarely made the front pages while in office.
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She never served in cabinet when she was on the government side of the house, from 1995 to 2003. And in her 13 years in opposition, Munro has never been one of those showboaters, making the nightly news because of some feigned outrage over the issue of the day or getting the heave-ho from Question Period for breaching the legislature's codes of conduct.
What Munro has done is come to work almost non-stop for nearly 22 years, in hopes of making her quiet contribution to democracy.
The former history teacher spent 28 years in the classroom before she was elected as part of Mike Harris’s so-called Common Sense Revolution in 1995. That love of history has made her care a great deal about democratic traditions — which may explain why Munro keeps a framed copy of the 800-year-old Magna Carta behind her office desk. In fact, she’s hoping the government will pass her private members’ bill recognizing June 15th as “Magna Carta Day” in Ontario.
“The bill is one sentence long,” Munro explains. “It costs no money. It won’t affect anyone’s agenda. But democracy demands attention and I’m as passionate about this as the day I walked in here.”
Yes, there is the understandable disappointment of never having made cabinet, although she was a parliamentary assistant to Harris and had a good and close relationship with him. (He surprised her at a recent party to celebrate her achievement.)
So if not showboating, how has Munro spent her time in office? Two decades ago, Harris tasked her with implementing a new voluntary breakfast program for whatever schools wanted it.
“We had a big uptake with very little red tape,” is how she remembers it.
She also worked with MADD (originally, Mothers Against Drunk Driving) to reduce the carnage on our roads from impaired driving, and brought added attention to issues around the Oak Ridges Moraine, some of which is in her riding.
While in opposition, Munro’s opponents on the government benches tended to listen respectfully when she asked questions, because she forgoes the typical histrionics of Question Period. When she asked about an expenditure of $72 million on the proposed Ontario Retirement Pension Plan after the Liberals had already announced they were killing the program, the government benches were eerily quiet. It was a zinger, but without the hooting and hollering.
The best part of Munro’s job? That’s simple enough: solving people’s problems. No case gave her more joy, she says, than when the parents of a profoundly deaf young man visited Munro asking to help find him a job. She suggested they look for an employer with a big building, where the man could avoid phone calls but communicate with his fellow employees over email, and helped with the search herself.
Several months later, Munro saw those same parents at an event. They rushed up to her. “Julia,” they said, “You saved him. He got a job.” He ended up working on computers at a hospital.
Munro's record has been hard-fought — not just politically but personally. Back in 2004, it looked as if she might lose not only her seat but also her life. “I found a lump,” she recalls. “My doctors later told me it was a very aggressive cancer.”
But she beat back the disease and has remained cancer-free for the past 13 years. She hopes, even expects, to live a lot longer. “My grandfather, A.G. Campbell, lived to be 100,” she laughs. “And he worked every day till he was 98.”
One wonders why, with the Tories showing so well in the polls and many forecasting a victory in the 2018 election, Munro has announced this will be her last term in politics.
“You have to know when it’s time to come and when it’s time to go,” is how she puts it. After all, she wanted a 50-year-long career. She’ll hit that in June, when her combined 28 years of teaching and 22 years at Queen’s Park will add up to half a century.
And there is her husband of 51 years, John Munro, and her daughter Genevieve, who lives not too far away. “They’ve been on this journey with me,” she says. “Now it’s my turn to go on their journey with them.”
It’s a nice thought, but the now 74-year-old Munro admits her husband really isn’t buying it. “You’ll go back to some project soon,” he tells her. “I can see it now.”
He may well be right. Listening to Julia Munro, you can still hear the passion for public service in her voice.
“I’ve still got 15 months to go before the next election,” she reminds me. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”