The big endorsement, Part 5: Mitzie Hunter 

When the MPP for Scarborough–Guildwood went looking for a big name to back her leadership bid, she called her mentor and hero — Canada’s first-ever female Black MP 
By Steve Paikin - Published on Dec 10, 2019
Mitzie Hunter (left) is one of six candidates for the Liberal leadership; in 1993, Jean Augustine (right) became the first Black woman elected to the House of Commons. (Christ Young/CP, Paul Chiasson/CP)

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This is Part 5 in a series that provides a behind-the-scenes look at how candidates in the Liberal leadership race are lining up their key endorsements.

You’ve gotta hand it to Mitzie Hunter.

When dozens of her colleagues were falling like bowling pins in the 2018 Ontario election, she managed to eke out a victory in Scarborough­–Guildwood, which she’s represented since 2013.

But Hunter barely carried the day. In a riding where 35,000 people voted, she won by just 74 votes. That’s two-tenths of 1 per cent and a far cry from the more than 7,800 votes she won by in 2014.

Don’t try telling Hunter that every single vote doesn’t matter.

But a win is a win, and Hunter became one of the seven Liberal MPPs to survive the party’s worst-ever election showing. Almost immediately, people began approaching her, urging her to run for party leader to replace Kathleen Wynne.

For whatever reason, she delayed. “I’m trying to get my bid organized,” she told a bunch of us at an Ontario Liberal party convention last June in Mississauga.  Former cabinet minister Steven Del Duca had jumped in in April. It was also in April that MPP Michael Coteau surprised many by fessing up in an interview on TVO’s #onpoli podcast that he would jump in, too. (He did so officially in June.) 

Reporters kept asking Hunter, what about you? Rumours were rampant that she would enter the race, but nothing happened. Finally, in August, Hunter joined the fray, and, two months later, she announced her biggest-name endorsement to date.

Jean Augustine holds a special place in Canadian parliamentary history. In 1993, she became the first Black woman elected to the House of Commons (in the riding of Etobicoke–Lakeshore) and, as such, became both a trailblazer and role model for many.  Originally from Grenada, Augustine came to Canada in 1960 and earned a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s in education at the University of Toronto before becoming an elementary-school principal in what was then called the Metro Toronto Separate School Board. She began to make a name for herself, serving on many community organizations and eventually becoming chair of the Metro Toronto Housing Authority.

She remained a parliamentarian until 2006, serving in both Jean Chrétien’s and Paul Martin’s cabinets, before stepping aside so that new Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff could run in her riding.

The year Augustine was elected for the first time, Hunter was a 22-year-old U of T student (first on the Scarborough campus, then at the Rotman School of Management). She had immigrated to Canada from Jamaica as a child of four, so one can understand why Augustine’s path would have had an impact. Hunter (coincidentally enough) became chief administrative officer of Toronto Community Housing, then the CEO of CivicAction, the non-profit organization that tries to boost civic engagement among a variety of stakeholders.

“I’ve known Jean for decades,” Hunter told me 10 days ago at the Ontario Liberal leadership showcase, at which all the candidates had five minutes to address a convention hall full of party members.

“She’s been a mentor and adviser for years,” she said. “She resonates with people still. Her name carries influence across communities.”

It’s for that reason that Hunter phoned Augustine and asked the now 82-year-old former MP to make a public endorsement.

And she did so two months ago. An e-blast went out urging Liberal partisans to donate, volunteer, or try to become a delegate to the convention next March, when the new leader will be selected.

“I share Mitzie’s vision. I think most people do,” Augustine said in her e-blast. “She’s proven that she knows how to fight, how to lead and how to win.”

Leadership campaigns provide political parties with a chance to sign up new members, in hopes of engaging them in the countdown to picking a new leader and then in the ensuing election. It’s all about party renewal and, goodness knows, the Ontario Liberals need that. Hunter’s campaign says that it’s signed up 2,000 new members. That pales in comparison to the more than 14,000 new members the Del Duca campaign has signed up — or even the 8,500 Coteau’s campaign has secured.

However, caveats are always advisable in these circumstances. Signing up new members doesn’t guarantee they’ll actually show up to vote for delegates to attend the leadership convention. All of which is to say: 2,000 committed voters can be a lot more meaningful than 6,000 wishy-washy supporters.  In the meantime, campaigns can continue to push the narrative that “our supporters will have more of an impact than their supporters.”

We’ll know the truth on February 8 and 9, when delegate-selection meetings actually happen.

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