Why Michael Coteau wants to trade provincial prominence for the federal backbench

If the Don Valley East MPP wins the riding for the federal Liberals, he could spend years in obscurity — but he’s not concerned
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Aug 16, 2021
Michael Coteau was nominated last week as the Liberal candidate for the federal riding of Don Valley East. (Facebook/Michael Coteau)



Michael Coteau didn’t quite make it a full decade as an MPP. Elected in October 2011, he’s now officially a candidate for the Liberal Party of Canada. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Governor General Mary Simon to dissolve Parliament on Sunday, he has to resign his seat at Queen’s Park. 

As luck would have it, my Thursday interview with Coteau began — as in, my phone started ringing with his name in the call display — at exactly the moment Reuters first reported that Trudeau would be seeking an election.

Coteau, who’s been around the block a few times (this will be his seventh election, after three school-trustee wins and three provincial wins) was coy when I asked him about it.

“I’ve heard so many days — I’ve got no actual knowledge of the day,” Coteau said with a laugh. “But it’s definitely pending.”

Coteau was nominated last week as the Liberal candidate for the federal riding of Don Valley East (mirroring his provincial one), and he’ll have to resign as an MPP when the election formally begins. Then he’ll start the weeks-long work of winning the riding for the federal Liberals, which doesn’t seem as if it’ll be a tough mountain to climb: current-MP-for-a-bit-longer Yasmin Ratansi won the riding handily in both 2015 and 2019 — and actually increased her vote count in the latter year, although the Liberals were reduced to a minority in the Commons thanks to struggles outside Ontario.

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But Coteau’s in an odd position: he’d be very nearly guaranteed a cabinet post if he stayed at Queen’s Park and Steven Del Duca became the next premier (we don’t need to haggle over the probability; it’s certainly what Coteau wants, as a card-carrying Liberal). Moving to Ottawa means he’ll be just one more substantial resumé among scores of others in the federal Liberal caucus, and he could very well spend years languishing in the back bench before he makes it to cabinet, if he ever does. So why opt for the longer commute to Ottawa?

“Obviously, being a cabinet minister is a huge privilege,” Coteau acknowledges. “But the real privilege in serving is being able to help people in your community. Even ministers have that community piece, and that’s what’s always driven me. None of that changes.”

He also says one issue that’s drawing him to Ottawa is something a bit grander than the noble-but-underwhelming constituency work that defines an MP’s life: his concern about the fate of democracy in Canada and in the West.

“Maintaining that democracy — a real, working democracy — is something you have to put the effort into. It doesn’t just automatically keep going. I want to make sure that democracy is intact and working and stronger than ever,” Coteau says. “I think I can contribute some of what I learned under Kathleen Wynne’s government and bring that to Ottawa.”

As a minister in Wynne’s government, Coteau handled a number of sensitive files; for example, he oversaw the final months of preparation for the 2015 Pan/Para-Pan Am Games in Toronto and stickhandled the autism-services file as minister of children and youth services. That latter file is a bit of a mixed bag, as far as the Liberal record goes. Many parents of children with autism were so angry with the Liberals they became a powerful constituency that the Tories wooed for years before the 2018 election. The Liberal record, on the other hand, may look better to many parents, judged against what the Tories did after winning in 2018.

Coteau won’t be alone, as far as Queen’s Park transplants go. Such former Liberal MPPs as Helena Jaczek, Marie-France Lalonde, and Han Dong now sit as MPs, and the announcement that Ottawa Centre’s Catherine McKenna will not run again prompted former MPP and attorney general Yasir Naqvi to jump back into electoral politics.

“We as a cabinet went through a lot, and I think Yasir and I have a lot to contribute … I’ll tell you that, when it came to looking for ways to fight systemic racism, Yasir was the first person, always, to join me in the cause,” Coteau says. “I think it says a lot about who he is. He’s not afraid to take on tough files.”

There is the small matter of Coteau’s old provincial seat: Don Valley East is now likely to be without any kind of representation at Queen’s Park until after the next general election, in June 2022. Had Coteau resigned his seat more than year before the 2022 election, Premier Doug Ford would have been required by provincial law to call an election; the premier’s office told TVO.org on Thursday that no decision has yet been made about filling a vacancy in Don Valley East.

There’s precedent for simply leaving the seat vacant: Wynne opted not to call an election when then-Liberal MPP Glen Murray announced his sudden retirement from provincial politics in late July 2017. The former premier features prominently in Coteau’s favourite memories of Queen’s Park — unsurprisingly, given that his career in cabinet began when Wynne succeeded Dalton McGuinty as premier.

“The premier was issuing an apology for the regional centres,” Coteau says, when asked about some of his fond memories from his provincial career. “And she went up to the visitors’ galleries to speak with some of the families who had come to see the apology, and, as we entered, she said to me ‘Michael, the last time I was up here, I got thrown out of the building — I was protesting Mike Harris.’”

The election is underway, and the smart money is on Coteau winning his seat in Don Valley East. In Ottawa, he’ll find a new party leader, new challenges, and perhaps new protests, too. But first, we’ll need to discover how the votes are counted on September 20.

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