How Janis Irwin became Alberta’s ‘ML Gay’

The Edmonton MLA on provincial politics, self-care, and the upcoming election.

Unfortunately, you’re going to have to wait for Janis Irwin’s latest book recommendations.

Alberta’s only current openly gay MLA and the official whip for the NDP party hasn’t had the time to crack open a book in months. It’s no wonder—with both a deep investment in her community of Highlands-Norwood in Edmonton and a strong presence on social media, the politician is already busy enough.

The Pigeon spoke with Irwin via Zoom, while Oregano, her cat, popped a tail or ear into frame every now and then. It was easy to see how strongly rooted her passion for her community was throughout the conversation. It’s a passion, she says, that was fostered from a very young age.

 “I’ve always been engaged in politics and I’ve always loved following politics,” she told The Pigeon in the interview.

“I became a social studies teacher because it was something that I enjoyed, but I didn’t get involved in party politics to any great extent until I began teaching in rural Alberta.”

It was in Bawlf and Forestburg, Alberta where she learned intimately what the education system needed—and how urgently changes needed to be made.

Irwin explained how she noticed the curriculum and policy surrounding education failed some students—and had been failing them for quite some time. Missing from the curriculum were discussions of things like social issues, human rights, or sexual health.

“LGBTQ+ rights weren’t something that I talked about with my students and it wasn’t really something that came up,” she said. “I always think back […] about how so many students I taught were probably struggling and would have benefitted from knowing there was a teacher they could talk to.”

When Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) came into power in 2019, it made changes to Bill 28 and Bill 24. The NDP had introduced this legislation while in office to protect the privacy of LGBTQ+ students and improve the quality of the sex education curriculum.

Jason Kenney, leader of the UCP, reverted changes to these bills based on religious freedoms.

“All these things led me to wanting to make sure the NDP opposition would be a strong voice, ensuring that LGBTQ+ youth have safe spaces in schools, because the UCP rolled back those rights for young people in 2019,” Irwin said.

“We’ve got very old curriculum documents in this province that needs to be updated.”

Being a teacher didn’t only show Irwin what needed to change within the Albertan political atmosphere, but it helped her develop useful skills as a politician—especially being Alberta’s only openly gay politician currently in office.

Irwin isn’t a stranger to being targeted for her identity and beliefs. Most recently, her constituency office in Edmonton was vandalized with spray-paint calling her an “Antifa Liar.” However, she’s tried to keep an open mind in the face of discrimination.

“One of the big things about being a teacher is that it shapes how I interact with people,” she said over Zoom while petting Oregano.

“When somebody is inevitably saying something awful to me on social media about my gender or my sexuality, I try to respond with empathy, especially if someone is not being purposely awful,” she said.

“If somebody asks me a question about what it means to be transgender,” she said. “I’m very happy to talk about it, because it’s an issue that needs a whole lot more education […] I’m not going to respond to someone with hatred, or in a mocking way.”

She believes that not every critique or question comes from a place of hate, so she tries to be understanding in her response, educating instead of reacting.

“People are at different journeys and the teacher in me always comes back.”

For Irwin, finding the political party she most aligned with wasn’t about looking at different parties as a whole. Instead, it was about seeing her community and understanding the issues that weren’t being addressed. One of the things that opened her eyes right away was her daily work commute.

When Irwin moved back to Edmonton from rural Alberta, she didn’t have a car, so she started running to and from work every day.

“In that journey, I would see many folks who were experiencing homelessness,” she said. “Fairly soon I started looking into issues around housing and wondering why there had been so little work done to really help folks experiencing homelessness.”

These questions led her to conversations with her local MP and the time– who according to Irwin, had “some problematic views on housing and affordable housing.”

So, she looked to the party standing up for housing, health care, and access to mental health and addictions care—the NDP.

Running to work didn’t radicalize Irwin in the traditional sense, but it gave her a deeper perspective on the people the Alberta government was ignoring.

“I would have conversations with folks who were homeless and folks who were struggling with mental health almost every day,” she said. “I’d ask them how they were doing and they would share their stories with me.”

She recalled a story one woman told her about her experience within the residential school system in Canada and the trauma she experienced.

The stories Irwin heard contextualized how many layers issues like homelessness, addiction, and mental health have, and how the system often fails individuals.

“A lot of these issues are best addressed by those who have power and for too long they weren’t being addressed—and they still aren’t in many cases,” she said.

“It absolutely gave me perspective.”

Legislative changes and political debates have helped contribute to recent rifts in Alberta’s political climate, one that was already rife with conflict.

Alberta has seen a backlash against pushes for migration to Canada from the UN, the carbon tax and the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline leading to a loss of industry, as well as fights against social funding for childcare, education, and social services.

Arguments over these topics have caused some conservative residents to become outspoken and sometimes hostile online, particularly in Irwin’s comment section.

However, the MLA said this negativity is dimmed by her and her coworkers’ optimism for the province.

“I am surrounded by 23 NDP MLA’s who are amazing allies, and [they make] LGBTQA+ rights a priority,” she said.

She hopes that by 2023 she will no longer be the only “ML Gay” in the house.

Despite the rift between parties in Alberta, Irwin is inspired by the strength of her coworkers and her ability to advocate for LGBTQ2S+ rights.

“We know there’s a lot of work to be done to restore LGBTQ rights in this province,” she said.

The provincial election is two years away, but Irwin is already busy creating a vision for the NDP party of Alberta.

“Albertans want to know that there is an alternative to the UCP,” she said.

That vision comes from speaking with Albertans about what they want to see from their government—something that keeps Irwin in Zoom calls for seven hours a day.

Just before calling The Pigeon, she said she spoke with a woman who was facing eviction from her business and a man who was starting an affordable housing company, and listened to a presentation from an organization working to end poverty.

In all these phone calls with Albertans, Irwin said the suggestions she hears depend on the crowd.

For example, Irwin said lately she’s heard a lot of concerns about the environment due to the current government’s decision to expand coal development in the province. This decision comes despite broader federal attempts to phase coal out because of its lack of sustainability.

Irwin has also noticed Albertans feeling let down and betrayed by the UCP’s policies surrounding healthcare and education when it comes to COVID-19.

“Because of my connection to education I hear a lot from teachers,” she said. “Teachers and education workers are dealing with so much right now.”

“We are in the midst of a pandemic, and yet we have a government that continues to attack doctors and to lay off nurses,” she added. “It’s not the way to be operating in the midst of a pandemic.”

Many of the questions she receives over the phone or on social media are about how to get involved with organizing and how individuals can counter the UCP.

Although preparing for an election in a pandemic on top of community outreach can be taxing, Irwin tries to find time to unwind and relax.

When it’s not painfully cold outside, she tries to get outside at least once a day.

“Self-care is always something that I’m mindful I need to be better at because, like I said, I have not given myself enough free-time.”

She believes that to do her best work, she must be her best self.

“I want to be responsive and connect with people. I know a lot of people are struggling, so If I can be someone there to listen to them and try to support them, then I want to do that.”

Jemma Dooreleyers is a former Kingstonian and journalism student at Ryerson University. She is currently the Print production manager for the Ryerson Review, and a Lifestyle co-editor for the Ryerson Folio. She has written for Her Campus Ryerson, The Eyeopener, and ReFINEd.

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