Janis Irwin – MLA in the Alberta Legislature and 2SLGBTQ+ advocate
Janis Irwin is the MLA for Edmonton—Highlands—Norwood, the NDP critic for Women and LGBTQ2S+ Issues, and the only openly gay elected representative in the Alberta Legislature. She’s a passionate community activist, and she joins Jen and Catherine to talk about her journey so far — from growing up in rural Alberta to a career in teaching, to her decision to run for elected office — and we even chat about her most important fan, her famous cat Oregano. It’s all here in this episode of The Honest Talk.
Growing up in a conservative community
Catherine Clark: You did grow up in rural Alberta. What stands out for you when you’re looking back on your childhood?
Janis Irwin: I grew up in a small town in rural Alberta, a conservative community it still is, and ended up representing a very urban part of Edmonton that is incredibly progressive. But I always reflect on my time growing up in rural Alberta positively. I had access to great schools and great teachers, and it was a great place to grow up. And people say, “It must have been so hard being a queer in a small town,” but I actually didn’t come out and didn’t start grappling with my own sexuality until later in life. So that wasn’t an issue for me.
But I do reflect honestly and think about the fact that for kids who would have been struggling and who may have been already grappling with issues of their sexuality or their identity, they want to have a safe space, which is really one of the things that has motivated me on my political journey to make sure that kids are safe, no matter where they are, where they’ve grown up.
Jennifer Stewart: You chose a career in teaching before politics. I always think teachers, more than any other profession, learn the importance of empathy and patience. How did being a teacher help you respond to or work with other people?
Janis Irwin: I went to university in Edmonton and then I taught in another part of rural Alberta. I had just turned 21 and I was teaching high school, and I even had 19-year-olds in my class. So, you’re right, the piece around patience and empathy I definitely learned a lot as a young teacher. Some of those experiences really opened my eyes. I really think that those were some of the foundational pieces for getting into politics later.
Career change from teacher to politician
Catherine Clark: So what led you from teaching to politics? Was there an ‘aha’ moment, or was it a specific issue? What made you contemplate that career change?
Janis Irwin: I had an opportunity to take a position for three years in Edmonton, where I would be working on the curriculum, and then I would go back to my rural school division. Long story short, it ended up turning into a permanent job. I didn’t grow up there, I didn’t know a lot of people, and so I started volunteering with the NDP and I found a party that aligned with my values and it just felt right. One thing kind of led to another and I got more and more involved and ultimately ended up running federally in 2015.
Having lived a bit of a sheltered life in rural Alberta and moving to the area that I did in Edmonton and seeing many issues with housing and homelessness, folks struggling with addiction, some of the highest levels of child poverty, and all these issues that weren’t being addressed by the conservative governments at the time, led me to run federally in 2015. I was unsuccessful, but I stayed involved and ran again in 2019 and here I am as the MLA for the same area.
How does it feel to be the only openly queer legislator
Jennifer Stewart: You’re the only openly gay MLA in the Alberta Legislature. You’ve taken a role that some could say could be a marginalized role, and you’ve made it an empowered role. You have been very vocal against some of the retractions that Premier Kenny has made to the sexual education curriculum in the province. How important is your role and your voice in making sure that others feel accepted and heard?
Janis Irwin: I have to always talk about the fact that I’m queer, but I’m also a white woman with a lot of privilege. For me to talk about my journey, it’s much different than a trans person of colour who experienced far higher levels of violence and discrimination. I am surrounded by 23 incredible allies who will speak up on these issues, no matter what. I can’t possibly claim to speak for the community; I can do what I can to try to amplify the voices of others in the LGBTQ+ community. And until I have a trans person with me in the legislature, until we have more folks of diverse backgrounds, all I can do is try to be there to amplify their voices.
Jennifer Stewart: How do we create an environment where others feel comfortable being open about their sexuality?
Janis Irwin: There’s still a lot of work to be done. When it comes to advancing queer and trans rights, we genuinely have made a lot of progress. It starts with encouraging folks from diverse backgrounds to get involved and to know they’ll have support. It’s also challenging when you have a government that’s made it harder for members of our community. That was one of the first acts that this government actually did: they instituted Bill 8, which rolled back access to gay-straight alliances for students in schools. I think that motivated more people to get involved in politics from the response we saw from Albertans.
How to get people involved in politics
Jennifer Stewart: You’ve talked about getting more women into politics but also about the fact that it’s not just about getting them elected. What do you mean by this?
Janis Irwin: One of my critical roles is the status of women. I talked to a lot of women. In fact, I just met with another woman yesterday who’s running in a small town here in Alberta, and she was just looking for some advice and some motivation. I’m really proud to be part of the NDP because we’ve made it a priority. You may know Rachel Notley had a gender-balanced cabinet in 2015, and she’s also made it a priority to get women not just to run but into winnable seats. But not just women. We lack Indigenous folks in the legislature, and we could use way more racialized folks. There are so many voices that aren’t being heard right now. Until Alberta is reflected in that legislature, our work isn’t done.
Jennifer Stewart: What’s your source of light? What is your source of inspiration?
Janis Irwin: It really is the people who support me. This is one piece of advice I give to women in particular who are thinking of running for politics, to just have support, even if it’s not about having a giant team. It’s about having one person, a couple of people, who will be there for you, who you can confide in.
I’m very open about my personal life. I live alone. I don’t have a partner right now, but I have Oregano, and that sounds really funny. But you know, this time last year, heading into another pandemic winter, I thought, ‘Oh, goodness, you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about getting a pet again,’ and I knew I didn’t have the capacity to get a dog. So, that’s something seemingly so minor, but having a pet who is lovable and who’s there when you get home, I mean, it’s the small things that I think if you take the time for that really help. And beyond that, just taking the time for things that you enjoy, and for me, it’s being outside, it’s going for walks. I encounter a lot of people I know when I’m out in the community. And that gives me strength, too.