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Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce gives remarks at a press conference, in Toronto, on Aug. 22, 2019.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Within hours of being appointed Ontario’s education minister in June, Stephen Lecce made his first phone calls to the province’s teachers’ unions. He wanted to introduce himself.

At 32, Mr. Lecce’s only experience with Ontario’s public education system was as a student in Catholic elementary school. He has two young nieces, but no children, and no background in education. His expertise lies mostly in politics, having worked for years in communications for former prime minister Stephen Harper.

But for Mr. Lecce, that is the advantage.

“I have no preconceived notions. I have no adversity for or against,” Mr. Lecce said recently over a pasta lunch, during an interview with The Globe and Mail.

“I’m a white canvas when it comes to being informed by parents, by educators, by the students themselves – and I’m all ears.”

Mr. Lecce now has arguably the most difficult job in government.

Contracts for Ontario’s five education unions expired at the end of August, and labour negotiations will ramp up this fall. At the helm of the talks is Mr. Lecce, viewed by conservative insiders as a rising star in Premier Doug Ford’s government.

Youthful, well-spoken and skilled in social media, Mr. Lecce’s challenge will be to navigate the demands of the province’s educators with his government’s mandate of cutting the deficit, all while attempting to minimize effects on students.

“The most important thing is providing predictability to parents who are on this cyclical basis going through this sense of unease,” Mr. Lecce said.

“My obligation is to land a deal. And with respect … I feel it can be done.”

Union leaders say Mr. Lecce is a better communicator than his predecessor, Lisa Thompson, who struggled to explain her government’s approach. She faced criticism, for example, for suggesting larger class sizes would make students more resilient.

But they express skepticism that Mr. Lecce will be able to turn around what they view as damaging decisions that will lead to job losses and fewer services for students.

“What he has proven to be so far is a slicker salesman selling the same lousy policy,” said Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation.

Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said he met with Mr. Lecce the day after his appointment and the meeting went well. But since then, he hasn’t had any contact with the minister.

“He has said time and time again he is listening,” Mr. Hammond said.

“That’s great, except he also needs to act on things. And he needs to, I would suggest, seriously review the cuts that were put in place, the increases to class size average and resulting cuts to courses across the province.”

Mr. Lecce takes such criticisms in stride, recently holding a press conference to announce that the provincewide average high-school class size for this school year would increase to 22.5 students, up from 22 last year, and using any future increases as a bargaining chip in negotiations. He repeatedly insists that his government has increased spending on education, although the budget now also includes a child-care rebate. Unions say the budget amounts to cuts because funding has not kept pace with inflation and enrolment growth.

“I just want to make sure parents know that we have their kids’ backs in mind. When we say we’re investing, we literally are. And I just feel that we could all do, the Premier has said it, a better job of getting those facts out,” Mr. Lecce said.

Mr. Lecce grew up in Vaughan, north of Toronto, the son of Italian immigrants. He attended a local Catholic elementary school, and then a private high school, while his parliamentary assistant Sam Oosterhoff was home-schooled. “I’ve committed myself to being an absolute, committed unapologetic defender of public education,” Mr. Lecce said.

He got involved in politics by his own volition at the age of 13, volunteering on the re-election campaign for former Progressive Conservative MPP Al Palladini, who ended up resigning from cabinet for personal reasons. (“Don’t judge me,” Mr. Lecce said.) He later became president of the University of Western Ontario’s student council.

After graduation, Mr. Lecce was hired in Mr. Harper’s office at 22 as a special assistant. By 2015, he was chief spokesperson and director of media relations.

“They knew I liked to talk,” Mr. Lecce said.

He maintains a visible presence on social media, posting videos with students and coining the term “Nonnas for Lecce” while visiting seniors’ homes.

Elected in June, 2018, Mr. Lecce remains close with his family and owns a house near his childhood home. This past May, Mr. Lecce lost his mother, Theresa, who died within two months of being diagnosed with cancer.

“My mom’s passing was very tough on me. It still hurts,” he said.

“But I also know that she’d expect me to rise above the challenge, to overcome adversity, embrace her spirit of being a very positive, loving, hilarious free spirit that she was.”

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