Elected as an Edmonton city councillor in 1992, Michael Phair was a part of an early wave of openly gay candidates who broke down old barriers in Canadian politics by winning elections – a list that also includes former British Columbia MP Svend Robinson and former Winnipeg mayor (and now Toronto MPP) Glen Murray. In municipal politics, Mr. Phair was a catalyst for the city’s leading-edge recycling and waste-management program, and pushed the city to improve social-housing programs, investments in the arts and the LRT (Light Rail Transit) system. Since he retired from politics in 2007, he has taught at MacEwan University, Mount Royal University and the University of Alberta. The “middle-age, plus” Edmonton stalwart takes up the chairman’s post for the University of Alberta’s board of governors, for a term of at least three years.
You were the first openly gay politician elected in Alberta, almost 25 years ago, and one of the first in the country. Now, there are openly gay politicians in all levels of government across Canada, and in North America. Have things really changed as much as they appear?
Particularly in Canada, and I would say even more so in Alberta – for the gay and lesbian community that I’m part of – things have changed quite dramatically. That doesn’t mean there aren’t things that still need to be done – particularly in areas of persons who are trans, or older gay and lesbians. Many older gays and lesbians grew up in a generation where there was a lot of discrimination and people weren’t open about their sexuality. They are quite concerned as they move into programs for seniors or housing for seniors, or long-term care, about how they will be treated – whether staff and the organization will be understanding, whether they will be comfortable with the other residents. What we see is there’s a huge need and opportunity to do some things along the educational and training lines so it will be a good experience for older gays and lesbians. But I think overall, general knowledge about gays and lesbians has increased. I think the hatred and discrimination there is much less than it used to be. I’m happy to see that those things have happened. I think that makes it a healthier place for everyone.
What is the most important focus of your new role? Is funding for postsecondary institutions in this tough Alberta economy going to trump every other issue?
With every change that occurs, including with the economy, there certainly are challenges but there are also opportunities. What I see currently, for example, at the University of Alberta, the president is newly appointed, the provost is relatively newly appointed, I’m newly appointed, the Minister of Advanced Education is new. I think it means there’s a group of us involved in very significant roles in the University who are saying: “Yes, we are working and respecting the past. We’re also looking at how we move forward, knowing there are changes in society, there are changes in the economy, there’s changes in the country as a whole as well as internationally. How do we best move in those directions?” I think that’s a very excellent, challenging opportunity.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for universities?
There are a couple parts to that. One is the role of ensuring that every young person that wishes to receive an education in a university is able to do that. And that it’s a well-rounded education, so they become well-rounded citizens that contribute not only to work life but to a family life and to a community life. The second one is that the work that is done by university professors and students around research – looking at a variety of issues in society, and testing and finding potential solutions and directions – is something that informs how we live as a community and as a country.
Former board of governors chairman Doug Goss, a major fundraiser for the Conservative party, was criticized last year for joining a group of chief executives warning Albertans not to vote for the NDP. Some critics, including the U of A faculty association, said his partisan comments should disqualify him from the position. Following the election, and the NDP victory, Mr. Goss made the “personal” decision to step down. You have been appointed by the NDP government, with which you share many of the same political values. Do you think it might be difficult to go head-to-head with them on difficult matters, especially those that involve funding for the university?
It’s clear under the scope of the provincial legislation that guides the university that the board is mandated to provide the ministers of the government with the best information and advice. And at times, that will entail probably some types of things that the government may find that they aren’t able to carry out. But I don’t think that will stop me or the board from bringing those things forward. In good discussions everyone doesn’t always agree – or you don’t end up with everything you wish to have. As a member of city council, in the political realm, certainly I was bringing forward things that I thought were significant for the area I represented, and sometimes I had success, and sometimes I did not. But it didn’t prevent me from bringing ideas forward. That’s the role. The government has a role – and we have a role to bring forward to them, and that’s part of my job – what’s best for the university and what we think will make a difference. And then we try to make it happen.
You sat on city council for 15 years and were known for not ever wearing – or even owning – a suit and tie. Does that personal rule of fashion still stand?
I always look very presentable and I would say, quite handsome. And I expect to continue much as I have in the past in that regard. The one major exception is at graduation ceremonies – I will be in a robe.