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At Queen’s Park, Cheri DiNovo’s social activism is linked with her past

Women in Politics is a new regular column by veteran political journalist Jane Taber. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

From the window of her well-appointed office at Queen's Park, Cheri DiNovo can look out onto the park where she sometimes slept as a street kid in the 1960s.

She was 15, and had left the Victorian home her parents operated as a rooming house on Bedford Road in the Annex area of downtown Toronto. The neighbourhood was hardly as tony as it is now, and her home life, she says, was horrendous and rife with emotional abuse.

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"I am definitely a survivor of trauma," Ms. DiNovo, 65, said in a recent interview.

Hers is an incredible story – she has lived about three other lives since her days as a vulnerable girl on the street dealing drugs – and for nearly a decade, she has been at "the Park" as the New Democratic Party MPP for Parkdale-High Park.

Appropriately, her Italian surname means renewal or fresh start. Some who know her say she is fearless. She publicly called for federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair to step down and take the blame for the party's election defeat last year. "Really, like it or not, that result is going to stay with him and be part of his legacy. I don't think he can recover from this."

At Queen's Park, she is just as outspoken, and is a patient champion of causes that resonate with her turbulent past. Ms. DiNovo refers to herself as "an old socialist."

Along the way, she has become expert at attracting support from all parties to get legislation passed, including a higher minimum wage and changes to the Ontario Human Rights Code to protect transgendered people.

Most recently, her efforts to enable first responders – firefighters, paramedics and police – who are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder to qualify automatically for Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) benefits were rewarded with Liberal government legislation on the subject.

She started this in 2008, after a young female paramedic who was struggling with both PTSD and the WSIB, came to her office. She presented five private member's bills before the government picked up on it. Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown pushed the government to adopt it, crediting Ms. DiNovo's work.

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Ms. DiNovo believes she suffered from PTSD. "A lot of the tumult of my teenage years was probably a direct result of the trauma I had experienced in my home life."

Her mother's marriages to her biological father and stepfather were extremely unhappy. There was a lot of screaming and chaos in the home. At age 12, she discovered the body of her stepfather, a Second World War veteran who had helped liberate Auschwitz, after he shot himself in the head.

"… Sleeping in the park was way calmer and safer than my home life," she said.

She dropped out of high school, left home and never returned, hanging out in Yorkville, which was the epicentre of counterculture in the 1960s, and selling (and taking) drugs – primarily LSD – to feed herself and keep going.

LSD led to other drugs, and it was when she was in her late teens that she recalls walking along Bloor Street thinking she was about to pass out, realizing that she had not slept or eaten for three days.

Ms. DiNovo had hit bottom. "I thought: 'Now I can't keep doing this.'"

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She enrolled in an adult equivalency program at a local college, and eventually graduated from York University. She ran a successful headhunting business, drove a Mercedes and lived in a 3,500-square-foot house with a swimming pool in Richmond Hill. She was married, and had two kids.

Her first husband was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1992.

Two other events in the early 1990s changed her life again. The recession hit her business hard, and the Iraq war ignited her social activism.

"When the first Iraq war happened and people in our wealthy neighbourhood were cheering as the bombs were dropping, I thought I was going to have to get involved," she said.

She started going to church, decided to wrap up her business, and went back to university, earning an MA in theology and becoming a United Church minister, often preaching about her early years as a story of hope.

Like many women in politics, Ms. DiNovo was encouraged to get involved by another woman. Peggy Nash, who was the New Democrat MP in her riding, suggested she run in a by-election in 2006. She has been re-elected three times. (Ms. Nash was defeated in last year's federal election.)

She is the NDP's LGBTQ critic, another issue that resonates on a personal level. "I'm queer, too. I've always been bisexual … always been part of who I am." She noted that for the past 17 years, she has been in a monogamous relationship with her second husband.

As tough as Ms. DiNovo is, she believes the world is tougher on today's young women: "Our daughters are faced with not only precarious working conditions, but they are also faced with having to be perfect mothers, perfect spouses and perfect workers all at the same time."

For her, politics is still a game for middle-aged and older men: "We are dealing with men of a certain generation in politics. … It's difficult to teach new tricks. I think that is the simple reality of politics."

But a lot of consciousness-raising has been done within political parties, she believes. "Wherever it happens, I think women are also enabled and emboldened now to confront it. But yeah, it happens."

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