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Personal Politics

An Interview with Dr. Marie Bountrogianni
Network, Summer/Fall 2004

The Honourable Dr. Marie Bountrogianni was elected to the Ontario legislature in 1999 and re-elected in 2003. During her first term, she served as opposition critic for colleges and universities and for women’s issues. Currently she manages a double portfolio as Minister of Children and Youth Services and Minister of Citizenship and Immigration.

From 1989 to 1999, Dr. Bountrogianni served as Chief Psychologist for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board and was an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at McMaster University. An active member of her community, Dr. Bountrogianni was a director of St. Peter’s Hospital in Hamilton from 1993 to 1998 and served as the hospital’s vice-chair from 1995 to 1998. She was a member of both the Hamilton-Wentworth Regional Police Youth Crime Committee and the Bereavement Working Group in Hamilton. She has provided support to numerous community initiatives including serving as honorary co-chair of the Hamilton & Bay AIDSwalk and Grace Haven Capital Campaign.

Dr. Bountrogianni and her husband, Dr. Ioannis Tsanis, a professor of engineering at McMaster University, have two children, Alexander, 16, and Joanna, 13.

Even prior to your entry onto the political stage, you were a very active member of your local community. Where does that sense of commitment to the community come from?

My sense of commitment to the community comes from being the daughter of immigrants and appreciating the country we live in, but also having a very strong work ethic, starting out in poverty and working very hard, and my parents were excellent role models for that. At the same time, they always, always appreciated their new country. They always gave back to their local community, which was basically the church, the Greek community. So I was involved from a very young age in teaching Sunday school, in volunteering in the Greek school — my mother was the teacher — and that just carried on. In high school I was volunteering as well, in a women’s shelter, reading to disabled children. My mother ran a daycare centre, and there were many children on subsidy in that daycare centre, so we did a lot of extra things for those families. So I guess it’s just the way I grew up.

And then you went into psychology…

Actually, I started out in engineering. In first year, I took Psychology 101 and then another psychology course, working with what we used to call juvenile delinquent girls. Of course, we call them young offenders now. I was working with young women who were only a couple of years younger than I was. I received excellent feedback from my supervisor that I was very good at it, and I enjoyed it very much. One of my high school teachers had said to me, before I went into engineering, “You should be working with people. You are made to work with people. Why do you want to design Coca-Cola machines for the rest of your life?” Now, I married an engineer, so no disrespect to engineers, but what my teacher said came back to me, so I switched in second year. I went into psychology because I really loved that experience, working with young women who were in trouble with the law. They were wonderful, sensitive young women who made a few bad choices, who in some cases had mental disorders and were, in a sense, being punished for it. I discovered that I had a special interest in children, and I went into child psychopathology and child psychology.

And from there into politics. It seems a bit of a leap from psychologist to politician — what motivated you to become politically active?

In 1994 the New Democratic Party was in power and both my parents were small business people. I felt that small business owners were treated unfairly. My own parents, and many of their colleagues, worked seven days a week, with no benefits, no vacation time, no sick days, and yet they were painted as greedy and rich. So I basically ran on that personal issue. To me it was a fairness issue. I lost that election, but I ran again in 1999. Between 1995 and 1999 I saw what was being done to health care and education by the Tory government, so I ran again on those issues. I was the chief psychologist at a school board and I followed what they were doing to Special Education. I was vice-chair of a hospital and I saw what they were doing to health care. I was also teaching at McMaster, so again I saw what they were doing to post-secondary education. Tuition was going through the roof. Again, I saw really good reasons to put my money where my mouth was.

How does your background as a psychologist inform how you do your present job?

I feel like I’ve been training for this job all my life. In the Children’s portfolio, for example, my public service staff tell me I don’t need as much briefing as other ministers in the past, which is a compliment. It reflects my training, but also my interests, and my passion for children. My mother used to own a daycare centre, and now I’m in charge of child care in the province. I know those issues, I feel those issues. On this side, Citizenship and Immigration, I’m a daughter of immigrants, so I have a passion for integrating new Canadians and helping, with my colleagues, in ensuring that they work in the field of their profession, which is very difficult. I also have the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, and I’ve worked with people with disabilities, children for the most part. But when you work with children you work with families, and you know that a disability affects the whole family, regardless of the age of the person with the disability. Many times, mental health is ignored when we talk about disabilities. People think of wheelchairs, and of course physical accessibility is a very important issue, but to me it’s just as important to think of mental health issues as well. We have consulted widely on the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, and I’ve always had mental health on the radar screen. I think that’s partly my training as well.

You have two quite different portfolios, each with very diverse constituencies. Have you identified any common threads or recurring themes across the two ministries?

I think every minister should have two ministries, at least for a little while, tiring as it is, because there’s a lot of overlap. The problem is that we have in government artificial silos within ministries, which makes the overlap or implementation of any issues difficult. I’m really proud that in this government we have a lot of inter-ministerial committees. We’re trying to break down those silos. So in my other ministry I’m working very hard with the minister of education to break down the silo for children’s disabilities in the school system, and the autism strategy was the first step for that. In this ministry, I’m working very hard with Minister [Mary Anne] Chambers on foreign trade credentialing, working hard with Minister [Joseph] Cordiano for economic development, with Minister [Harinder] Takhar on transportation and accessibility issues, and on and on. We are working very well together. It takes longer, because meetings take time to set up, everyone is very busy, but at the same time, we do it right. And so I’m really proud of our government. It’s the way I like to work as well, consulting before I do anything.

Yes, the two ministries seem very dissimilar, but there’s a lot of overlap. I’ll give you an example. When we had round tables on immigration to inform me for my immigration agreement with the federal government, we had one round table on immigration and children. Kids kept coming up in my other round table, so I thought, let’s have one with children and immigration specialists to see what are the issues. Sexual exploitation of children is one issue that kept coming up. Domestic violence issues kept coming up. Interpretive services weren’t available. We fund those through my ministry, so that women who suffer domestic violence and their children have an ability to communicate. The overlap is amazing. But you’re right, on the face of it, it seems like two different ministries. And in implementation, the silos are there. Perhaps historically they’re there for good reason, but breaking down those silos is something I’m determined to do.

We live in a society that places a great deal of emphasis on the intellectual needs and physical development of children, but not an awful lot on their emotional well-being. Do you have any views on that?

I have very definite views on that, as a psychologist and as a parent. You’re right, we tend to value certain aspects of intelligence. My research area was in assessment of children from different cultures, and part of that was different types of assessment. I’m a big believer in Sternberg’s theory of intelligence, or Howard Gardner’s theory of intelligence, where it’s multifaceted, where artistic ability, emotional ability, emotional IQ of course, has gotten some play in recent years. It’s just as important. You see it in your everyday experience. You can have a very high IQ but if you don’t have people skills, information and ideas will be difficult. Conversely, you can be like the majority of the population, of good high average IQ or even below that, but if you work very hard you can achieve miracles. So I think we have to recognize that a little more.

What form would that recognition take? What kinds of things could be done?

I think basically in this Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration, with theOntarians with Disabilities Act, one of the first steps is ensuring that people with mental health disabilities have their human rights respected, and making them feel like they can be comfortable talking about their disability. There isn’t a stigma against physical disability, so to speak, but there still is unfortunately for mental health disability. So if you see someone who has mobility difficulties in the subway, you — not everyone of course, but generally — you look upon that person differently than someone perhaps who has a mental health problem and is talking to himself loudly. You can just see it in the body language of people. We need to help people to advocate for themselves. In my career I’ve been doing that for children with learning disabilities, and children with depression, when I worked as a chief psychologist. And now I’m finding I have an opportunity to do it on a larger scale with my ministry. The autism strategy in my other ministry is another example of that. Children should be in the school system, regardless of disability. If the right supports are there, they should be in the school system. We doubled the money for autism and the majority of that $40 million will be spent helping educators help children with autism. And I want to see that broadened across disabilities. The schools do a wonderful job, but there’s still more expertise that is needed, and understanding.

Project yourself into the future, and looking back on your time in office, what do you want your legacy to be?

A lot of people ask me about the Ontarians with Disabilities Act. I mentioned that I was in engineering in 1975. I was at Waterloo, and if I had continued I would have been in the co-op program. There were some placements that were not open to me and my female co-students because they didn’t have female washrooms. If you project back to 1975, and you think about what has changed since then, imagine if a female engineering student today came out to the media and said, “I can’t go to that geology co-op because there isn’t a women’s washroom,” I think there’d be bedlam. I would like in a few years for people to say, “Before this minister, people actually complained about the cost of a ramp, people actually complained that someone with Tourette’s Syndrome could actually go into a restaurant,” and I’d like them to say, “At least she made a really good impact on people, so that today we wouldn’t even dream of that happening.”

» Return to Network, Summer/Fall 2004 – Contents