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2019 Issue 1

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She wants "one Canada for all Canadians"

She wants "one Canada for all Canadians"

With the Liberals’ dismal third place finish in the 2011 federal election, Deborah knows she has a big job ahead if she’s chosen as leader.

Deborah Coyne, Artsci’76, had just recently announced her intention to run for the leadership of the federal Liberal party. As she sat in a Toronto café, sipping a mug of coffee, she spoke quietly about her vision of Canada, trying not to draw any attention to herself. It was only when she stood to leave that a white-haired woman approached, “I’m pretty sure you are who I think you are,” she said with a smile. “Good luck to you.”

[Deborah Coyne]Deborah Coyne

With that remark, Deborah had the satisfaction of knowing people were starting to recognize her, and they like what they see, which is key for a political candidate. Deborah, who in May announced her candidacy for the Liberal leadership, spent the summer on a cross-country grassroots tour. She set off in her trusty blue Honda Civic, meeting and greeting Liberals, first in western Canada, then the north – including stops in Yellowknife and Whitehorse – before heading back home and on to the Maritimes.

Deborah, who hails from Ottawa, graduated from Queen’s in 1976, York University’s Osgoode Hall with a law degree in 1979, and Oxford with an M.A. in International Law in 1982. She first attracted the public eye with her involvement in the constitutional debates surrounding the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, then went on to work for Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells. That work and the fact that she and former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had a child together set tongues wagging and landed her on the front page of Canadian newspapers. “It’s always going to be in the background, but I just ignore it,” she says.

The glare of the media spotlight hasn’t discouraged her from seeking the Liberal leadership, despite the fact that Justin Trudeau is also a candidate. Deborah says, “We’re not in contact, but I wish him the best. He’s one of many good candidates that come with different backgrounds and will get a good debate going.”

Deborah has never been one to shy away from a challenge. She first ran for political office in 2006 when she took on NDP leader Jack Layton in Toronto-Danforth. She lost, but won a respectable 34 per cent of the vote. She also went for the Liberal nomination in Don Valley West in 2008 before pulling out. Without a seat in Parliament, Deborah definitely plans to run, though she hasn’t decided where. To criticism that she isn’t an MP, she replies, “It just hasn’t been my time or place.”

Although she’s never held public office, her job experience is diverse and impressive. Among other things, she has taught at the U of T law school, and worked in the Prime Minister’s Office, for the Ontario Human Rights Commission and for the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board. She has also written numerous articles and four books and chaired the 2006 Liberal Party Task Force on Public Safety and Justice. Deborah lives in Toronto with her son Matthew, while her daughter Sarah attends university in the U.S.

Deborah decided to enter the Liberal leadership race because she felt an obligation to be involved. “My reason for being in the race is not just to talk about a platform and a vision, the kind of country we can build together, but rather that too many of us are on the sidelines sitting it out, becoming more disconnected,” she says.

“We’re a nation in name only. I want to get the federal government off the sidelines and talk about a strong national government that works with the provinces, municipalities and aboriginal Canadians in the national interest and gets results. My slogan is ‘One Canada for all Canadians.’”

With the Liberals’ dismal third place finish in the 2011 federal election, Deborah Coyne knows she has a big job ahead if she’s chosen as leader. “We need to find out what will make us stand out, what is that principle we stand for. I think it’s having a strong national government,” she says.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2012-4 cover]