TORONTO — Jewish leaders offered both praise and criticism for Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty after he announced his resignation last week.
McGuinty, who will step down once a new leader is chosen at the Ontario Liberal party’s leadership convention on Jan. 25, had many dealings with the community during his nine years in office.
Many community leaders chose to laud the premier for his work with various organizations and for fostering increased trade with Israel, while others could not forgive his refusal to provide funding to faith-based schools in the province.
Elizabeth Wolfe, chair of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, extended “good wishes” to the premier on his future endeavours.
“We commend the premier for his long-standing commitment to public life, his concern for the vulnerable and his unwavering respect for human rights in a vibrant, richly diverse and remarkably multicultural Ontario,” Wolfe said in a statement.
“Although we disagreed with Premier McGuinty on the importance of public financial support for all faith-based schools, we always appreciated [his] positive relationship with the Jewish community and noted his enthusiasm for Israel, exemplified by his successful visit in 2010.”
The McGuinty-led economic mission to Israel that year has since resulted in new collaborations in science and technology research between the province and the Jewish state.
Bernie Farber, former CEO of now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress from 2005 to 2011 and the Liberal candidate for Thornhill in last year’s provincial election, said he and McGuinty shared a long history, going back to their shared roots in Ottawa, and called the premier a strong supporter on “almost everything” of Jewish interest.
He said putting aside the school funding issue, which Farber admitted is a big area of disagreement, “this is the same premier that created business deals on scientific research… between Ontario and Israel, and who forged an intense and close relationship with [Israeli President] Shimon Peres. This was a man who understood Jewish values and ensured that the Ontario government understood as well.”
McGuinty’s government gave a $15-million grant to help the community build the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Jewish Community Campus in Vaughan and also declared May to be Jewish Heritage Month.
Avi Benlolo, president and CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center Canada (FSWC), said his organization was happy to have worked with the premier during his time in office.
FSWC “was pleased to have the opportunity to work with the McGuinty government on programs supporting tolerance, freedom and democracy,” Benlolo said. “We wish the premier all the best in his future endeavours and look forward to furthering our positive relationship with the next leader.”
Some Jewish parents, however, had harsh words for McGuinty.
Ira Walfish, chair of Ontario’s Multifaith Coalition for Equal Funding of Faith Based Schools, said the premier “doesn’t leave an honourable legacy,” particularly with respect to the school funding issue.
He recalled that one of McGuinty’s first actions when he became premier in 2003 was to retroactively cancel the Tories’ Equity in Education Tax Credit, “which would have given parents $3,500 per child towards choosing the best education for their child.”
Walfish said McGuinty “manipulated the issue of funding faith-based schools” to win the 2007 Ontario election by using “unfounded fear-mongering and implicitly attacking faith-based communities.”
Added Walfish: “Ironically, the ‘education’ premier excluded many thousands of children in Ontario from publicly funded education, for political purposes. One can only hope that the next Liberal leader will be more enlightened and honest in his or her dealings with school choice, an issue that is not going away.”
A spokesperson for McGuinty said he had no comment for this story.