Cheri DiNovo erects a new steeple

Outgoing NDP MPP tells NOW why she’s returning to her true love – and supporting Niki Ashton for federal leader

Donning a white clerical collar and a gold cross for the occasion, long-time NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo officially announced on September 20 that she’s leaving politics for her “true love: theology, advocacy and ministry.” 

As of January 1, DiNovo will become the minister of Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre for Faith, Arts and Justice, where she says she’ll continue her work on LGBTQ+ issues, climate change, affordable housing, labour rights and animal advocacy. 

When I meet with DiNovo at her constituency office in the Junction two days later, she’s sans collar, wearing her broad-rimmed black glasses and eager to talk about her vision for Trinity-St. Paul’s as Toronto’s version of Riverside Church in New York City, the famous activist space where Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela preached. She sees it as a home for queer theology and a spiritual school for kids, where a new religion is taught every month, as well as a sanctuary for activists exhausted from the hurly-burly nature of politics.

“You’re beating your head against the wall and eventually your head gives in, not the wall,” DiNovo says. “That’s why it’s so important to be part of a supportive community.” 

Looking back at her 11 years as the MPP for Parkdale-High Park, DiNovo recalls why she initially left the United Church for politics. 

“I hoped I could make more change in those green seats at Queen’s Park than I could at the pulpit,” she says. “I think we’ve accomplished that. We’ve changed lives.” 

Indeed, DiNovo’s legacy includes work on increasing the Ontario minimum wage Toby’s Law, an amendment to Ontario’s Human Rights code to include trans rights Cy And Ruby’s Act, which ensures parental equality for LGBTQ families and legislation that recognizes PTSD for first responders. That last effort was inspired by a young, queer paramedic who came to DiNovo’s office because she couldn’t get coverage for PTSD. 

“She’s been phenomenal,” provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath tells me during a phone interview. “She’s worked diligently and passionately to make changes that make people’s lives better. That’s a very important piece to what motivates Cheri.” 

Horwath and DiNovo haven’t always seen eye to eye, an understatement to some. DiNovo was an outspoken critic of the NDP’s last campaigns both provincially and federally for what she describes as “pandering” to right-wing voters with pocketbook priorities rather than pushing issues that speak to the party’s social democratic roots. 

“People are sick of politics as a game,” DiNovo says, which is why she’s endorsing Manitoba MP Niki Ashton and her “clear, bold vision” for federal NDP leader to replace Tom Mulcair. (Results from the first round of voting will be announced on October 1 at the Westin Harbour Castle.)

Ashton says DiNovo has been an inspiration and role model ever since she met her a decade ago at an NDP federal council meeting. 

“The fact that she’s so outspoken, a gutsy feminist, a champion for LGBTQ- rights and has an unwavering commitment to democratic socialism… is something I share,” says Ashton in a phone interview. 

When I ask DiNovo about Jagmeet Singh, currently considered the front-runner for the NDP leadership, her eyebrows raise ever so slightly. 

She says she’s concerned about the MPP’s original stance opposing the updated sex ed curriculum and calling for more parental input, which to DiNovo comes off as “code for religious fundamentalists who objected to the pro-queer content.” 

“He’s now sounding very positive, so I hope that continues. I live in hope that people can change.” 

For the NDP, DiNovo’s departure means not only the loss of its strongest voice, but as of the last election, one of its only voices from Toronto in the Legislature – the NDP lost three seats to the Liberals in Toronto in 2014 – not to mention its first-ever critic of LGBTQ+ issues. 

Although Horwath is already working to fill that position, community activist Susan Gapka, founder of Canada’s Trans Lobby Group, worries the role will be hard to fill. 

“The NDP has a sloppy record on electing LGBTQ [people]. We’ve done poorly and we need to do better. There have been no trans people elected in Ontario or anywhere in Canada yet. When Cheri leaves, who will take over the file? “

Yet the NDP’s loss could very well be a gain for DiNovo’s own social justice agenda. 

“I like not having anybody to answer to other than the congregation,” DiNovo says. “I’m happy to answer to the electorate, but it’s no secret that there have been times that the NDP leadership and myself have not agreed. I’m happy to be my own gal again.”

Gapka says DiNovo’s new role is actually clever political strategy. “Cheri’s going to be able to advocate on the things that are important to her outside of the political confines. She’ll be able to do better on a number of issues she’s been fighting for.” 

So, yes, DiNovo may be leaving her official position as MPP but she isn’t retiring from politics. “I’m taking a step back so I can, in a sense, have a louder voice from the outside than one can even have from the inside.” | @SamEdwardsTO

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