The transition from campus community to broader community has taken many of our grads down a path of public service. Whether they studied political science, economics, chemistry, agriculture or communications, a number have landed in the political arena, serving in Canada’s Senate or as MPs or MPPs. What they have in common is the conviction that the University’s core value of making the world a better place, a value instilled in them as students, fuelled their desire to serve a wider constituency and make a difference.
Some are historical figures from decades past, including Albert Campbell, previously mayor of Scarborough, Ont.; former New Brunswick premier Allison Dysart; and James Taggart, former member of the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan. Others are known for their dedication to contemporary political life, including Audrey McLaughlin, former leader of the federal New Democratic Party; former Guelph and Guelph-Wellington MPP Liz Sandals; and former MP Olivia Chow.
The following stories offer a glimpse into the lives of seven of our grads who followed political aspirations to serve their constituents, their province and their country. Many other alumni fill vital roles at all levels of government across the country, including Ontario MPPs Kinga Surma and Kaleed Rasheed and Canadian MPs Karen Ludwig and David McGuinty.
Lisa Raitt came to U of G to do a master’s degree in chemistry but ended up leaving with a desire to represent others.
It started when she served on the graduate student association board. “Then I also got into external politics at U of G, taking on the role of vice-president external,” she says.
“So, yes, I would say I got the bug for representing people at the University of Guelph.”
Raitt, who did her undergraduate work at St. Francis Xavier University and has a law degree from Osgoode Hall at York University, went on to major roles in Canadian government.
First elected to the House of Commons in 2008, she served as minister of natural resources, minister of labour and minister of transport in the government led by former prime minister Stephen Harper.
“The first really big takeaway from U of G that has served me very well is I learned how to run a meeting,” she says.
“But the other very important thing I learned was the importance that, even when you didn’t agree with somebody in the political or partisan world, you still had to forge a friendship and work with them.”
That lesson has served throughout her political life in Ottawa, where she has nurtured strong working relationships with people from all parties.
“I came in with that being a very important part of my value set. The person across from you in politics doesn’t have to be your enemy. Everyone talks about inclusion and diversity, and what it always boils down to is tolerance and the ability to see past your ideology and see the person. I think we need more of that.”
Raitt came to U of G from a small town in Nova Scotia and knew no one on campus.
“I was looking for community and I found it,” she says. “Going to Guelph turned out to be the right decision for me. I made friends there who I still call friends today.”
Rob Black’s first semester at U of G was nearly his last. A couple of months in, he realized what was missing: a deeper connection to the campus community. He found it, and his life changed.
Raised on a mixed farm north of Fergus, Ont., a community in which his family has lived since 1834, Black has a lifelong connection to agriculture. He still lives near Fergus.
Black came to U of G to study agricultural business at the Ontario Agricultural College. In his first semester, he continued to live at home and drive back and forth for classes.
“I didn’t feel a part of the campus community or the class,” he says. “Early in my first semester, I was ready to quit. But I spoke to our class adviser, Mike Jenkinson. Mike said, ‘You can’t do this on the spur of the moment. Go home and think about it.’ I credit him for keeping me here.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Black to the Senate in 2018, highlighting his background in agriculture, rural community development and youth development. He sits on the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry. His four children, while not farmers, are all employed in agricultural and rural sectors.
“When we’re debating issues, looking at bills or legislation, how it’s going to impact agriculture and rural people in Ontario and Canada is always on my mind,” he says.
Keeping young people thriving in rural settings is vitally important to him. But that doesn’t mean they have to be farmers, he says.
“There is an abundance of agricultural opportunities in science and technology, education, organization, finance and accounting. The opportunities are almost endless.”
Black stepped into the political arena about four years ago, winning a seat on the Wellington County council. He resigned that position when appointed to the Senate.
“I wanted to give back,” he says. “Giving back to my community of Wellington County is where I started.
And it is an absolute honour to be a senator and to represent Ontario and Canada.”
Ontario’s new Minister of Education, Lisa Thompson, has deep roots in the breadbasket of Ontario. She lives on a farm near Teeswater with her husband, Dennis. They tend a small herd of purebred goats and a cash crop operation not far from Lake Huron’s shores, an area where she was born and raised.
Thompson served in professional roles in agriculture, including as general manager of the Ontario Dairy Goat Cooperative and rural community adviser for the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. She knew in high school that she wanted to run for provincial office someday.
The BA grad’s network of friends and associates at U of G proved invaluable throughout her career, she says, adding that the University-sponsored Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program was immeasurable in developing her executive leadership skills.
She says Ontario’s agri-food sector is ripe with opportunities for U of G grads. She wants to ensure that future grads are aware of the opportunities and get the resources and guidance they need to capitalize on them.
“We need to do a better job of promoting the jobs of today and tomorrow for our students.”
“Given that I’m in the unique position of being Minister of Education at this time, I’m seeing the opportunity to have evidence-based learning complemented by hands-on learning to ensure that our students are embracing the opportunities that are ahead of them.”
She wants to help guide students along career tracks where they have a better chance of working close to home if they choose and having a good quality of life.
“We are the breadbasket of southwestern Ontario with our farming sector,” she says, speaking of her riding. “The lure for me is to head home every Thursday night after I’m done at Queen’s Park. It’s the place where I recharge my batteries.”
MP, Kitchener South-Hespeler
Born into political chaos and civil war, Marwan Tabbara came to Canada as a child in the late 1980s after his family fled their homeland of Lebanon. His early experience stirred in him a deep appreciation for the democratic process and for non-violent means to social change.
“I think of myself as someone who wants to make a difference,” says Tabbara, when asked why he entered politics. He was elected in 2015 for the Liberal Party of Canada.
“It’s a good feeling to be a voice and an advocate for my community. It’s really rewarding.”
An electrical apprentice before studying politics at U of G, Tabbara worked at physically demanding construction and factory jobs to pay his way through school.
He says he has always been intrigued by and deeply concerned about world events, and the more informed he became about the world’s problems, the more he wanted to make it a better place.
“When you think about what we fought for just to earn the right to put our name on a ballot, voter apathy is difficult to understand,” he says. “I saw politics as a good way to effect change in a positive and non-violent way.”
In many countries around the world, change comes through violence and revolution, he says.
“But within our western democracies, you can bring about change by being socially active or being a part of our governing systems.”
Tabbara says his time at U of G was the most significant and best experience of his life.
“When I went back to Lebanon for the first time after being elected, I visited my cousins and spoke with their children, who were university-age. They say it was great and so exciting that I became an MP in Canada. But I told them that the most important thing, and my biggest achievement, was my education,” he says.
“What you learn in university – to always look for secondary sources, check if it is a reliable source and find out if it is true – is so relevant.”
MPP, Toronto Centre
As a performance driver, Suze Morrison likes the thrill and skill of autocross, a motorsport involving car handling and driving prowess. Shortly after completing a degree in media studies and public relations at the University of Guelph-Humber, she took up the sport as a means of empowerment.
“Learning to drive after a life of trauma was the first thing that made me feel like I was in control again,” says the Toronto Centre MPP, a member of the Ontario New Democratic Party.
“And that’s when the speed bug took hold and I started looking into performance driving schools. It’s a huge part of my life now.”
Morrison holds the portfolios for housing and women’s issues in the NDP caucus. “There’s no shortage of good work to be found in those two areas,” she says.
Born in Parry Sound, Ont., and raised in her earliest years in a tiny community near there, she moved to Toronto as a child. She identifies as having mixed settler and Indigenous heritage, with a history of foster care on both sides of her family.
“Over the years I’ve struggled with my identity and how I self-identify,” she says. “It’s largely been the urban Indigenous community that’s caught me, given me place and opportunity to learn about my own history and culture.”
She was raised in poverty by a disabled mother and learned resilience at a young age. Her lived experience and the strength she gained from it, she says, made her suited to a life of service to her community. She and her husband, Trevor, live in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood.
“The value of having gone through so much and come out the other side is you have more perspective to draw on. It’s about how you connect with the people you represent.”
A member of one of the first graduating classes at Guelph-Humber, Morrison was active in student council and learned invaluable advocacy lessons.
One day in 1949, Toby Barrett was riding in the back seat of his parents’ Studebaker. Suddenly his mother turned around and said, “Look, Toby, it’s your name.” The four-year-old boy peered out the window and indeed saw his name on federal election signs attached to telephone poles.
The signs belonged to his grandfather, also Toby Barrett, who was seeking his second term in office in the Canadian Parliament. The sight left a lasting impression.
“I was a farm boy who always wanted to farm,” says Barrett, a grad of U of G’s Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) who is the long-standing MPP for the southern Ontario riding along Lake Erie. “But at age four, they put the bug in my ear that I was going to be an elected representative, like my grandfather.”
Barrett credits his U of G economics degree and the practical knowledge he gained about extension education during graduate studies at OAC for preparing him for a lifetime of community service. Extension education involves the dissemination of useful information, often focused on rural people, to help foster professional, social and cultural change.
“My education helped me realize the importance of reaching out to large groups of people, one person at a time.”
By the time Barrett enrolled at the recently established University of Guelph in 1965, three generations of Barretts had already attended OAC or the Ontario Veterinary College. His great-grandfather, grandfather and father all went here.
“Dad had this big grain truck that he drove to university. They were always using that truck to carry out pranks.”
One of those pranks involved hauling an entire Second World War plane from a scrapyard near Hamilton to the campus, where it was plunked nose down in a prepared hole.
Like father, like son. During the height of UFO paranoia in the 1960s, the younger Barrett and others at Mill’s Hall fabricated a UFO out of an inflatable swimming pool, filled it with hydrogen and sent it aloft over the city.
Before the Ridgetown Campus of the University of Guelph was established, there was the Ridgetown College of Agricultural Technology. That’s where Randy Pettapiece went to learn some of the finer details about farming. A professor there instilled in him the value of serving his community.
“The late Jean Wilson was one of my teachers at Ridgetown,” says Pettapiece, who was first elected in 2011, representing the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario.
“One of the last things she says to us before graduating was that we may not know where we’re going or what we’re going to do when we get out of college, but she asked us to please consider getting involved in our community. She says the rewards are so huge that you don’t even worry about getting paid. I took that to heart.”
When he was at Ridgetown, modern farming technology, particularly for crop production, was in its infancy. And people within agriculture were only beginning to talk about farming as a business.
“Now there are ways to put the optimal amount of fertilizer on different areas of a corn crop, as opposed to fertilizing the entire field to the maximum, whether it needs it or not,” he says.
The political life, he says, is a life of service to constituents.
“I told my staff that I don’t want to hear that anyone was turned away at the door. If anyone wants to see me, we make it happen. You have to serve your constituents.”
Of the many issues that preoccupy Pettapiece, the urban-rural divide is foremost on his mind.
“We live in our own little worlds,” he says. “City folks have maybe lost touch with where our food comes from and rural people don’t always know a lot about the city. That sometimes translates into having difficulties understanding each other.”
He wants as many urban people as possible to know about what goes on in rural Ontario.