Janis Irwin is a voice for those who need it the most

Not too long ago, Janis Irwin would run beside the LRT tracks from her home in Highlands to her job in downtown Edmonton. During these runs, she would see first-hand the camps populated with people struggling with housing. The camps, now since removed, left a mark on Irwin, a mark that would eventually lead her to being the only openly gay MLA in the Alberta legislature.

Irwin grew up in rural Alberta in a conservative town. As a teen, she was politically active with the local Progressive Conservative candidate, a far cry from the Alberta New Democrat Party she would later come to represent. It wasn’t until she moved to Edmonton at the age of 17 for university did she begin to question her values.

“ … it’s not simply about what’s right or wrong. It’s about finding out where your values lie,” she says, referring to her fairly drastic shift in politics. 

She entered university with the intention to be a history professor. Quickly realizing education would be a better path, she finished her degree early and by January the next year she had a permanent job in Bawlf, Alberta. Four-and-a-half years later, she was offered a vice principal position in Forestburg. Irwin knew rural Alberta wasn’t for her, so when an opportunity came up to work on the new provincial social studies curriculum in Edmonton, she jumped at the chance. This is where her daily runs into downtown began and this is when she began to dig into what was going on with the housing situation in the city. By 2013, she was ready to throw her hat into the ring to become the member of Parliament for Edmonton-Griesbach with the NDP.

She lost the election in a close, hard-fought race but managed to make herself fairly well known in the area. When she was approached a few years later to run for the provincial seat of Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood, she agreed and won her seat in a landslide.

In the legislature and in her communities, Irwin is surrounded by strong women who are upfront in Alberta politics, along with a party leader who is a phenomenal feminist. As a queer woman and the only openly queer MLA, Irwin says she feels supported by those around her. She emphasizes how privileged she has been in having been immediately accepted and supported by her family and friends when she came out as gay. She takes her role as Critic for Status of Women and LGBTQ2+ issues seriously, and is continuously a loud voice and passionate advocate in her role.

Irwin intends to continue speaking up for the vulnerable for as long as she can.

“It’s important to reflect on the progress made but also acknowledge that progress has not affected all women equally,” she emphasizes. “We need more visible representation of racialized people, LGBTQ2+ people, Indigenous people.”

Featured Image: NDP MLA Janis Irwin has had quite the journey into politics. | Dave DeGagné