As the founder of HIV Edmonton and former City Councillor, the new Board of Governors chair Michael Phair is no stranger to making change. He was in the middle of writing to his fellow members of the North Saskatchewan River Valley Conservation Society about designating a natural area when he received the call.
“I was excited, probably a little overwhelmed at the same time,” Phair said. “It’s going to be a real challenge, a lot of work. But I said yes, so I guess I’m ready.”
Phair, a former Edmonton City Council member who represented ward 4 (central Edmonton) from 1992 to 2007, was the first openly gay elected official in Alberta, and will succeed Doug Goss, who stepped down from the Board of Governor’s last August. He is currently an adjunct professor in the U of A’s Faculty of Education and a member of the advisory committee for the Institute of Sexual Minority Studies & Services, a LGBTQ service on campus.
Phair has been involved with Edmonton’s LGBT community ever since he arrived in Edmonton 30 years ago. When AIDS was first diagnosed in Edmonton in 1984, Phair founded the non-profit AIDS Network of Edmonton, now known as HIV Edmonton.
“There’s politics in (LGBT activism) all the way through, both in advocating but also internally too,” Phair said.
In the early 90s, Phair moved on to city politics and worked on Jan Reimer’s mayoral campaign. In addition to Phair’s work with the LGBT community, he was involved in lobbying for special needs and early childhood education. His political interest and experience led him to run, and win, the election for central Edmonton. Phair and and the rest of the city were surprised of the victory, he said.
“We talked about whether I should go back in the closet (for the campaign),” Phair said. “But it was like, ‘Oh no, it’s too late. You’ve been out too long.’”
When Phair began his term on council, he thought there may be resistance to his ideas because of his identity as a gay man. But Phair received positive media support and those who were apprehensive soon saw Phair’s interest in firestations, ambulances, parks and recreation facilities. Skeptics “kind of forgot,” Phair said.
On Council, Phair founded a number of initiatives, including a hot lunch program for inner-city youth who didn’t have access to food before school. Originally, the program funded a kitchen area to make food for the children. Today, the program has expanded to more than 30 Edmonton schools. Phair was also a founder of Edmonton’s design review committee, which assesses new building projects to fit in with the city’s aesthetic. Furthering his work with arts, Phair worked on founding the Edmonton Arts Council, which provides the arts funding and representation.
“In the years before any time the city was dealing with arts, the debate in council always was, ‘Why are we funding arts, blah blah blah,’” Phair said. “Since then, (council) has never gone back to that debate … There’s never been a debate of whether we should be funding arts.”
Phair will continue to add to his previous experience at the university that has included being on the advisory committees for the Centre for Public Involvement and the Regional City Studies Centre, and iSMSS. Now, as part of high university administration, Phair will spend the next few weeks learning the Board. A new president, provost and chair will perhaps open the way for change to happen at the university, Phair said.
“It’s moving forward as a university in what we are doing in ensuring the education we provide is the best possible education for young people,” Phair said. “And also that we conduct good research, and also broad research, that includes research in the Arts and in Education.”