As a politician, wife, volunteer and mother of seven, Joan Smith somehow managed to do it all in the days before the concept even existed – an indefatigable feminist who engaged with everyone she met, no matter if they were friends of her grandchildren or angry constituents protesting on her front lawn in London, Ont., about a lack of jobs.
“My grandmother took everyone seriously, preferred people think before giving a response and had a great belief in civic duty,” said her eldest grandchild, Sarah Martin, whose childhood memories include campaigning with Ms. Smith in the 1985 election that saw the long-ruling provincial Conservative Party turfed from office.
Ms. Smith, plainspoken, commonsensical and unafraid of confrontation, was 88 years old when she died on Feb. 4 in University Hospital in London from a brain bleed following a fall while on vacation in St. Lucia. An ardent Liberal with blunt-cut hair, she ran a campaign in 1985 with the tag line “Run, Joan, Run!”, which she did in special red running shoes, racing from one end of the London South provincial riding to the other. The effort paid off, as she defeated former Tory cabinet minister Gordon Walker. Rookie premier David Peterson rewarded that effort by naming her party whip, a position she used to chivvy, coax and push through an amendment to the provincial Human Rights Code that banned discrimination against gays.
In 1987, when voters sent Ms. Smith back to Queen’s Park, Mr. Peterson appointed her Solicitor-General, marking the first time a woman had ever held the provincial post. During her tenure, Toronto police shot a distraught black man who was armed only with a paring knife; in the aftermath, to quell fears that police had reacted in a racist manner, she established a Task Force on Race Relations and Policing, which recommended a special, independent unit be formed to conduct investigations whenever police officers were involved in a serious injury or death.
As a result of measures such as this, she wasn’t much beloved by the police forces she was overseeing, according to her son, Geoff Smith, who ran her election campaigns. And in June, 1989, after getting a late-night phone call from the daughter of a former employee of EllisDon Corp., her husband’s construction company, she made a political error that was leaked to the media and led to her prompt resignation. The caller complained that her brother had been arrested and taken to the Ontario Provincial Police detachment in Lucan, about 15 minutes north of London, where he was being abused. Acting on instinct, Ms. Smith drove up to Lucan, not thinking how it would look to have the Solicitor-General show up to inquire after the welfare of a prisoner.
“She made a political mistake but she didn’t make a human mistake,” Mr. Smith said. “You can’t blame her for being who she was – a person who cared. And she took responsibility for it immediately afterward.”
Elizabeth Joan Smith was born in Calgary on Jan. 5, 1928, the youngest of Major-General Donald MacDonald and Eleanor MacDonald’s three daughters. Her father was a much-decorated officer who led one of the last cavalry attacks in the First World War, while her mother was a homemaker who set up house wherever her husband’s career led the family.
Young Joan, for that is what she was always called, was supposed to have been a boy named after her father but she never let that get in the way. Rather, she lived up to his expectations. An ace student, she was skilled in rallying the troops and finding consensus, and made his favourite maxim, “Make your decision and make it work,” her own.
While studying philosophy at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, Ms. Smith met the love of her life on a blind date: Donald Smith, the brother of a college friend, was dashing, ambitious and from a family that, unlike her own, was large and fun-loving in extremely unregimented ways.
“One of their earliest dates was a picnic and there was a bun fight,” Ms. Smith’s eldest child, Catherine Martin, said. “She should have been shocked but she loved it – and he loved her organizational capabilities.”
Two years later, at the age of 21, she managed to graduate, get married and give birth, all in only 11 months – accomplishments that set the bar for the pace of the rest of her life. With her new husband, she worked to build EllisDon, which would go on to construct iconic Toronto buildings such as the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and the SkyDome (now called the Rogers Centre). And with her growing family, she was at once a five-star general who distributed lists of chores, a self-taught cook and a listener who dispensed well thought-out analyses along with the hugs.
In the late 1960s, after Vatican II, Ms. Smith was appointed to the Synod, which was supposed to reform the Catholic Church. For three years, she worked alongside religious and community leaders on a report, part of her public service that included work with the Catholic Children’s Aid Society, the United Way and the London Housing Authority.
One of her proudest achievements was the establishment in 1965 of a children’s mental health service agency that still operates today under the name of Vanier Children’s Services.
From her work with the Catholic community, she jumped to municipal politics and then onto the provincial scene. Throughout, her husband campaigned at her side, introducing himself to voters as “Mr. Joan Smith.”
“When I was in public school, a teacher asked students in my class whose mothers worked to put up their hand,” Geoff Smith recalled. “I put up mine and the teacher asked me, ‘Geoff, are you sure your mother works?’ Mom was doing all this volunteer work at the time and I said, ‘Yes, that’s what I think.’ At the same time, none of us ever felt we had absentee parents.”
In 1990, Ms. Smith lost her provincial seat but she didn’t look back. Instead, she devoted herself to new projects, including guiding King’s University College, a Catholic liberal arts college in London that is affiliated with Western University, through a period of expansion.
“She did it all, but it was tough and came at a price,” Catherine Martin, said. “When she was on the Board of Control in London, I recall her giving a speech on behalf of a social cause and some old controller said to her, ‘Well, that was quite the eloquent speech you gave, but shouldn’t you be at home with your kids rather than championing daycare?’ I can only imagine what she replied – but we never felt like she wasn’t there for us.”
In 2001, the college (and Western) recognized her efforts by granting her an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. Seven years later, the London-based Fanshawe College, which she and her husband, who died in 2013, supported for years through donations, the spearheading of capital campaigns and the hiring of graduates, awarded her an honorary diploma.
Throughout, she continued to host large dinner parties, where guests were expected to read up on the news of the day and talk about it at the table.
“She always made you aware of the world and she had no use for people who went home and didn’t do anything to improve upon it,” Catherine Martin said. “Similarly, if you had a problem and went to her, she was direct and always told you what she thought. You wanted to talk with her.”
Ms. Smith also made sure to take her 22 grandchildren on a vacation that they would always remember. Sarah Martin recalled a trip to Lake Louise where they rode horses on mountain trails.
“She was always putting herself in near-death situations just to get a better photograph,” the granddaughter said. “There she was, backing up until she was practically standing on the edge of the mountain to shoot, unafraid and determined. That was my grandmother to the end.”
Ms. Smith leaves her daughters, Catherine Martin and Lynne Cram; her sons, Robert, Geoff, Michael, Donald and David Smith; 22 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.Report Typo/Error
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