Dan Heap’s life goal was nothing less than to create heaven on Earth.
A lifelong socialist devoted to helping working-class people, refugees and the homeless, Mr. Heap made career choices, first as a Toronto city councillor and then as an NDP parliamentarian, based not on building his own stature but on building a more just society.
Devoutly religious and committed to pacifism, minority rights and social justice, he believed in an egalitarian society free of capitalism. A slender man with a white beard, messy hair and large, sometimes taped-together eyeglasses, Mr. Heap rode a bicycle around Toronto, sheltered Vietnam War resisters in his home, marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr. and was a regular at demonstrations across Canada.
Mr. Heap, who was ordained as an Anglican priest and spent 18 years labouring in a Toronto paper-box factory before entering politics, believed in the intersection of faith and justice.
After being elected to Parliament in 1981, Mr. Heap worked to reunite refugees with family members and advocated for redress for Chinese immigrants penalized by a head tax until 1923. He did so with the help of his young constituency assistant, Olivia Chow, who called Mr. Heap “a man of faith and action.”
Mr. Heap died in Toronto on April 25 at 88.
“I think for any progressive activist in the 1980s, Dan Heap was a seminal figure,” said Toronto area NDP MP Andrew Cash, who voted for Mr. Heap in 1981.
“He was slightly terrifying because he was so real and so committed.”
Daniel James Macdonnell Heap was born Sept. 24, 1925, in Winnipeg, the second-eldest of four children. His mother, Margaret, was a piano teacher and his father, Fred, a lawyer. Raised as a Presbyterian, Mr. Heap grew up sympathizing with marginalized people, a trait inherited from his parents, who told him when he was six that the family was boycotting Japanese oranges to protest the invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Sometimes called “Don,” after his grandfather, a minister, Mr. Heap aspired to become a minister himself from a young age, he told The Globe and Mail in 1981. Called “Don” after his grandfather, a minister, Mr. Heap aspired to become a minister himself from a young age, he told The Globe in 1981.
He received a scholarship to study at Upper Canada College and later studied classics and philosophy at Queen’s University. It was during his time at Queen’s that Mr. Heap, horrified by nazism, decided to put his pacifism aside and sign up for the army.
“It wasn’t possible to be neutral in the face of Hitler,” he told The Globe.
But before Mr. Heap could be sent overseas, the war ended, and he embarked on his lifetime commitment to pacifism. In 1945, Mr. Heap took a summer job at a Brantford, Ont., knitting mill that would change his life. While in the community, Mr. Heap met other workers who were part of the Student Christian Movement, a powerful youth group that organized socialist work camps.
The experience “opened my eyes to a side of life I’d never seen before,” he told The Globe.
Mr. Heap went on to study theology for a year at the University of Chicago before moving to Montreal to get his divinity degree from McGill University. It was there that Mr. Heap joined anti-war and pro-human-rights groups and met Alice Boomhour, a minister’s daughter and SCM activist with whom he fell in love and married in 1950.
“They were very much an entity,” their son Danny said of his parents, who attended protests together. They soon started a family, and had seven children between 1951 and 1966. After graduating from McGill and being ordained a priest, Mr. Heap was determined to pair preaching and activism, but after a brief stint in rural Quebec as a priest, he decided he would not make a living working for the church.
Danny said that while Mr. Heap saw religious faith and radical social activism as a pair, “the church hierarchy did not take kindly to that.”
So Mr. Heap decided to align himself with the worker-priest movement, a missionary initiative started in 1941 by the French Catholic Church that saw priests enter the work force to persuade laymen to become more engaged in church life. When Mr. Heap and his family moved to Toronto in 1954, he took a job as a printer at a box factory, where he was elected as a union representative.
He wanted to “bring socialism to the Canadian worker,” he told the Toronto Star in 2011.
In 1965, Mr. Heap went to march with Martin Luther King Jr. at Montgomery, Ala., in support of the civil-rights movement. The rest of his family took part in a sit-in in support of the march in Toronto. When a police officer saw Danny, then eight years old, at the sit-in, he skeptically asked him what he was doing there.
“I ended up talking his ear off about civil rights,” Danny said.
In the summer of 1966, the Heaps decided to drive to Nova Scotia in a $400 used Ford truck. Though the tires blew out along the way, the road trip was filled with fun and family renditions of tunes by Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson, Mr. Heap’s favourites.
Inspired by his daughter Susan, Mr. Heap decided in 1968 to run for the NDP in the federal riding of Spadina, but lost. He tried for a provincial seat in 1971, losing again.
Undeterred, Mr. Heap ran for Toronto city council in Ward 6 the following year, and won. He spent nine years on council advocating for issues that affected his constituents, from holding to account a battery-crushing company that left lead in the soil of one neighbourhood, to campaigning against the construction of the planned north-south Spadina expressway.
Mr. and Ms. Heap took their children to protests and discussed political ideas with them at the communal home they shared with youth from the SCM and other families.
The Heaps were “ruthless organizers,” said Ellie Kirzner, an activist who worked closely with the family. “[Y]ou’d better make those phone calls, organize that meeting, because the poor of the world couldn’t wait and wars were raging.”
The couple sold the home in the late 1980s to an organization that houses refugees.
“Don and Alice are really the end of an era of the social gospel left in Canada,” said Michael Valpy, a former Globe and Mail columnist who knew the Heaps. The family were also ardent members of downtown Toronto’s Anglican Church of the Holy Trinity.
For Mr. Heap’s daughter Margaret, who said the biggest lesson her dad taught her was not to cross a picket line, tagging along with dad to protests was more a blessing than a curse.
“We were never forced to do any of this – it was that we were allowed to,” Margaret said.
There was also little separation between politics and fun. A nature lover, Mr. Heap took the family camping, canoeing and hiking.
“He loved following streams back to their source, which I [later] saw as a metaphor for getting to the root of things,” Margaret said.
Still, Mr. Heap had a short temper and was known to “blow up” at times, although he was quick to apologize.
In 1981, Mr. Heap decided bigger issues such as housing, war and refugees needed his attention, so he turned again to federal politics. When Pierre Trudeau appointed Spadina MP Peter Stollery to the Senate to open a seat for aide Jim Coutts, Mr. Heap ran on the NDP ticket and won by 214 votes.
“He worked his heart out,” said friend Abraham Blank, who was Mr. Heap’s executive assistant during his Toronto city council years.
Mr. Heap settled quickly into federal politics, and was re-elected in 1984 and 1988. Officially, he served as the NDP’s housing and immigration critic, but used his position to speak out against missile testing, led opposition to Canadian participation in the first Gulf War – a battle he ultimately lost – and urged Canada to leave NATO.
When Mr. Heap retired in 1993, he devoted more time to activism. He saw himself as a “revolutionary,” son David said, adding that his father wanted to create “heaven on Earth.” Throughout his life, Mr. Heap was arrested at least four times, including once being dragged, limp, by police from a May Day rally in 1996.
He also threw himself on the front lines of fighting homelessness in Toronto, helping found the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee in 1998. One of the group’s first actions was helping homeless people and activists set up a “tent city” on Toronto’s waterfront. Mr. Heap joined the group regularly, often riding his bike during frigid winter nights to attend.
“He wasn’t just a name on our letterhead,” said Cathy Crowe, co-founder of the committee.
Mr. Heap suffered his second heart attack in 2005 (a decade after his first). That same year he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He and his wife moved into a private retirement home in 2009, but by 2011 were facing eviction due to concerns from management that the couple, both with medical issues, had become too difficult to care for.
The couple was accepted to Kensington Gardens retirement home, however, where his wife died of pneumonia in 2012. In his final year of life, Mr. Heap still remembered the words to his favourite protest songs, said Ms. Crowe, who visited him often. They sang together and she read him political news, to which he appeared connected even near death.
“He knew right from wrong,” Ms. Crowe said.
To submit an I Remember:
Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.