Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Robert Elgie’s ethos was leading by example

Despite an illustrious career in medicine, politics had always been at the back of Robert Elgie’s mind. <137>Robert Elgie speaks in the Legislature, Nov. 16, 1982. Credit: Dennis Robinson / The Globe and Mail<137><137><252><137>

Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail

After 19 years at university, training first as a lawyer and then as a neurosurgeon, Dr. Robert "Bob" Elgie turned his formidable intellect to politics as a Conservative MPP and cabinet minister.

Whatever he did, he was always adept at getting his point across with a few well-chosen words.

When Liberal leader Stuart Smith, a psychiatrist, interrupted him during question period, Dr. Elgie turned to the Speaker of the House, saying, "Mr. Speaker, would you please advise the member from Hamilton West that I am not on his couch today. He is on my operating table, so tell him to listen."

Story continues below advertisement

In the seventies, as chief of medical staff at Scarborough General Hospital, he lobbied heavily for a CAT scanner. The board turned him down.

During a retirement dinner, Dr. Elgie presented the head of the hospital with his self-proclaimed "chicken" award.

As Dr. Elgie explained to stunned guests, the chicken was in fact a capon from his freezer and entirely appropriate because it was, "a rooster that lost its balls." A CAT scanner duly arrived.

This victory was a source of pride for Dr. Elgie, a man with a wry sense of humour who devoted himself to public service until his death on April 3 at 84. The cause was suspected congestive heart failure.

Despite an illustrious career in medicine, politics had always been at the back of Dr. Elgie's mind. Growing up in a political family, he strongly believed that, by influencing public policy, he could continue to improve people's lives.

He entered the political arena in 1977, and was handily elected as the Conservative member for Toronto's York East. He went on to hold portfolios in Labour, Consumer and Commercial Relations, and Community and Social Services in various Conservative cabinets.

In 1978, thanks to Dr. Elgie's efforts as minister of labour, amendments to Ontario's Human Rights Code passed into law: People with disabilities could no longer be discriminated against.

Story continues below advertisement

David Lepofsky, a blind lawyer who worked with Dr. Elgie battling line by line over the bill, writes, "More than three decades later, this huge advance in disability rights continues to massively benefit over 1.7 million Ontarians with disabilities. Dr. Elgie didn't do it because it would win seats for his party or bump them up in the polls. He didn't do it for a legacy because many won't remember. He did it simply because it was the right thing to do. He was a man of great conscience."

Dr. Elgie, a red Tory who supported unions, was beloved by labour. During an MPP swearing-in ceremony for one of Frank Miller's governments, too far to the right for Dr. Elgie's liking, he eschewed the traditional dark blue suit, opting instead for a brown one over a pink shirt. The Clerk of the Assembly remarked, "I think you're trying to send a message, Dr. Elgie."

When the Liberals returned to power in 1985, Dr. Elgie had no interest in being a backbencher. He formally resigned and accepted an appointment as chairman of the Workers Compensation Board, where he served until 1991.

While there, he created a tribunal to adjudicate the concerns of disaffected workers.

Later that same year, Dr. Elgie moved to Halifax, where he founded Dalhousie University's Health Law Institute, for which he received an honorary degree. He also served half time as chairman of the province's Workers' Compensation Board, and spent eight days a month in Ottawa heading the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board, the body that sets prices for medications.

On his blog, Steve Paikin, host of TVO's nightly public-affairs program The Agenda, refers to Dr. Elgie as "One of the most brilliant and compassionate MPPs Queen's Park has ever known."

Story continues below advertisement

Bob Rae, who was interim leader of the federal Liberal Party and former NDP premier of Ontario, wrote via e-mail, "He was smart, courteous, with a great sense of humour and great warmth. No one reflected the traditions of progressive conservatism more than Bob Elgie. I loved the guy."

While law or medicine could individually provide a lucrative income, Dr. Robert Elgie was motivated less by money than the desire to leave the world a better place.

The joke among his family was that if he were offered a job that paid less money he'd take it.

He received nominal pay for the public position he held on the Ontario Press Council from 2001, and $25,000 a year as its chairman from 2006 until his death.

Even better, as far as the family joke went, was his annual salary as chairman of the Ontario Greenbelt Council in 2005. He was paid $1.

Robert Goldwin Elgie was born into privilege. His parents Goldwin Elgie, a Toronto lawyer, and his wife, Vivian McHenry, were married nine years before their only child arrived on January 22, 1929. During the 1930s and forties, Goldwin Elgie served as a Conservative MPP.

Vivian, a hostess who could throw a garden party for a thousand without batting an eyelash, supported his political career but she lived with a painful secret.

It would never do for word to leak out that her husband was an abusive alcoholic. Silenced and ashamed, her son, Robert, kept a rope tied to his bed so he could climb out the window. Reluctant to discuss the unhappiness of a conflicted childhood, it's unclear whether he ever used the rope.

Ironically, it was his father who provided the escape into a world that would change his son's life for the good.

In 1937, when Toronto was in the grip of a polio epidemic, Goldwin Elgie, believing that Robert would be safer in the country, sent him to live with his maternal grandparents in Prince Edward County, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario.

Freed from the terror of unpredictability at home, the 8-year-old flourished.

In winter, access to his grandparent's small farm was by cutter horse over the snow.

With no other Grade 3 students attending the one-room schoolhouse, Bob Elgie was bumped into Grade 4.

He helped sell butter and eggs at the Belleville market on weekends.

He developed a love of farmers and farming. He saw how communities banded together for barn raisings and wheat thrashing.

Those experiences formed the values that would shape Dr. Elgie's adult years.

Life was about hard work. Life was about helping others. Life was about far more than material wealth.

Back in Toronto, Robert Elgie dutifully followed the path his father mapped out for him.

He was expected to go into law, then into politics, expectations he exceeded.

He received his BA from the University of Western Ontario in 1950 and his LLB from Osgoode Hall Law School.

About to graduate as a lawyer, Robert Elgie informed his father that he and a couple of classmates were planning on opening a practice together. "Oh no," replied the senior Elgie. "You'll go into practice with me."

Robert Elgie got off this paternal hook by announcing his decision to study medicine. He said he wanted to combine the discipline with law. Goldwin Elgie, forever ambitious for his son, could hardly object and footed the bill.

Mr. Elgie spent the next 11 years in medical school, first at the University of Ottawa, and then at University of Toronto. Encountering a charismatic neurosurgeon, he decided that he shared the calling.

After graduation, he taught at the medical school of Queens University and later as a staff member at Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital.

Neurosurgery was one of the highest-paid medical specialties, yet Dr. Elgie regularly billed far less than other neurosurgeons.

A provincial study into doctor's salaries revealed the reason; it was because he spent more time with his patients.

Kind and deeply caring, Dr. Elgie couldn't abide one trait in others: discrimination, or the belittling of those without power.

One morning, offended by a particular nurse who treated orderlies with disrespect, Dr. Elgie greeted the nurse's station with the words "Good morning ladies. And you too, Miss Jones."

In 1955, Bob Elgie met his lifelong love, Nancy Stewart. She was from London, Ont., and a psychology student at Queen's University.

She describes their meeting, and resulting long marriage, as a love story. The handsome 6'1" lawyer with the booming voice, immersed in premed studies at the University of Ottawa, invited her to a Christmas ball. She agreed, staying overnight with an aunt.

The couple got engaged the next day and were married six months later, in 1956.

About to begin a $70 a month live-in medical residency in Toronto, Mr. Elgie advised his wife, "You'll see little of me for the next seven years. If your only identity is Mrs. Elgie, it'll be pretty slim pickings."

Nancy Elgie worked for various school boards, eventually becoming a trustee, and vice-chair of the York Regional District School Board, a position she continues to hold.

Between 1960 and 1970, the couple had five children: Allyson, Stewart, Bill, Peter and Catherine.

Their financial life was eased with the unsolicited aid of Robert's father.

Without being asked, Goldwin Elgie arranged a mortgage on a Toronto fourplex in which the young family could live while collecting rent.

Despite a hectic schedule, Dr. Elgie always made time for his children, encouraging them to join in his love of golf and taking them on skiing vacations during spring break.

His son Stewart, an environmental-advocacy lawyer, says his father was good at dealing with big issues, but grumpiness could ensue for minor transgressions such as leaving the garage door open.

Anyone phoning the Elgies after 10:30 p.m. would be met with a gruff, "What do you want? Why are you calling so late?"

The ethos in the Elgie household was to lead by example and, if you were fortunate enough to be born into good circumstances, to give back to society. Dr. Elgie told his children, "There's no such thing as a great person. There are only people who do great things."

He also believed that people don't tell each other often enough how they feel. As a result, any celebration necessitated that family members and guests had to stand up and say a few words about each other. Nancy Elgie said, "Especially at children's birthday parties, this struck terror into the hearts of the uninitiated. It resulted in amazing verbal gymnastics as siblings gave constructive criticism to recipients in ways that made humiliation seem almost triumphant."

Dr. Elgie's memorial service, scheduled for May 4 at 11 a.m. at Timothy Eaton Church in Toronto, continues this oral tradition with a speaker's corner after lunch. Nancy Elgie adds, with humour, "Persons attending should consider themselves forewarned. Come prepared."

In 2003, Dr. Elgie was named to the Order of Canada. To the many people whose lives he influenced for the good, it was merely his just reward.

Report an error

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨