Stuart Smith: The Jewish Premier Who Never Was

Stuart Smith

By STEVE ARNOLD

Stuart Smith never got the chance to be premier of Ontario, but that’s one of the few things at which he didn’t succeed during a long and accomplished life.

Smith, the first Jewish leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, died June 10 at age 82 after a lengthy struggle with a form of dementia.

Tributes that began flowing as soon as news of Smith’s death became public recalled him as a mentor, a kind and calm employer, a brilliant psychiatrist, teacher and business leader.

One of the first statements came from Steven Del Duca, interim leader of the Ontario Liberals. He memorialized Smith as a kind and generous man who mentored countless others.

“He was our first Jewish leader and a man of great intellect,” Del Duca said. “Stuart leaves a lasting legacy for our party. He carried us through tough times.

“It was under his leadership that the Ontario Liberal Party laid down roots in urban Ontario – work that has resonated for decades afterwards.”

Others sending memories across Twitter included former Ontario cabinet minister Ted McMeekin, who recalled Smith’s first provincial campaign in 1975 against then-city councillor Bob Morrow, who ran for the Conservatives.

“Dr. Smith was brilliant. The 1975 campaign pitting a beloved Councillor Morrow vs. well-liked Dr. Smith was a classic. Smith’s camp urged voters to ‘Keep Bob working for you – in Hamilton.’ Smith became MPP and Bob became Hamilton’s longest-serving mayor. RIP Dr. Smith.”

Former NDP Premier Bob Rae remembered Smith as “a very engaging and bright soul. He confessed to me once that he found the pressures of politics debilitating, but loved public service. He contributed much to our province.”

One of those Smith mentored to a stellar political career was former Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps. After failing in her first bid for office in the Ontario election of 1977, Copps went to work for Smith.

“He was a great boss who never blew his top,” she said in an interview. “He was always very generous and open.”

Copps won her next bid for a provincial seat and worked under Smith on a variety of issues that helped move the Ontario Liberals from a largely rural party to one that also appealed to city dwellers.

One of those issues was an early resolution to advance LGBTQ rights. Although it only gained only three votes in the Liberal caucus, Copps remembers how Smith urged her to move on something they both believed was right.

“He gave me the courage to go ahead and move that motion,” she said. “He was always there to push the envelope in a positive way.”

Stuart Lyon Smith was born May 7, 1938 to a family that ran a grocery store in east-end Montreal. His grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Russia, Poland and Austria. Smith attended McGill University, earning a medical degree and a specialization in psychiatry. While there, he also became president of the McGill Student Society, was a champion debater, and active in the McGill Liberal Club.

In 1965, he sought the Liberal nomination in the heavily-Jewish Montreal-area riding of Mount Royal, but dropped out of the race at the urging of party leaders anxious to nominate another up-and-coming star – Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Putting political ambitions aside, Smith moved to Hamilton, Ont. in 1967 to become professor of psychiatry at the new McMaster University medical school.

Those early political aspirations bubbled up again in 1975, when Smith won a seat at Queen’s Park. The next year he won a close contest to become leader of the Ontario Liberals, becoming only the second Jew to lead a provincial party; Stephen Lewis was the first when he took over the NDP in 1970. Larry Grossman would later leader the Progressive Conservatives from 1985 to 1987.

Smith led the Liberals through two general elections but was unable to defeat the Tories under Bill Davis.

Stuart Smith with Pierre Elliott Trudeau
Stuart Smith (right) with Pierre Elliott Trudeau

Copps remembered her mentor as someone who loved the business of creating public policy, but not the cut-and-thrust of politics.

“I think the best thing he ever did was leave politics because it gave him a lot of grief and terrible migraines,” she said. “They were so bad that sometimes he would escape from Queen’s Park and go sit in a dark room in one of the area hotels.”

After his political career, Smith served as chairman of the Science Council of Canada, led a commission examining the state of post-secondary education across the country, and chaired the National Roundtable of the Environment and Economy.

He also tried his hand at business, forming RockCliffe Research and Technology Inc., a firm which introduced public-private partnerships into government laboratories.

In 1994, he was named founding president of Philip Utilities Management Corporation, a company created to manage Hamilton’s water and sewer systems. PUMC was a division of Philip Services Corp., but the parent company collapsed in 1997 when it was forced to acknowledge it had significantly overstated earnings from its copper-trading business.

Terry Cooke, a former chair of Hamilton-Wentworth Region, remembered Smith as “brilliant and multi-dimensional.”

“He used to make fun of the fact he was probably too intellectual for politics and business,” Cooke added. “He had many dimensions to his life and was successful in all of them.”

Smith served as a director of Esna Tech in Richmond Hill and as director and long-time chairman of the board of Ensyn Technologies Inc.

He is survived by his wife Paddy (Patricia, née Springate) and children Tanya (Betsy) and Craig (Sandra), along with five grandchildren.

A celebration of Smith’s life will be held when conditions permit. Memorial donations can be made to any charity, or by planting a tree in his memory.