My Tribute to the Honourable Joan Smith (1928-2016)

Ms. Peggy Sattler: It is an honour for me to rise today on behalf of the Ontario NDP caucus to pay tribute to former London South MPP, Elizabeth Joan Smith.

In August 2013, about three weeks after I was elected, the London Free Press ran a story entitled “Unlikely city puts women in power.” The story noted that one of Canada’s ten largest cities, for the first time in its history, now counts more women than men as senior lawmakers. It went on to say that in senior politics, especially at the provincial level, London takes a back seat to few in gender equality, sending strong women to Queen’s Park in senior roles for at least two generations.

Speaker, before Deb Matthews, before Dianne Cunningham, before Marion Boyd, before Irene Mathyssen, long before Teresa Armstrong and I, there was Joan Smith, the trail-blazing matriarch who paved the way for London women in provincial politics and for that, we are profoundly grateful.

I met Joan just once about a year or so ago at a youth award ceremony at the Boys and Girls Club, one of the many community organizations that has benefited enormously from the generosity and passion of Joan and her husband, Don. With a twinkle in her eye, she said “So you’re the Peggy Sattler I’ve been hearing about.” We chatted a bit and in that brief exchange, I experienced all the qualities that people remember about Joan. She was kind and curious, big hearted and sharp witted, down to earth and full of life.

Joan Smith was a woman ahead of her time and was always on the go. By the age of 21, she had graduated from the University of Toronto, married her lifelong partner Don Smith, a force to be reckoned with in his own right, and delivered the first of her seven children. While caring for her growing family, her tireless work as a community activist first took form when she was appointed to the local synod and drove the process of reform within the Catholic Church. She went on to play key leadership roles with the Catholic Children’s Aid Society, the London housing authority and the United Way.

In 1965, she helped found Madame Vanier Children’s Services, a children’s mental health agency that last year celebrated its 50-year anniversary and which remains one of Joan’s many crowning achievements.

Jim Smith, a friend of her son’s, describes Joan as a mother to everyone in a house full of kids: practical, no nonsense and unperturbed by neighbourhood children running in and out of the door. He also recalls lively and animated policy discussions between Joan and Don, who although the best of friends, both had strong opinions, and were not afraid to disagree.

In 1976 Joan won her first seat on the London city council, where she served until making the jump to provincial politics in 1985 as a Liberal Party candidate. Throughout the election, Joan could be seen everywhere in the riding of London South, wearing her signature red running shoes, knocking on doors and energetically throughout the election running from event to event.

She defeated the Conservative incumbent in a Tory stronghold and was soon afterwards named party whip for the Liberals, later serving as the first woman Solicitor General in Ontario’s history.

Joan was always a champion of social justice, someone who fought for the underdog and was outspoken in defense of what was right. Her political opponent, David Winninger, who ran for the NDP against Joan in 1985, 1987 and 1990 provincial elections, remembers her as a “kindred spirit” because of her commitment to social causes. Joan must have felt the same way about Winninger. After his second loss to Joan in 1987, she asked him to chair the London and Middlesex Housing Corp., a position that was then a provincial appointment, because she saw him as an ally in his advocacy for social housing.

She was defeated by Winninger in 1990, but immediately embraced a new role on the board of King’s University College. Today, her presence can be felt everywhere on the King’s campus. For example, in the Joan Smith Student Leadership Suite in the Student Life Centre or in the student scholarship she established, but her biggest legacy, according to, King’s University College Principal David Sylvester, was in the culture she created as a passionate advocate for student voice and student leadership in governance.

Current King’s programs on women in politics and women’s leadership are a direct result of the ethos she established about the importance of engaging young women in civic and political life. Her legacy will live on in the future generations of London women who will be coming to Queen’s Park to represent London ridings.

Most of all, of course, Joan’s legacy lives in her family, her seven children who are here with us today, her 22 grandchildren and her seven great-grandchildren. Politics is not easy on families, and we thank you for sharing Joan with us. In the end, I do not doubt that Joan’s deepest wish was achieved, which was to be a good role model for her family. She made a positive difference in the world and, for that, we are profoundly grateful.