Remembering one of the most important Ontario politicians you’ve never heard of

Stuart Smith never did become premier of Ontario, but he paved the way for the Liberals to become a modern, urban political force
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jun 15, 2020
The last time David Peterson (left) and Stuart Smith saw one another: January 2013 at the Liberal leadership convention. (Steve Paikin)

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Stuart Smith may be one of the most important figures in Ontario political history that you’ve never heard of. That’s partly because history is written by the winners, and Smith didn’t win either of the elections he contested as Ontario Liberal leader in 1977 or 1981. 

It’s also partly because he preferred to fade into the background rather than stay engaged in public life. But make no mistake: Smith made a contribution to Ontario, and that’s why we’ll remember him here. 

Stuart Lyon Smith was about the unlikeliest Liberal leader for mostly white, Anglo-Saxon Ontario you could imagine. At a time when the Ontario Liberals were known for their deep roots in rural, agricultural Ontario and having a lock on the Catholic vote, Smith was a Jewish psychiatrist from Montreal who left Quebec to come to Ontario, in part because his first attempt to get into politics was rebuffed. 

Smith wanted to seek the federal Liberal nomination in the Montreal riding of Mount Royal in 1965. But the party brass urged him to stand down because they had another candidate in mind for that seat, and they wanted him to run unopposed. 

That candidate’s name was Pierre Elliott Trudeau. 

Smith was a good party soldier, stood aside, and the rest was history for Trudeau. He won the seat, immediately became justice minister, then, three years later, upon Lester Pearson’s retirement, became prime minister in 1968. 

In later years, Trudeau would joke that, had the fates decided differently, Smith might have become a prime minister from Quebec and Trudeau the Ontario Liberal leader. It was more than a gag line: the two men had so many things in common, from their hometown, to their appearance, to the sound of their voices, and many mannerisms as well. 

Eventually, Smith moved to Hamilton and won a seat in the 1975 Ontario election in Hamilton West. That was a tough election for the Liberals. Bill Davis won his second consecutive election (but only a minority government) for the Progressive Conservatives. The Liberals, though, blew a 15-point lead and ultimately fell into third place in the seat count, behind Stephen Lewis’s New Democrats. Robert Nixon stepped down as Liberal leader, and shortly thereafter, got a visit from Smith. 

“He came to see me and asked: ‘Do you think a Jew could become leader of our party?’” Nixon recalled in a conversation with me yesterday. 

“I told him: ‘Of course. We’re Liberals. It’s your party.’” 

With that prescient advice in hand, Smith contested and won the ensuing leadership convention in 1976, defeating future premier David Peterson by 45 votes on the third ballot. He was just 37 years old and the party’s first and still only Jewish leader. (The NDP chose the province’s first-ever Jewish leader in 1970, when Lewis took the crown). 

“He was very smart,” Nixon said of Smith. “I was so impressed with his brains.” 

Tom Allison, one of the party’s most successful election- and leadership-campaign strategists over the years, said in an email how disappointed Liberals were to lose their big lead in the 1975 election and come in third. 

“Choosing a Jewish psychiatrist from Montreal seemed like the best way forward,” said Allison, who was a delegate from Muskoka at that ’76 leadership convention and voted for Smith. 

Smith was determined to transform the Liberals from a rural rump with little presence in the province’s cities to a stronger urban force. It was a constant struggle, as many of his rural caucus members didn’t share that mission. 

In November 1976, the country went into shock as the separatist Parti Québécois won government and René Lévesque became premier of Quebec. Millions of Canadians wondered whether the country as they knew it would end. Three months later, the president of the Young Liberals, Howard Brown, invited Smith to give the keynote address to 400 delegates at the group’s annual general meeting in Burlington. 

“He gave the speech of his life that galvanized public opinion to fight to keep the country united,” recalls Brown, who also invited delegates from Quebec to attend. Steven Pinkus, one of those Quebec delegates, noted on his Facebook page that the speech had been so outstanding, it had made his entire group openly weep.  

“Thank you, Stuart Smith, for helping us to believe that despite our despair, there was still hope,” Pinkus wrote. “You were right.”

In 1977, Smith led the Liberals back into their more traditional role as the official opposition in a second consecutive minority parliament. But his Liberals could take only a single seat in Metro Toronto, which wasn’t called “Tory Toronto” for nothing.  

Stuart Smith and Steve Paikin
Stuart Smith (left) and the author in August 2016. (Howard Brown)

It was around this time that Smith became one of the first politicians I ever met. He had offered himself up to a local charity in Hamilton — lunch with the Ontario Liberal leader at the Queen’s Park dining room. My parents won the auction, and, next thing you knew, my brother Jeff and I were on a bus to Toronto for lunch with our hometown’s biggest-name politician. 

I’m thinking we were in our early to mid-teens, and, not only did we schmooze and talk policy with Smith over lunch, but he also let us job shadow him for some of the rest of the afternoon. I can recall us going to the media studio and watching him record a three-minute radio commentary, which he did with no notes, speaking completely extemporaneously. Even four decades later, I remember how impressed the teenaged me was to watch him do that. 

But Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is the worst job in politics, especially when the premier of the day is a legend in the making. Bill Davis routinely got the best of Smith, whose constant criticisms of the Tory government earned him the nickname Dr. No. In 1981, Davis and Smith had a rematch. Tom Allison was part of the Liberal advance team in that campaign. 

“Seeing him up close on the campaign trail left me certain he would be a great premier,” Allison said. “It didn't happen. I think he was too early.”

Davis’s Tories won their majority government back — Davis’s fourth consecutive election victory. Smith upped the Liberal seat count in Toronto to two but resigned as leader, left politics, and really never looked back. 

“I still believe it's accurate to say that Smith laid the groundwork for ending the Tory dynasty [in 1985] by broadening our base to the cities and engaging with some of Ontario's diversity,” emailed Gordon Floyd, who was Smith’s chief of staff. “The change he started in the Ontario Liberal Party helped David Peterson win the race in 1985.” 

Former premier Dalton McGuinty emailed me these reflections: “He led our party in darker days, never experiencing the joy and energy that comes with winning government. But he never allowed his political experiences to embitter him. Instead, they ennobled him. Whenever we bumped into each other, whether I found myself in opposition or government, Stuart always had kind words of support and encouragement for me. He offered only gentle advice, always making it clear he had faith in my judgment even if that was then questionable. Stuart taught me much through his grace and kindness, and I owe him for the foundation on which my electoral successes were built.”

After leaving politics, Smith rarely appeared at political events. In fact, I think the last event of significance he attended was the farewell to McGuinty in January 2013 at the old Maple Leaf Gardens. I saw him sitting beside David Peterson, his one-time rival for the party leadership, and I couldn’t resist snapping a picture of the two them in conversation. At this point, their rivalry was nearly four decades behind them. To see them conversing — as it happened, for what would be the last time — was a nice moment. 

A decade ago, I reached out to Smith to get together for lunch. We hadn’t seen each other in years, and I wanted to reprise our lunch from the 1970s, which, I was shocked to learn, he actually remembered in considerable detail. 

Our lunches turned into an almost annual thing. I often bugged him to re-engage in provincial affairs — to show up at more events or even to write his memoirs. I felt he deserved more recognition for beginning the transformation of the Liberal party. But he was just never interested. His life had taken him into some eclectic new fields: chair of the Science Council of Canada; chair of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy; chair of Humber College; a stint in the private sector in environmental services and high tech. He was even commissioner of the Intercounty Baseball League. 

When I wrote my biography on Bill Davis in 2016, I urged him to come to the book launch, assuring him that he’d be warmly welcomed. But the notion of showing up at an event where the man that had bested him twice in general elections would be feted simply wasn’t on. 

At the first Liberal party convention after the 2018 election debacle (which saw the Grits reduced to seven seats), every living party leader (including then 90-year-old Bob Nixon) was interviewed for a video designed to rev up the troops — every leader, that is, except Smith. 

When I emailed him several times over the past year to renew our lunch, the emails went unanswered. I never did figure out why.  By the time I learned his health was failing, the pandemic had hit, and a get-together had become impossible. Smith died last week of dementia, having turned 82 a month ago. 

The Liberals formed government from 1985 to ’90 and then again from 2003 to ’18. Smith never did become premier. But he began opening a door that, eventually, Peterson, McGuinty, and Kathleen Wynne would get to walk through. 

“He was extremely bright and a great orator,” Peterson told me yesterday in an email. “History will record that he played a major role in the modern success of the Ontario Liberal Party by dragging us into the 20th century and establishing roots in the urban areas.”

For that reason and many more, Stuart Lyon Smith deserves to be remembered.

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