Ontario’s lieutenant-governor visits Glendon

David Onley, lieutenant-governor of Ontario, visited Glendon on Jan. 11 at the invitation of Glendon political science Professor Radha Persaud to tell the students in his Canadian government class about his viceregal role and responsibilities and to explain what he sees as his personal opportunity to make a difference.

In 2007, Onley was the first person with a physical disability – he had polio at the age of three – to become a lieutenant-governor. Before stepping into the role, he had a 22-year career as a broadcaster for Citytv and was the first senior newscaster with a visible disability. He has adopted accessibility as his pivotal mandate and has served as a role model for success in overcoming his physical limitations.

Left: A Glendon student speaks with David Onley during his visit to the campus

“David Onley has defined accessibility as that which enables people to achieve their full potential,” said Glendon Principal Kenneth McRoberts in his welcoming address. “True accessibility means that disabled people can fully participate in the social, cultural and economic life of Ontario.”

The lieutenant-governor approached the description of his role from three perspectives. First, in a sweeping overview of the history of the position, he outlined the contributions of the earliest lieutenant-governors, starting with Major-General John Graves Simcoe. Second, he reviewed the viceregal office’s key constitutional responsibilities after Confederation. “The lieutenant-governor is the constitutional head of each province and has the authority to encourage and warn government on matters of the day,” said Onley.

Although today’s lieutenant-governors do not have real political power, they have the highest constitutional standing in their province, second only to the monarch, and have precedence in formal events even to Prince Charles, the heir to the throne.

“However, the ultimate responsibility of the lieutenant-governor – and one which I take very seriously – is that of guardian of the democratic process,” said Onley. “While that may sound a somewhat exalted term, I believe it to be an accurate description and one of the fundamental reasons our system of government is better than others.”

Right: Radha Persaud (left), David Onley, Kenneth McRoberts and the lieutenant-governor’s aide-de-camp (back)

His third topic dealt with the notion of a theme or mandate of the viceregal representative and the future of the position. Onley agreed with a writer who called the position a “relic of history”, but one that has “great democratic potential” because the holder can speak truth to power on behalf of those in society whose voices are drowned out . "As the first lieutenant-governor of Ontario with a physical disability, that cause [for me] is accessibility, which I have taken as the overarching theme of my term of office. By accessibility I do not just mean curb cuts, wider doorways and wheelchair-friendly public transport, although these are important. By accessibility, I mean that which allows Ontarians with disabilities to realize their full potential.”

Persaud, winner of the 2005 Principal’s Teaching Award at Glendon, noted that since Canada is a constitutional monarchy, the role and discretionary powers of the Crown need to be understood by both students of Canadian government and Canadians in general. "In this instance, the students in my Glendon Canadian government class gained a fuller appreciation of the responsibilities of the lieutenant-governor of Ontario and an illumination of the history of the viceregal role in Ontario’s governmental system," he said.

Onley also championed disability issues for many years as chair of the Government of Ontario’s Accessibility Standards Advisory Council and as an accessibility council member for the Rogers Centre and the Air Canada Centre.

He was inducted into the Terry Fox Hall of Fame and the Scarborough Walk of Fame, and is the recipient of the Ontario March of Dimes Rick Hansen Award of Excellence as well as the Courage to Come Back Award. In addition, Onley received an honorary degree from York during its 2009 spring convocation ceremonies. (See YFile, July 3, 2009.)

Submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny