In Conversation with David Onley
The announcement that David Onley will be the next lieutenant-governor of Ontario has been roundly met with approval and excitement. The disability community is thrilled that the lifelong advocate and popular broadcaster on Toronto’s Citytv will call Queen’s Park his office for the next five years as the Queen’s 28th representative in the province. He replaces the Honourable James Bartleman, whose term ended on July 31.
Onley, 57, was raised in Scarborough, Ontario. At age three, he contracted polio, and he now uses a scooter, leg braces and a cane. Onley earned a political science degree at the University of Toronto. He joined Citytv 22 years ago as a science and weather specialist. In 2005, he was appointed Chair of the Accessibility Standards Advisory Council to the Minister of Community and Social Services. He has also been active in numerous community organizations, and was inducted into The Terry Fox Hall of Fame in 1997. To top it all off, he’s the author of a bestselling novel, Shuttle: A Shattering Novel of Disaster in Space.
Abilities’ editor and publisher Raymond Cohen met with Onley in July to talk about his new role.
RAYMOND COHEN: What are your preconceptions of the roles and responsibilities of the lieutenant-governor?
DAVID ONLEY: I know the historic rationale for the office, which is one I’ve always fundamentally believed in, and I have an awareness of the constitutional and legal responsibilities. As someone who went through getting my degree in political science, there was also a portion of those studies where we covered the realities of the Canadian political structure. And I suppose you come out of that experience falling into one of two camps: either you hold some sort of pro-monarchy sense or feel, or an indifference, maybe even a prorepublican slant, if you will, if I may use a small “r” republican. I believe that for the majority of people in Ontario, with a couple of obvious exceptions, the general sentiment is a realization of the monarchy’s historical importance and why, in a modern, changing world, there are some important constitutional touchstones that are tremendously valuable. So I was certainly aware of the role and responsibilities, coming into the position. As it got closer and closer to the possibility that I might be considered, and then I found out that I was amongst the final four, then a final few, I started to study the position in a very detailed way, which confirmed my initial feelings about the office.
RC: You’ll be the Queen’s representative?
DO: Queen’s representative in and of the province of Ontario. There is an important constitutional function, in terms of being the signing authority insofar as giving laws royal assent, signing orders-in-council, new cabinet ministers and dropping the writ, which will happen on Sept. 10th, so I will likely be sworn in prior to that, just after Labour Day.
RC: It’s quite a shift from Citytv!
DO: [laughs] It is a huge shift! At the same time I feel very, very fortunate, especially in the last few years on CP24, that I’ve had the enormous privilege of interviewing hundreds and hundreds of people from a wide variety of backgrounds, from high-profile politicians — I mean, literally starting with the prime minister and working my way through the opposition leaders and the premiers and, by virtue of my position, attending scores of functions over the years, either as a guest or receiving an award or as a reporter, and I have seen the lieutenant-governor, premier and prime minister in informal functions. And so as the reality of this position came upon me, I became very aware that there was a lot to learn in the actual nuts and bolts of the office that you literally couldn’t learn unless you were [at Queen’s Park]. There was preliminary work and a great deal of background information, especially from people like Rudyard Griffiths of the Dominion Institute, who was a regular guest I interviewed. We spoke at length about the monarchy and related political issues. Also, Paul Pellegrini, the president of Sussex Strategy Group, and I talked about the politics of the province and the country, so I feel like I’ve had some unique training in terms of preparation for this position.
RC: What will your official title be, and how would one refer to you?
DO: It will be David C. Onley, 28th lieutenant-governor of Ontario, and one would use “Your Honour.”
RC: How do your friends and family feel about your appointment?
DO: I was first approached by Ann Rohmer and her father, General Rohmer, who have been family friends for decades — my father and General Rohmer both served in the RCAF and were lawyers in North York. When they first approached me at the end of May 2006 and asked if I would consider allowing my name to stand, one of the first people I talked to was my wife, Ruth Ann, and I said, “This is something we really have to think about, because if you don’t think I should do this, I won’t do it. Here’s what it would entail, this is what it would mean.” And she, right from the very start, said, “Yes, I think you should.” Ruth has been enormously supportive and has been my helpmate all of our marriage of 25 years this past April, and I know that she will have an important role to play. She does actually, constitutionally, within the parameters of the office in some key areas. She will bring an important touch to the function of the office.
RC: How does it feel to leave the media after 22 years?
DO: It was both easy and difficult at the same time. The easy part was realizing that this is an opportunity of a lifetime, that you could not say no to. And something that I really, truly hope and pray will be of great benefit to many, many people. But at the same time I must admit, on the day of the announcement on July 10th, when I came back into the Citytv parking lot to do an interview with some people and then go inside to be a part of the 6 o’clock news, it was pretty intensely emotional. It really was. Still is now. These are people that I’ve worked with, we’ve laughed together, cried together and, like any good workplace, they are your family away from home. One thing that does make it somewhat easier is the realization that it is the end of an era at CHUM/Citytv, in terms of the buyout by CTV, Globe Media and Rogers. Citytv as it has been just doesn’t exist any more. It is the end of an era, so I thought, well, if this [new position] does come along, this is the right time to leave.
RC: Your life as a disability role model is about to move up several notches! How do you feel about that?
DO: It’s very humbling. Very, very humbling. There was a cartoon by Steve Nease in the July 13th edition of the Oakville Beaver that shows the picture of me that’s on the Citytv website, with me sitting on my scooter in my blue jacket. And what he’s done — he just nails it so beautifully — he shows me on a big-screen TV, and it says, “News item: David Onley named Ontario lieutenant-governor,” and in front of the TV are two little guys in wheelchairs and they’re high-fiving each other. No caption. Pow, you know!
RC: Who are your political role models?
DO: Robert F. Kennedy, right from the beginning. He’s not a Canadian, but I was 18 when he died, and I was 17 when I went to my first political convention, which was the Conservative convention in Toronto for the leadership that picked Robert Stanfield, and the Liberal convention the following spring that picked Pierre Trudeau. I was bitten by the political bug at that point. I began reading Kennedy’s writings and what his philosophy was in terms of government, and it was summed up by his often-used quote, “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’” And for years afterwards I would write the words, “Why not?” at the top of my date book. I did that all through university and although I stopped doing it after a while, there is that reality in politics of “We have this responsibility.” We just do. That’s what differentiates us from the non-democratic jurisdictions in the world.
RC: How long have you been on the Accessibility Standards Advisory Council?
DO: I was, along with the rest of the council, installed in the first week of December 2005, and then we continued functioning up till the present. On the day of the announcement, on July 10th, I had a call from Madeleine Meilleur, Minister of Community and Social Services, and of course the entire office and entire council are just enormously thrilled, for obvious reasons, and she understood why I had to step down.
There are some enormously talented people on the council who, quite frankly, are far more knowledgeable about the content of legislation past and present than I am. So whether they pick a new chair from outside or from within, they’re going to be very, very well served. And I think, if nothing else, in some ways the council will be enhanced knowing that not only does it have the minister’s ear, but it also has mine. And while I can’t comment directly on public policy in terms of individual government policies, I can and plan to be a force of moral suasion and if things aren’t moving quickly, I am not amused. In fact, the responsibilities of the council right now include primarily the different standards as they apply to the implementation of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, so it’s very much a nuts-and-bolts series of steps that have to be taken. I feel either way that my greatest strength is more on the advocacy side as opposed to the nuts-and-bolts side.
RC: You’re usually seen as an on-theground kind of person. This new position may call for more traditional, as opposed to front-line, hands-on, advocacy. Will this work for you?
DO: I think that over the years, while I’ve done multiple stories related to disability issues, I’ve seen the limitations of being a member of the media. There’s only so much that you can do and some of the greatest frustrations in my professional life have been heartbreaking phone calls from people wanting me to do a story [about their situation]. I knew full well I couldn’t do it because in television, news has to be less than 90 seconds and it would take the person a good 15 minutes just to get past the introduction of the tragedy or the difficulty that had befallen them. Or the series of misfortunes.
RC: Systemic, very often.
DO: Oh, yes. And I will say this: this is an amazing province, always has been. It’s fundamental to the health and vitality of this country. It represents everything that Canada is, from the warmest to the coldest climates in geography; the Great Lakes and cottage country — I could keep on going. It has always been the engine that’s driven the Canadian economy and in many ways, through consecutive governments of very different philosophies, they have all kept faith with the notion of the safety net, which is not begrudged. We recognize in this province that there are individuals who through no choice of their own, or through bad luck or unfortunate genetics or just the things that happen in life, have had a terrible hand dealt to them. And we’ve always been a people who have reached out and have tried to respond in the right way. This is the city, Toronto, and this is the province where Terry Fox’s run finally took off, and this is where he became cemented into Canadian history. And you could go on naming various other people who made a difference. But I have really come to believe that while there’s this wonderful support floor across our culture to help, there are too many cracks in it and there are just too many people falling through those cracks. And if I can do anything, it’s going to be, in terms of moral suasion, to help point out where those cracks are. Let’s fill them in! We have an obligation to do that.
RC: David Onley, I’m sure you will do us all proud. Thank you very much.
Raymond Cohen is the publisher and editorin- chief of Abilities.