In Conversation with David Onley
As Ontario’s first Lieutenant Governor with a physical disability, The Honourable David C. Onley adopted accessibility as the overarching theme of his mandate. Defining accessibility as “that which enables people to achieve their full potential,” and believing that true accessibility occurs only when disabled people can completely participate in all aspects of social, cultural, and economic life, Onley shares the leadership lessons he’s learned from his experience at one of the top echelons of government, as well as his message of human rights for all. In October, Onley took up his new post as senior lecturer in UTSC’s Department of Political Science. The Varsity sat down with Onley to discuss his new role at UTSC, his public service legacy, and his accessibility advocacy work.
The Varsity: After your tenure as one of Ontario’s longest-serving lieutenant governors, why return to UTSC?
David Onley: I live physically close and, because I am a graduate from Scarborough College 1975… it seemed like a logical thing. Georgette Zinaty, [UTSC executive director, development & alumni relations,] and I met and there was a discussion of “maybe you should consider teaching.” It was far enough on the horizon that it gave me serious time to think about it. At that point, I had no idea my term [as lieutenant governor] was going to be extended to September of 2014. That led to a series of conversations with former [UTSC] principal [Franco] Vaccarino. I attended different U of T functions and met with U of T president Meric Gertler. President Gertler eventually asked if I would be the school’s ambassador to the Pan Am/Parapan Am Games.
TV: What will you be teaching and what would you like students to learn from your teachings?
DO: It will be a political science C-level course on the vice-regal office in Canada. We had toyed around with the idea of teaching a course on Ontario politics but, after some discussion, realized that the best use of my experience would be to focus on the vice-regal office and not just the provincial lieutenant governor’s office…[I]t is the vice-regal office and British parliamentary democratic structure that is the biggest separation point between ourselves and the Americans. Canadians have always had a vice-regal representative in the country going back to Champlain. I want to trace it forward, showing key moments in our history. Vice-regal representatives have made decisions that changed Canadian history.
V: Looking at your career in journalism, what have you learned from the experience and how have you benefitted from it?
DO: Certainly, the capacity to speak before an audience in television for 22-and-a-half years helped develop that skill set in speaking with general public and, as a reporter, in dealing with government. I graduated from U of T with an Honours BA Specialist certificate in political science, with a personal interest in Ontario politics. From an early age, in terms of my career, I had this interest in politics but became nurtured during my university years and was able to apply it in many ways in my time at City TV. In a way, it really did prepare me for the office of lieutenant-governor.
TV: You will be serving as the university’s Special Ambassador to the Pan Am/Parapan Am Games. What does this role entail, and what would you like to achieve?
DO: The role is still being defined, but I have already had the opportunity to show people around the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre. I am going to represent the University of Toronto at events leading up to the games. One of the responsibilities is to be physically here [at UTSC] during the games themselves. It is a phenomenal complex. I have had the great privilege of attending the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Paralympics and have seen the aquatic centres in both countries. The Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre is on the same podium as the two venues. It is… a world-class facility.
TV: Beginning January 1, 2015, the Ontario Access Disability Act (OADA) will require private and non-profit organizations to implement accessibility policies. What could be done to improve accessibility on campus?
DO: I chose to attend the UTSC campus back in 1970 because, back then, it was easily the most accessible post-secondary facility in the province. The architects had accessibility in mind and that tradition has continued. All these years later — while it has expanded dramatically in the physical plan and the number of students — it’s still a remarkably accessible facility. There is an audit about to get under way… to see what [accessibility] changes could be made, so I will be involved in that process. Within the context of UTSC, we have a structural and historic commitment to accessibility. In the accessibility office, there is a commitment that extends right through the hierarchy of UTSC. It is my hope that UTSC can continue to be a leader and lead by example in this regard… OADA was passed nine years ago, and the tenth anniversary will occur around the time of the Pan Am and Parapan Am games. It will be a time to reflect how far we have come and how much further we have to go.
TV: Looking back on your service as the twenty-eighth lieutenant governor and the legacy of those who came before you, what would you like to be remembered for?
DO: I set out from the beginning to enhance the relevance of the office of lieutenant governor to the community and culture. The office gets flooded with hundreds and hundreds of invitations, so one need only accept those invitations, show up, and be physically present. Then, you have represented the office to different communities. But are we relevant to the culture? That is the key question and that was what we needed to do as an office. We embrace[d] social media, and reach[ed] out to community groups who have never been at the lieutenant governor’s office. Yet, they too were fundamentally a part of the culture: the Chinese Canadian community, members of the Southeast Asian community, representatives from Latin American groups who have a presence here in our culture. Physically making the Lieutenant Governor’s Suite accessible through the province’s building and installing of an elevator inside the suite. Prior to me, there was a high degree of inaccessibility in the office.