Published January 30, 2023

David Onley, former Ontario lieutenant-governor, remembered as role model, family man

He was lauded by mourners for always pushing for accessibility rights for all. 

By Maan Alhmidi and Allison Jones in Toronto

David Onley, a former lieutenant-governor for Ontario, was remembered Monday as a tireless advocate, a role model, a man of faith and a devoted husband, father and grandfather.

Onley, who emerged as a champion of disability rights both during and after his seven-year stint as Ontario's 28th lieutenant-governor, died at age 72 on Jan. 14.

He used a motorized scooter throughout his life after contracting polio as a child and was lauded by mourners for always pushing for accessibility rights for all. 

His son said Monday that Onley's greatest wish was for all disabled people to have the ability to fully participate in the social, cultural and economic life of Canada. When he became lieutenant-governor, Onley told his son that the legislature wasn't fully accessible.

"I asked him what he was going to do about it," Jonathan Onley said. "His response? 'Well, if they want me, they're going to have to prove it.'"

It was David Onley's mantra for the events he attended as lieutenant-governor, his son said.

"He wouldn't accept temporary accessibility measures," Jonathan Onley said. "It needed to be permanent. He wanted to ensure all those who came after him had the same access, the same ability to fully participate."

As a father and husband, David Onley was doting, his son said. He would talk to his family often about baseball and about his faith in God.

"As a kid, I often asked, 'Dad, what do you think heaven will be like?'" his son said. "He told me there is no polio in heaven, and he was excited to run, and that the two of us would play a game of baseball together one day."

Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell said Onley was an inspiration "and a role model without comparison."

"He believed that the lieutenant-governor's office could be a transformational force for good, and he worked daily and tirelessly to realize that possibility," she said in her eulogy.

Onley's story is not just one of adversity, but one of accomplishment, Dowdeswell said. He was a boy from Midland, Ont., known for his "curiosity and desire to learn," and rose to greatness, she said. 

"There can be no doubt of David Onley's greatness," Dowdeswell said. "He represented some of the best qualities of who we are as Canadians, qualities that we don't talk often enough about: compassion, empathy, and most of all, kindness." 

Premier Doug Ford said Onley's legacy won't soon be forgotten.

"His life of service is a call for each of us to commit to the same values of respect and inclusion, to make Ontario a more welcoming place for disabled people, to make Ontario a more welcoming place for all people," he said.

The funeral was open to members of the public as well as dignitaries.

Neil Hewitt, who attended the same church as Onley, said his father lost the use of one leg due to polio and Onley inspired him.

Joan Miles, another community member who was there to pay her respects, said she admired Onley for his advocacy.

"I appreciated very much his presence on media, on Citytv and the fact that he ... insisted on doing his broadcasting with the (scooter) visible," Miles said.

Melanie Barnett said she is on the autism spectrum and travelled from Oshawa, Ont., to attend the funeral.

"David Onley is a very symbolic figure for people ... with disabilities," she said. "His legacy is to have equality rights for people with disabilities, and to have fully-accessible buildings."

Jaclyn Pope said she is visionally impaired and Onley inspired her to become an accessibility advocate.

"He worked so hard for everybody. He thought of everybody, so we want to continue that," she said after the service. "He impacted my life."

Prior to becoming lieutenant-governor, Onley spent more than two decades working at Citytv as a reporter, joining the station as a weather specialist.

Robert Onley, another one of David Onley's three sons, said Citytv viewers would constantly stop his dad while he was out in public, and he would engage with them, "even if he was halfway through a bite of his New York Fries at the Scarborough Town Centre."

"One time on a very cold January day, just like today, a woman stopped him and asked him for the forecast on her wedding day," Robert Onley said. 

"So my dad asked, 'Well, when is the wedding date?' She replied, July 31. Completely unfazed, dad said, 'Well, there's a 50 per cent chance of rain and a 50 per cent chance of sunshine.' The woman smiled and said, 'Thank you,' visibly relieved. Dad was forever the weatherman."

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2023.

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