• Photograph by Broadbent Institute

Harry Leslie Smith stands up for progress

92-year-old veteran and activist Harry Leslie Smith is visiting Regina, June 25th, as part of the Broadbent Institute’s Stand Up for Progress Tour. In advance of his visit he spoke with Saskatoon physician Ryan Meili about his history and his vision for the future.

Ryan Meili: I am part of a generation that has never known anything but Medicare, but we’ve seen threats to it and we've tried to stand up against those, for example through Canadian Doctors for Medicare. I wonder what you would say to someone who takes for granted the universal publicly-funded system or thinks that it is something we should experiment with. What would you say to someone like that about life before the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK?

Harry Leslie Smith: Quite frankly, I would be aghast. I would have to tell them in terms of what life was actually like, you know, when there was no hospitalization. It was a bleak, uncivilized time and you can't imagine then, hospitals, doctors, and medicine were for the privileged few because they were run for profit rather than as a vital state service that keeps a nation’s citizens and workers fit and healthy.

My memories stretch back almost a hundred years and if I close my eyes I can smell the poverty that oozed from the dusty tenement streets of my boyhood. I can remember extreme hunger and my parents’ undying love for me and my sisters and in my heart, I can still feel my mom and dad's desperation as they tried to keep our family safe and healthy in the slum we called home.

You know, I still remember, actually, while I played on the stoop in front of the doss-house that we lived in, the anguished cries from a window, several doors down from us, from a lady who had cancer and couldn't afford morphine to ease her passage from life. That was the sort of thing that as a child didn't register quite so much as it did when you got older and you thought of the injustice that prevailed because there was no health service. It was a really desperate time. There was no family safe, actually, from being affected by the disease which flourished around all our neighbourhoods. No one in the community was safe from poor health, sickness and disease.

In our home, TB came for my eldest sister Marion. Tuberculosis tortured my sister and left her an invalid that had to be restrained with ropes to her bed by my parents. They did everything in their power to keep Marion alive and comfortable, but they just didn't have the money to get the best clinics for her and the best doctors, or get her the right medicine. Instead she wasted away before our eyes. My mother could no longer handle her care and they hired a horse and cart to take her to the workhouse infirmary where she died at the age of ten. As if that wasn't enough pain and suffering for my parents, they didn't have the money for her burial so she was dumped in a pauper's pit like all other country's indigent. And it saddens me to think that even goes on today; the number of people that don't have the money for proper burial and are just dumped in a pit; ten or twenty bodies in one grave. I still visit when I go to England in Bradford, where my father and mother were buried. My father was buried in an indigent grave and my mother not, she managed to fight to the bitter end. But, it's hard for anyone to realize today the privations and the suffering that people had to go through. I think that's the reason when the war came, I joined the RAF in 1941 and in 1945, the whole of the forces had suffered greatly just as I had because we were of one mind, we were not going to tolerate it anymore.

There was an election in '45 and we were solid in this belief that we would vote only for a government that promises that we would have free health care and that people's rights would be protected. And it just reverberated around the world where all soldiers, sailors and airmen were still stationed and the Labour government got in with quite a majority. It was such a wonderful sensation and, that was 1945. By 1948 the NHS was running through England. When I returned in 1948, I had a bout of bronchitis. I was broke as I had just come out of the air force, I went to the hospital where I saw a doctor for the first time in my life and he recommended antibiotics and the very fact that I would walk out of that hospital, free and clear, it was really a miracle.

Ryan Meili: That is something amazing. And in your life, and so many lives, the NHS and Medicare here in Canada have made an enormous difference in access to healthcare when people get sick. Of course healthcare is what happens once people are already sick, and the things that determine whether or not we'll be ill or well are factors like how much money people make, how far they go in school, what kind of work they have, what sort of housing they live in. Those play an extremely important role in health. Are there changes that you have seen recently that affect those social determinants and put our health at greater risk?

Well, you know, quite honestly, I could almost cry really. And what alarms me is people seem to be sitting back and they are not expressing any feeling that they are being treating badly. They seem to be accepting the fact that they have to be on zero hour contract jobs; they feel they can never make any more money so why should we care who's in government, it's just appalling. I really hope that in going around this coming year out west in all the provinces that I can get through to some of these people, that it is only they that can change their life, it's not governments alone. They have to get up and fight for their rights.

Make sure that in local elections and also federal elections that you are right at the front with your vote making sure the person you feel is best suited to the job gets elected.

So please, if you don't know anything about politics, for god sakes, read up on it; ascertain what you can demand and what you can't. Make sure that in local elections and also federal elections that you are right at the front with your vote making sure the person you feel is best suited to the job gets elected. Don't leave it up to other people because the people who are against changes in society are the people that always vote because they are the ones that benefit from the vote. But we can change that by getting people to come out and vote every election and keeping the MP's feet to the fire by phoning them, and asking questions, demanding something from them just to make sure that they know these people that they put in power are going to change things for the better for them.

In this day and age it's frightening to think that food banks are so prevalent and people feel that this is sufficient to feed people properly. It isn't. The maximum food people can get from the food bank, I would say, is if they are lucky they get 2-3 meals a week. What do they do for the rest of the time? The type of food they are eating is fast food or cheap food, and this of course encourages them to become overweight; their lack of hope has them sitting around too much instead of getting up and exercising and they don't realize how much better it makes them feel to get up and feel that at least they're fighting for something; they are fighting for something that which they deserve which has been taken from them. Honestly, I do despair.

Ryan Meili: You despair at times, but you're also on this tour. You're coming to Regina to share a stage with a group of younger people who are also involved in fights for social justice and a better Canada. Is there anything that's giving you some hope?

I just returned from a trip to England where I was speaking for the Labour Party there. I found that I got the most enthusiasm from University students and the young people. I know one place I went to, in the North, after I finished speaking, three hundred students went out and registered to vote in the election, which they had never done before. I feel some how they are looking for a leader, someone to voice their thoughts to, express their disgust to at what they feel but can't voice. And this is what I am going to be trying to do. I am going to be having a series of new speeches which will be directed to young people, to encourage them to look deeper into their lives to ask themselves, "Is this all there is? Is this all there has to be or can we make it different?" And I think the young are looking for someone to lead them, someone to take them on. I’m not saying I am the person- I am too bloody old, but I am sure in our society someone like yourself, could press upon the young people the necessity for them to get up off their asses and work to change society for the betterment of all people, not just the people at the top who don't need our help.

Ryan Meili: Do you have any particular advice for that new generation of leaders, those who would like to turn the tide of austerity and building a just and healthy society again?

When I think of the size of our country and I think of all the people who have been to university and come out with great degrees, that there must be dozens and dozens of young people that have come out and now are dissatisfied with what they see. Unfortunately, too many of them feel that what they have to aim for is how much can they make with doing little for it.

Humanity cannot evolve when its leaders are only interested in the profit and it's most affluent constituents and ignore the rest of the people.

You’ve certainly given me a great deal to think about before I do arrive there to see if I can energize youth to face the future and not just face it, but to aid it, to improve it, to shape it. Humanity cannot evolve when its leaders are only interested in the profit and it's most affluent constituents and ignore the rest of the people.

As you know, I'm 92, but I really could cry when I feel people are despairing so much that they are losing hope. I mean when I think of my life, my young life, I left school at 14 for god sake. I never went to university and my first 30 years were involved in work and the war. So, I lost 30 years of my life in the beginning, so I like to kid myself that I get an extra 30 years on this end because I lost it in the beginning (laughter). But I've certainly made up for it in my progress. In 1953, when I came to Canada because I didn't find much hope in England. Although, I'd taken language classes in order to break me of my old Yorkshire dialect thinking it would improve my chances of a position in England which I would say it did, eventually. I came to Canada and the spaciousness of this land, it gives you so much hope somehow. You thought, "If I can't make a go of it here, where can I?' And we found that rents for accommodation were very reasonable. You got a job, it wasn't highly paid but you had a chance of working up. And by the time I was 40, I bought my own, my first house. And I had two children and one on the way. That was a life which I had always dreamed of and Canada gave it to me. I will forever be grateful for it. Because it was a wonderful life, I enjoyed every moment of it.

Ryan Meili: And now you're touring the country and sharing that history and giving a new generation leadership and hope. And I thank you for that. I am very much looking forward to meeting you in Regina at the end of June. And I think it will be great for the people in Regina to hear your message; your memories and vision for the future.


Harry Leslie Smith is the author of the acclaimed book Harry’s Last Stand: How the World My Generation Built is Falling Down, and What We Can Do to Save it, and at 92, he’s Canada’s oldest rebel inspiring the next generation of activists. Smith survived the Great Depression and fought in the Second World War for the United Kingdom. After the war, he immigrated to Canada, and built a life with his family in Ontario.

Ryan Meili is a Saskatoon Family Physician, founder of Upstream and author of A Healthy Society: how a focus on health can revive Canadian democracy. He is vice-chair of the national advocacy organization Canadian Doctors for Medicare and a Broadbent Institute Policy Fellow.

Want to read more?

Dreaming Healthy Nations: Closing the Gap by Max Fineday - "It's time to try something new"

We're Asking Healthcare to Fix Something it Didn't Break by Ellen Lawton and Megan Sandel - "We have to consider the health of individuals and our communities in every conversation and every policy about housing, education and food. We can't just expect health care to clean up the aftermath of whatever we decide."


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