Former Ontario lieutenant governor and distinguished broadcast journalist David Onley passed away on January 14 at age 72. A UTSC alumnus and former senior lecturer at UTSC’s Department of Political Science, Onley fiercely advocated for disability rights and accessibility throughout his career.
The same day, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the current Ontario lieutenant governor, formally announced Onley’s passing. Flags at Queen’s Park and Toronto City Hall, among other places, were lowered to half-mast to commemorate Onley.
Onley contracted polio as a child, which left him partially paralyzed and reliant on devices such as a motorized scooter to move around. In 1975, he graduated from UTSC with an honours bachelor of arts degree. As a student, he served as president of the Scarborough College Student Council — the student union that represented UTSC students at the time — and created a radio station on campus.
Onley then worked for 22 years as a television broadcast journalist for CityTV and then CP24. He notably insisted that cameras show him with his mobility device, making him the first newscaster in Canada with a visible disability.
From 2007 to 2014, he served as the 28th lieutenant governor of Ontario — the first person with a physical disability to hold the position. Onley made inclusion and accessibility his priority during his tenure.
In 2018, he wrote a highly critical report on the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, a law enacted in 2005 that sought to remove barriers for people with disability. He concluded that Ontario was far from meeting its goal of achieving complete accessibility by 2025. Some of the barriers it hoped to target persist, including ableism, high unemployment rates among people with disabilities, and inadequate physical infrastructures.
After his stint as lieutenant governor, Onley returned to UTSC as a political science lecturer, where he taught courses such as “Politics of Disability” and “Sources of Power: The Crown, Parliament and the People.” In 2015, he served as U of T’s ambassador to the Pan American and Parapan American Games, the latter of which is an international multi-sport competition for athletes with disabilities that takes place every four years.
Onley was appointed to the Order of Canada and Order of Ontario, and inducted into the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame and the Scarborough Walk of Fame, among other honours.
“The legacy of David Onley’s advocacy for people with disabilities is so immense, it’s difficult to quantify,” wrote Bianca Dahl — an assistant professor at UTSC’s Department of Anthropology — in an email to The Varsity.
Dahl met Onley at UTSC in January 2016, when she had just returned to teaching after having lost the ability to walk unassisted. At the time, she was using a four-wheeled motorized scooter to move around campus, and when Onley saw her, he complimented her on her “wheels.”
Dahl recalled that Onley was using the three-wheeled model of her scooter and discussed with her the advantages of his three-wheeled model. “Within three minutes of meeting David, he had shuffled off his scooter so I could test its turning radius, and I found myself spinning high-speed donuts on his mobility device in the corridors of the [humanities] wing,” she wrote.
“[The encounter] brought a surge of much-needed joy to my experiences of pain and disability, at the moment when I most needed it,” Dahl added. From there, they met numerous times to chat, which helped Dahl process “the complex emotions and challenges of navigating life with mobility limitations.”
“This was the kind of person he was: generous, caring, and sensitive to the social and emotional challenges that people with disabilities face, even beyond the structural barriers to access,” she wrote.
Others who paid tribute to Onley include UTSC Vice-President and Principal Wisdom Tettey, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and Toronto Mayor John Tory.
“He made a difference in the lives of so many Ontarians,” U of T President Meric Gertler said. “We send our deepest condolences to the Onley family at this sad time. We will miss this true gentleman.”
Onley is survived by his wife Ruth Onley and three children: Jonathan, Robert, and Michael. He will be commemorated at a state funeral on January 30.