David Onley, former lieutenant-governor of Ontario, dead at 72

David Onley is shown when he was Ontario's lieutenant-governor delivering the throne speech in the legislature, in Toronto on Feb. 19, 2013. On Saturday, his death was announced by current Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell. (The Canadian Press - image credit)
David Onley is shown when he was Ontario's lieutenant-governor delivering the throne speech in the legislature, in Toronto on Feb. 19, 2013. On Saturday, his death was announced by current Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell. (The Canadian Press - image credit)

David C. Onley, who served as Ontario's 28th lieutenant-governor, has died at the age of 72, the lieutenant-governor's office said Saturday evening.

Serving from 2007 to 2014, Onley was the first person with a physical disability to hold the post, a statement from Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell reads.

"Whenever Mr. Onley entered a room, those present saw beyond physical limitations. They saw a person they liked and admired," she said. "There is no doubt that his legacy has positively impacted the lives of people across Ontario."

Onley had disabilities stemming from a childhood bout with polio, and he used a motorized scooter. Before taking office, he had a career in television journalism, which included a focus on science and technology reporting, Dowdeswell said.

He then served as chair of the Accessibility Standards Advisory Council and was a member of the accessibility councils for the Rogers Centre and the Air Canada Centre, she said, describing Onley as an "active advocate" for improved access to employment for people with disabilities.

During his term, Dowdeswell says, Onley also channelled his passion for access to opportunities into expanding literacy and education programs for Indigenous people in Ontario while "emphasizing the importance of reconciliation."

Later in life, Dowdeswell said, he acted as a special adviser on accessibility within the Ontario government and as a senior lecturer at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

Onley is survived by his wife, Ruth Ann, and children Jonathan, Robert, and Michael, Dowdeswell said.

'A man of dignity'

Politicians and colleagues remembered Onley's character and advocacy upon the news of his death.

"He was such a man of dignity and so respectful of the political process and the need to analyze what was going on. I have such a deep respect for him," former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne told CBC News Network on Saturday.

"It was so clear that he was thrilled to be in the role of lieutenant-governor, but his passion was to demonstrate that everyone should have a chance to live to their fullest," Wynne said of his advocacy for people with disabilities.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford issued a statement Sunday saying he was "deeply saddened" to hear about Onley's death.

"As Lieutenant Governor, and throughout his life, he worked tirelessly to raise public awareness about accessibility issues, encouraging people to 'see the ability, rather than the disability,"' the statement reads.

"His contributions to the province and his unwavering commitment to public service will long be remembered and celebrated."

WATCH | David Onley reflected on his time as lieutenant-governor when he wrapped up his term: 

Onley was a "proud" graduate of the University of Toronto Scarborough, where he returned as a lecturer upon vacating his post as lieutenant-governor.

University president Meric Gertler said the school was honoured to have Onley as its special ambassador for the 2015 Pan American and Parapan American Games.

"We send our deepest condolences to the Onley family at this very sad time. We will miss this true gentleman," reads a statement from Gertler posted on Twitter.

Toronto Mayor John Tory said he was "so sad" to hear of Onley's death, calling him a "gracious and committed" lieutenant-governor even after his period in office.

"We are all thankful for his legacy of championing disability issues and fighting for accessibility for everyone," Tory said in a statement.

Onley's political legacy

Onley "made history" throughout his seven years in office, the advocacy group Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Alliance said in a statement.

"David Onley was a good friend, trusted advisor and comrade in arms in the campaign for accessibility for people with disabilities," said David Lepofsky, the chair of the alliance.

Just a few months ago, Lepofsky says Onley helped campaign for AODA Alliance to give testimony on Bill C-22, the proposed Canada Disability Benefit Act.

Maayan Ziv, provided by Lieutenant Governor of Ontario's office
Maayan Ziv, provided by Lieutenant Governor of Ontario's office

In early 2019, Onley delivered his review of the AODA. The report described Ontario as "mostly inaccessible" and criticized the current Ford government, as well as previous Liberal administrations, for failing to follow through on the 2005 law's promise of making the province fully accessible by 2025.

"This is a matter of civil rights, and people with disabilities are being discriminated against on a daily basis in multiple ways," he said at the time.

When commenting on the Ontario government's progress on his report in February, Onley made note of the lack of firm dates and commitments in the Advancing Accessibility in Ontario framework, which aims to improve accessibility in the province and was informed by the recommendations in Onley's report.

"These governments do not exist to solve problems. They create offices, positions and ideas. But they're not solutions," Onley said.