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

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 insisting on delivering the news when he worked at Citytv with his cane or scooter visible, and for championing accessibility rights for all.

His son said at his father's funeral Monday that his 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.

Members of the public, as well as dignitaries, are attending the funeral.

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.

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

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

Maan Alhmidi and Allison Jones, The Canadian Press