Belleville man, 91, shares activist message on book tour

Katrina Clarke | Sept. 26, 2014 | Toronto Star 

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Pictured: Harry Leslie Smith. Photo credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Harry Leslie Smith spent his childhood digging through garbage bins behind restaurants, scavenging for scraps of food and dreaming of drinking bottles of milk.

Smith grew up in Barnsley, England, during the Great Depression, witnessing personal tragedy and suffering as a result of crushing poverty. He survived what he calls the “barbarous” time, going on to join the Royal Air Force and fight in the Second World War, but memories of his brutal childhood stuck with him.

He later moved to Scarborough, where he managed a carpet store, and eventually settled in Belleville, Ont. Now 91, he has written a book based on his experiences about how to solve the Western world’s problems — inequality, high housing costs and threats to public health-care coverage — and his speeches are galvanizing the masses.

Smith brought an audience of 7,000 at a Labour Party conference to tears this week and received two standing ovations.

“I know I’m not a historian, but I am history,” he said to the Star Thursday from a hotel room in Manchester, where he is on a wildly successful book tour.

“I’m sure I’m going to wake up and find I’m back in bed in Belleville,” said Smith, who has more than 10,000 followers on Twitter.

Harry’s Last Stand has sold more than 18,000 copies since its release in the U.K. in June and Canada in September. Annie Lennox even sent him a handwritten thank you card.

The book is a rallying call to younger generations. Through speaking about his own experiences, Smith hopes young people will lead the governmental changes he thinks society desperately needs.

He has replaced his plans for retirement in Portugal with his campaign for change.

Smith recalls watching helplessly as his sister, Marion, deteriorated after contracting tuberculosis. The family was too poor to afford a doctor to treat her and she died at age 10. Her body was thrown in a pit because a proper burial was too expensive.

In 1945, he met a woman in Germany named Friede who later became his wife.

The two moved to Toronto in the 1950s for a second chance at a happy life. Smith became a manager of a carpet store and bought a home. The two raised a family, four boys, in Scarborough, and went on vacations around the world.

Times were “idyllic,” Smith said.

In 1999, after 51 years of marriage, Friede died of cancer. In his grief, Smith began to reflect on his childhood, gathering his thoughts by putting pen to paper.

He felt compelled to write about income inequality after the 2008 stock market crash. He saw parallels between government failures in the Great Depression and where civilization is headed today.

“I feel we have to return to a nation of fair play through protection of our most vulnerable and ensuring our middle class grows and doesn’t diminish,” he said.

Speaking to the Star, Smith said he worries Western societies are slipping back into harmful patterns of the past — in particular, that young people are being negatively affected by government decisions after the economic recession.

Smith sees problems with governments’ failures to focus on affordable education, housing and income equality at a time when young people need assistance most. As a result, a “lost generation” is emerging, he said.

“Owning a home makes you feel you are somebody, you belong somewhere,” he said. “It seems that none of the younger generation can even dream of owning a home.”

The comfortable life Smith was eventually able to enjoy in Scarborough, despite making a salary of at most $40,000, is out of the realm of possibility for today’s youth, he said.

Smith has now written articles for the Guardian — including a widely shared article about why he will no longer wear a poppy on Remembrance Day — and the New Statesman. He previously self-published three books.

Smith’s son said his father’s message is resonating with so many people because he is “genuine.”

“It’s sort of like having a discussion with a really interesting grandfather or an older person,” said Max Smith, 50. “My dad has always been a kind man and he’s always wanted to learn.”

He now splits his time between an apartment in Belleville, Ont. and his brother’s home in Yorkshire, England.

“I’m sure there is somebody out there, some bright young spark who will come up with an idea to reform society,” he said. “People will have to be patient, but it will happen.”

In the meantime, he calls on young people in Canada and the U.K. to vote in the upcoming federal elections.

“They have to go out and vote because they won’t change anything unless they get out en masse. They did it in (the referendum in) Scotland, I’m sure we can do it in Canada,” he said.

“You can’t just sit back and let things take their course.”

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About Katrina Clarke

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto- and Vancouver-based freelance reporter. Her work appears in the National Post, the Toronto Star, CBC Life and J-Source. Reach her at katrina.clarke24@gmail.com or on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.
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