Tuesday November 21, 2017

94-year-old podcaster Harry Leslie Smith says he'll 'drop dead' before he stops fighting for equality

Harry Leslie Smith, 94, is a WWII veteran turned anti-austerity activist and hopes his podcasts and books will compel a younger generation to act.

Harry Leslie Smith, 94, is a WWII veteran turned anti-austerity activist and hopes his podcasts and books will compel a younger generation to act. (Smith family)

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As Harry Leslie Smith sees it, his life "is at eventide."

But the 94-year-old author and activist isn't letting that stop him from speaking out and trying to make a difference. 

'Life is not good anymore for ordinary people.' - Harry Leslie Smith

The British-born Smith, who now makes his home in Canada, is spending his old age writing books, speaking at political gatherings, and podcasting to tens of thousands of listeners about the lessons he's learned through his life story — and what a story it is.  

Harry Leslie Smith

Harry Leslie Smith in Hamburg, Germany, May 1945. Smith has survived extreme poverty in his childhood; the Great Depression; the Second World War; and later in life, the loss of his wife and one of his three sons. (Harry Leslie Smith)

Smith survived a childhood of extreme poverty in Yorkshire, England, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and later, while living in Canada, the loss of his wife and one of his three sons. As he puts it, he has seen humanity at its best — and worst.

'I'm worried because I like people, I love people, and I know what it's like when people suffer.' - Harry Leslie Smith

But now he fears the world risks repeating past mistakes, and he's warning a younger generation to protect the values and gains he helped fight for — especially the welfare state.

Harry Leslie Smith

Harry Leslie Smith, 1941. This photo was taken at age 18 after basic training in the Royal Air Force. (Harry Leslie Smith)

"I can see already that we are retreating back to my past," he tells The Current's host Anna Maria Tremonti. 

"Life is not good anymore for ordinary people."

Smith blames government cuts to social programs, made in the name of austerity, and income inequality for turning back the clock on the progress made during his lifetime. It's a lifetime in which he went from living in hunger, with no access to health care, to witnessing the creation of Britain's National Health Service.

"I'm worried because I like people, I love people, and I know what it's like when people suffer ... when you go to bed at night with an empty stomach and you wake up in the morning with an empty stomach. And all you can feel as a kid is that rumble in the centre of your stomach when you're trudging to school, and you don't know what to do to fill that void."
 


Smith explains he was spurred to action after the 2007-08 financial crisis. 

In his podcast series Harry's Last Stand, and his latest book Don't Let My Past Be Your Future, Smith urges young people to protect the values of equality and inclusion. 

'Hopefully I can change the world's thinking about refugees ... We are all human beings.' - Harry Leslie Smith

He also takes to social media to get his message out.

Smith has 135,000 followers on Twitter, and he recently started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for his next project — a book about the global refugee crisis. Smith wants to tour refugee hot spots to learn about their plight.

"I want to see how they are reacting to what is happening to their world," he tells Tremonti.

"Hopefully I can change the world's thinking about refugees ... We are all human beings."

Harry Leslie Smith Calais Jungle

Harry Leslie Smith in the Calais Jungle, a refugee and migrant encampment in use from January 2015 to October 2016 in Calais, France. (Harry Leslie Smith )

Smith says he won't stop working to advance the causes he believes in until his last breath. 

"I'll be doing this 'til I drop dead," he says. 

"I don't think there's any greater challenge than to get people to wake up to a society that is taking advantage of their good nature," Smith says.

"It's time ... that there will be a mini-revolution or something."

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino.