Former city councillor Harvey Smith dies at 80

Former Winnipeg city councillor Harvey Smith, who served the West End for 24 years, died on Sunday.

Smith served Winnipeg's West End for more than 2 decades as councillor and MLA

A look back at the career of longtime Winnipeg city councillor Harvey Smith, who died Sunday at the age of 80. 2:09

Former Winnipeg city councillor and NDP MLA Harvey Smith has died at the age of 80.

The left-of-centre politician, who sat on city council for 22 years and in the Manitoba Legislature for another two, died early Sunday morning at Victoria General Hospital, said his friend Paul Moist, the former national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

Flags at city hall have been lowered to half-mast in honour of Smith.

"I would say every Canadian city council needs a Harvey Smith, somebody who is not really worried about assuming power or being on the executive committee. He very much felt he needed to represent citizens and he took positions that sometimes bothered the powers that be," Moist said Sunday evening in an interview.

Moist said Smith got injured in a fall in his home last August and was in and out of hospitals ever since. The former union president lauded Smith as a committed social democrat who stood up for "ordinary people" and supported public transit, repairs to inner-city back lanes and public housing. 

Smith also fought to keep the Sherbrook Pool open, calling it a "dereliction of duty" to let it close. He attended the reopening of the pool in January.

"Everybody viewed him as a fighter — his supporters and his detractors. He had a pretty good run in public life," Moist said. "The citizens of the West End and the city as a whole I think benefited from Harvey's advocacy for the inner city."

Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, who was first elected to council in 1998 and served with Smith for 16 years, echoed those sentiments.

"He liked the fight itself, putting up a fight to get something for people," she said. "Most of his life was focused on his work … and being in the midst of these battles for making our lives better and fighting for people who didn't have a voice.

"You could pretty much rely on him on the basic social justice issues."

Gerbasi said Smith was also well known as a fighter for libraries, parks, and the trees that create a canopy over so many city streets.

"He just cared so much about the neighbourhood level of things," she said.

Smith was also famous for acts of political mischief that included naming back lanes in poor condition after city councillors and holding a public meeting about a nonexistent plan to build a hog plant in Tuxedo.

"He often found creative ways to get things done and he had a lot of humour in what he did," Gerbasi said.

24 years in politics

According to Moist, Smith was born in Winnipeg but grew up in British Columbia, where he earned degrees from the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. His parents died in a car accident when he was young, Moist said.

Before Smith entered politics, he worked as a teacher and school librarian for Winnipeg School Division No. 1.

He first served as city councillor for the now-defunct Sargent Park ward from 1980 to 1986. He switched to provincial politics for a two-year stint as the NDP MLA for the Ellice riding, from 1986 to 1988.

Smith returned to city council in 1998 as the representative for Daniel McIntyre. He served until 2014, when he lost the seat to current Coun. Cindy Gilroy.

"He was truly a community champion," Gilroy said Sunday evening in an interview. "He was somebody that cared very deeply about our community and he advocated really hard for things like the Sherbrook Pool."

He never gave up fighting to save that pool "even when it seemed quite impossible," Gerbasi added. "And here we were, a few months ago, celebrating it re–opening.

"I give him a huge amount of credit for that."

Smith was there to attend the re–opening ceremony "and that was actually the last time I saw him," Gerbasi said.

Moist said Smith had no surviving family members. He sometimes struggled on his own and was once forced to leave his West End apartment after city health inspectors declared it insanitary. 

The Canadian Union of Public Employees said in a press release it intends to announce details about a memorial service at a later date.

Moist said Smith never spoke of having anything named after him, despite his many years of public service.

"Harvey was never in public life to draw attention to himself," Moist said.

With files from Aidan Geary