Neil Young, the MP for the Beaches-Woodbine riding from 1980 to 1993, died on March 7 due to complications following a stroke two years ago. I first met Neil when Beverley and I moved to the Beach in 1973 with our family. We have remained good friends with Neil, his wife Vivien, and their family for more than 40 years.
I was elected to the Beaches-Woodbine NDP Executive Committee, and began to work with Neil, a man who greatly impressed me from day one – a happy warrior who gained stature with every meeting.
Neil was born in Scotland in 1936, and in 1957 he and his brother Ron immigrated to Canada. He also brought with him a rich Scottish accent that distinguished him for the rest of his life. (I suspect he consciously kept it to make people listen to him more carefully!)
Neil began his political career as a tool and die maker, and successfully organized his local union within the United Electrical Workers. He was part of the union of organized labour with the rural roots of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) to form the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1961.
It would be a great mistake to discuss Neil’s lifetime achievements without comment on his 52 years of marriage to Viv. If ever there was a marriage meant to be, it was theirs. Whatever we might say about Neil’s political commitment, his sense of social justice, his work for a better world, we must say the same for Viv Young. She was his support in every way through the years, including being both mom and dad while holding down the family home on Wheeler Avenue while Neil was in Ottawa.
Neil and Viv had four children: Neil, Leslie (Steve), Moira, and Fraser (Cecelia); five grandchildren: Daniel, Marshall, Drew, Lucas and Elyse. Neil leaves siblings Grace (Keith), Ron, Dorothy, Allan (Mary).
His first venture in electoral politics was a run for Toronto City Council in 1976. I was recruited to design his literature and signs due to being a graduate of the Ontario College of Art. He lost. The chemistry was just not right.
In 1977, Neil decided to seek nomination as the federal NDP Candidate for Beaches riding (later Beaches-Woodbine, now Beaches-East York) and I was honoured to be Neil’s nominator. It was contested – the other candidate and his team mounted a spirited campaign that was vocal, new-wave and youth-oriented. The Young campaign was quiet, older and subdued. I began to worry – needlessly, as it turned out. I had failed to reckon with Neil and Viv’s political smarts. Neil arranged an agreement that the polls would be open during the meeting, and I noticed party members coming in to vote and then many of them leaving.
I learned that Neil’s campaign had organized a shuttle service to bring party members to vote, many elderly and disabled, and then return them to their homes.
In the end that was the margin of victory – Neil and Viv’s political instinct told them that they could rely on the stable, long-standing membership, friends whose confidence in him would put him over the top. He won – by two votes!
I was honoured to craft Neil’s publicity. A born night owl, I’d work all night on the next of three canvass leaflets (always three, because Neil was an advocate of door-to-door canvassing). At dawn, I would hang the envelope containing layout, copy and photos on our front door to be picked up by our morning person, Ian Collier, for delivery to the printer. During Neil’s 13-year tenure as Member of Parliament, our strategy was to emphasize the candidate’s closeness to the riding’s voters, and a tradition of service.
During his time as an MP, Neil represented several portfolios with distinction, including persons with disabilities, seniors and veterans. But public mood changes and, in a frantic move to throw out the government of the day in 1993, the electorate coalesced around the Liberals in a sweep that defeated every New Democrat MP in Ontario, including Neil.
Neil then pondered what to do with the rest of his life. We agreed to a series of lunch meetings to talk about it. He chose to do some consulting regarding the disabled, and to enjoy his hobbies: travel, gardening, cooking, and golf (every day possible, rain or shine). Neil asked how to compensate me for my counselling and I said that a bottle of single malt scotch would be fine. A year or so later, he told me that he hadn’t forgotten – he had bought a bottle of fine single malt, but it looked so good, he drank it himself!
At the standing-room-only remembrance held at the Sherrin funeral home on Kingston Road on March 11, Reverend Dr. Malcolm Sinclair, a bonny Scot who wore a kilt, was piped in. He made a memorable presentation, reading poems by Robbie Burns and singing songs with messages that were true to Neil Young’s life. In the front row was Emily McIntosh, who worked tirelessly in Neil’s constituency office throughout his time as MP, now confined to a wheelchair. In honour of Neil and true to her heritage, she insisted on standing, with assistance, when the reverend was piped in and out.
In conversation, local historian Gene Domagala, commented on Neil’s ready support for community works. City councillors Janet Davis and Paula Fletcher and former councillor Sandra Bussin spoke of how Neil inspired them to uphold social values and support for working people.
Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent praised Neil for his work on repatriation of Canada’s Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He cited Neil’s dedication to rights for seniors and the disabled, resulting in the best declaration of any such rights in any nation around the world. Former riding association president Ray Stringer and MP Matthew Kellway commented on how Neil had helped them understand the riding and its people, contributing strongly to Kellway’s election in 2011. Former campaign manager Marilyn Roycroft commented on how it troubled her during campaigns that Neil couldn’t seem to take problems seriously – it seemed that the bigger the problem, the bigger the smile – because he always could see a way to lower the level of stress and deal with the issue.
I’m sure everyone who knew him will remember Neil for the set of his jaw and the fixed gaze when confronted with injustice, but even more for the quick smile and the twinkle in his eyes in the happy times. He will always be with us.
The family requests that donations in Neil’s memory be made to The Ed Broadbent Institute (broadbentinstitute.ca), the Stephen Lewis Foundation (stephenlewisfoundation.org), or Toronto East General Hospital (foundation.tegh.on.ca).