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95-year-old activist, Harry Leslie Smith, dedicates life to refugee cause

Harry Leslie Smith sits at table in front of a colourful wall of pictures

Harry Leslie Smith, 95-year-old rebel for refugees, is seen at Sojourn House, July 2018. © UNHCR Canada

Guided by his past, a 95-year-old activist embarks on a global tour to highlight the plight of refugees

Harry Leslie Smith may well be Canada’s oldest rebel activist. At 95, he refuses to retire gently into the night, instead furiously working his Twitter account to tell his more than 200,000 followers what he thinks about the state of the world. On his radar: Human rights. Brexit. Universal health care. History repeating itself. And the plight of refugees.

The fact that there are millions of people around the globe fleeing war, violence and persecution makes Harry angry. “We shouldn’t be leaving anyone out, no matter what their nationality, colour or race is,” he says. “Humanity is the key to peace.”

Harry speaks from the heart, but also from experience. In 1945 as a young British soldier in the Royal Air Force, he saw 100,000 emaciated, desperate refugees flowing out of Germany.

“Humanity is the key to peace.”

“We would stop and give them whatever excess food supplies we had on the trucks,” he says, emotion choking his voice. “We would show them that they were safe and no one was going to hurt them. I think for the first time I saw a gleam of hope in their faces.”

That experience, coupled with an impoverished childhood spent in Yorkshire, England, where his sister died of tuberculosis because the family couldn’t afford a doctor, helped to transform him into a late-blooming social justice warrior.

It was the financial crisis of 2008 that propelled him into writing books—his latest is Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future, published in 2017. He pens op-ed pieces for newspapers including Britain’s Independent. He is embarking on speaking engagements, and creating a podcast, all dedicated to highlighting injustice and addressing the current—and future—political climate.

Last year, with the help of a GoFundMe page, Harry embarked on his “Harry’s Last Stand” tour, dedicated to travelling to as many “refugee hot spots” as possible to raise a rallying cry for the global refugee crisis.

He has met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s principal secretary Gerald Butts, visited an irregular border crossing between Quebec and New York State, and met this summer with refugees and city officials in Toronto.

In 2017 he travelled to Calais, France, site of an infamous makeshift camp for asylum seekers hoping to cross into Britain. It was closed down by French authorities but continues to exist, with people often camping in squalid and unsafe conditions.

“Calais was so frightening,” Harry recalls. “I could not believe it when I stepped into the camp. It reminded me of when my unit reached Hamburg, Germany. . . . I felt so sorry when this young boy sidled up to me. He was 10. He was in Calais alone. He had lost his parents. How can we allow that?”

When asked what Canadians can do to promote tolerance and acceptance,his message is clear: “Stop the rhetoric that says refugees want to take our jobs. That’s never been proven.”

He is more hopeful about the future for refugees arriving in Canada, citing that Canada is a newer and younger country, lacking in old world political and religious baggage.

“[Refugees] will stand a much better chance just to survive in this country,” he believes. “There’s trepidation at the beginning but we must offer a full acceptance of their desire to live with us and amongst us.”

Harry is aware of the fear-mongering and rhetoric that can hamper acceptance of newcomers to Canada. When asked what Canadians can do to promote tolerance and acceptance, his message is clear: “Stop the rhetoric that says refugees want to take our jobs. That’s never been proven.”

He is also crystal clear on how we must learn from the past, urging all people to tell political leaders that we are not going to war. “We have to live together,” he says emphatically. “It’s our only hope of survival.”

By Fiona Irvine-Goulet

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harry Leslie Smith died on Nov. 28, 2018 in a Belleville, Ont., hospital at the age of 95. He is survived by his sons John and Michael and two grandchildren.