By David Tuchman and Ross Lopes
Social justice activist, Second World War veteran and self-titled “world’s oldest rebel” Harry Leslie Smith died on Wednesday, Nov. 28 at Belleville General Hospital.
Harry, lived in both the U.K. and Canada, had an extensive history of fighting for social justice. He ranted against austerity and believed that the world can and would become a better place. Through his four published books — with another now being completed by his son John Smith — he described his time living through the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the passing of his family.
“These things were indelibly marked in my father’s childhood life, basically like scars on the skin,” his son John said.
His goal through his literature and activism was to make sure history did not repeat itself. John says his father’s experiences growing up led him to believe that socialism was the proper course.
“He understood that the prosperity of country should be for the many and not the few. That’s what forged his political concept throughout his entire life especially in his later years and that’s why he was warning people,” John says.
British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted that Harry was “a world war two veteran who dedicated his life to fighting for our National Health Service, a peaceful world and for countries to meet their moral responsibility by welcoming refugees.”
We will all miss Harry Leslie Smith – he was one of the giants whose shoulders we stand on.
A World War Two veteran who dedicated his life to fighting for our National Health Service, a peaceful world and for countries to meet their moral responsibility by welcoming refugees. pic.twitter.com/1RW63dSa6Y
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) November 28, 2018
When Harry fell ill, John took over his Twitter account. Harry had been active on Twitter for years, despite his age, and had hundreds of thousands of followers.
On Nov. 28, John sent this tweet to the account’s followers: “At 3:39 this morning, my dad Harry Leslie Smith died. I am an orphan. #istandwithharry.”
At 3:39 this morning, my dad Harry Leslie Smith died. I am an orphan. #istandwithharry
— Voyage Around My Dad, Harry Leslie Smith (@Harryslaststand) November 28, 2018
Prime Minster Justin Trudeau was one of many who marked Harry’s passing on the social media platform,writing, “Throughout his life, Harry Leslie Smith fought and worked to make the world a better place for everyone. His legacy will be profound.”
Throughout his life, Harry Leslie Smith fought and worked to make the world a better place for everyone. @HarrysLastStand is at an end, but his legacy will be profound. My condolences to his son John, and to his many friends & admirers around the world.
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) November 28, 2018
Harry was born in the small town of Barnsley in Yorkshire, England in 1923. At the age of three, he lost his 10-year-old sister to tuberculosis due to the environment his family lived in. They were too poor to afford medical care.
During the Great Depression, Harry was forced to scrounge for scraps of coal to help his family make ends meet. In his book 1923: A Great Depression Memoir, he wrote, “Sometimes, when I dug my hands became brittle from the frigid temperatures and I cried out that the work was too hard for me.”
He joined the Royal Air Force at 18 in 1941 and witnessed the rise of fascism during the Second World War. In Friede Edelmann, he found the love of his life. They were married for five decades and had three sons. The family moved to Canada due to a small, unexpected inheritance and settled in Scarborough, where Smith worked in the carpet sales business while he raised his sons.
He didn’t become such an outspoken activist until later in life, John says, when two things motivated him.
“There were two things that motivated him. It was the 2008–2009 crash that told him that the people of the world were being bamboozled by the one percent and they were being manipulated,” John says.
John says that death of his middle brother, Harry’s second son, at around the same time drove Harry into a state of grief. He says Harry believed he had a choice: “perish from sadness” or “do something productive.”
“That was to explore his own youth and somehow beat the demons out [of] his own head and speaking and warning people that this was their future unless they started to fully participate in democracy and demand social change,” John says.
This was when Harry began to be much more vocal in his activism.
He attracted attention in 2013 when he wrote in the Guardian that he would no longer wear Remembrance Day poppies.
“Over the last 10 years the sepia tone of November has become blood-soaked with paper poppies festooning the lapels of our politicians, newsreaders and business leaders,” he wrote. “The most fortunate in our society have turned the solemnity of remembrance for fallen soldiers in ancient wars into a justification for our most recent armed conflicts.”
Harry didn’t stop writing there. His fourth book Harry’s Last Stand — which was an autobiographical and impassioned plea for a better world — gained much traction. The book’s title even became a hashtag when Harry got sick.
However, Harry’s journey isn’t over yet. John says that he plans on continuing his father’s legacy and following in his footsteps.
“He will be remembered for being that living bridge to history. That he was the last spokesperson for his generation,” John says. “What he encompassed was grit and empathy. That is what he will be remembered for. The sheer toughness to survive such horrendous trials and tribulations as a young man. But then he survived all of those with his heart intact.”