Refugee advocate, ‘world’s oldest rebel’ Harry Leslie Smith passes away in Belleville

Harry Leslie Smith, a veteran, writer and tireless advocate for the downtrodden who in his later years earned a legion of younger followers on the internet with his podcast and Twitter account, has died.

The 95-year-old had been in hospital in Belleville, Ont. since Nov. 20. His son tweeted the news that his father died at 3:39 a.m. Wednesday.

Author and activist Harry Leslie Smith, seen here at his Belleville, Ont., apartment in August, spent the final years of his life travelling the globe to bring attention to the worldwide refugee crisis.
Author and activist Harry Leslie Smith, seen here at his Belleville, Ont., apartment in August, spent the final years of his life travelling the globe to bring attention to the worldwide refugee crisis.  (Paul Hunter / Toronto Star)

It’s the end of a life that refused to fade as time ticked on. Smith was well into his 80s when he first rose in the public eye through his writing, speaking engagements, social media posts and podcasts, in which he railed against the likes of Donald Trump and championed social democracy and compassion.

His voice provided a perspective rarely heard on social media: that of a man with first-hand experience with the ravages of the Great Depression and the Second World War. In the twilight years of his life, he became a fierce crusader against poverty, notably in a speech at the 2014 UK Labour Party conference that left audience members in tears.

In his childhood, he said, “doctors, hospitals and medicine were for the privileged few … common disease controlled our neighbourhood and snuffed out life like a cold breath on a warm candle’s flame.”

He later served in the British air force in the Second World War, where he once again encountered extreme poverty in war-torn Holland and Germany.

“There was a stream of hundreds of thousands of refugees coming south,” he told UNHCR in a video posted to YouTube last month. “I can still see them. Absolutely pitiful. Hungry. Starving.”

Seeing one of the largest humanitarian disasters in history inspired his end-of-life mission: a tour around the world, launched four years ago, to bring attention to the global refugee crisis currently gripping much of the world.

“Dirty snow, despair and destruction caked the Dutch nation during the last few months of the Second World War. The suffering of the people in Holland broke my heart. It deeply (disturbed) me when I encountered innumerable children orphaned by war who were famished beyond recognition,” he wrote on the GoFundMe page for the tour, called Harry’s Last Stand.

Near the end of the war, in Germany, he met Friede, the woman who would become his wife. She and Smith moved to Scarborough, where Smith managed a carpet store. The pair bought a home, raised a family of four boys and travelled the world.

In 1999, after 51 years of marriage, Friede died.

To deal with the grief, Smith began to write, drawing on his experiences as a child of the Great Depression to make parallels to today. Despite never making more than $40,000 at his carpet store job, he was able to buy a house and support a large family — the youth of today, he often said, do not enjoy the same luxuries.

In the days leading up to his death, Smith’s son John posted to his father’s Twitter account, keeping his fans up to date on his condition and sharing the well-wishes of his supporters.

Using the hashtag #IStandWithHarry, people and organizations penned messages of love and gratitude for Smith, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, the International Rescue Committee of Europe and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

On Tuesday, hours before Smith’s death, around 12:50 p.m., his account posted a simple tweet: “It’s mortal.”

The message came shortly after Smith decided to discontinue life support and his family gathered at his bedside, John Smith told the Star.

“It was his decision,” he said. “There was no hope.”

Over 2,000 comments and condolences have been posted in response to that first tweet.

Smith said it was “fantastic” to see the impact his father’s work and life had on the people who held vigil with him on the internet. “It’s beautiful.”

“I don’t have long to live,” Harry Leslie Smith wrote in one of his final Last Stand Dispatches, “a handful of years at best because I have almost reached the threshold of human life expectancy. But I am not worried; I’ve lived a full life filled with great sorrow but also profound joy. I don’t have much of a legacy to leave behind to show I was here because I am an ordinary man.

“It’s why I write, speak and fight for the underdogs of society because that will be [my] legacy, a reminder that all of us has a part to play in making the world a better place.”

With files from Rhianna Jackson-Kelso and Alexandra Jones.

Jack Hauen is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @jackhauen

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