Friday, June 3, 2011

Smillie fought for social justice

By Jason Warick
The StarPhoenix 
June 3, 2011

A pillar of Saskatoon's social justice community has died.

Ben Smillie, who died this week at age 87 following a series of strokes in recent years, was a Second World War veteran, United Church minister, prominent author and one of those who fought to implement medicare in Saskatchewan.

"He pursued justice in everything he did," said former premier Lorne Calvert.

Calvert, the current principal of the United Church's St. Andrew's College, said Smillie believed in the concept of the social gospel, or "linking his faith to action in the community."

Calvert, one of Smillie's former students, said Smillie was a demanding teacher, but was loved and respected by the hundreds of people he taught or worked with.

"He was very strong on social justice. All of his students were impacted by him," said Bill Adamson, who also served as head of St. Andrew's and taught with Smillie in the 1960s and '70s.

"He was a vigorous debater. You could see his face go red and his veins would bulge a bit."

The son of Canadian missionaries working in India, Smillie served various roles in the Second World War, including navigating officer for the British Pacific fleet that removed Sikh prisoners of war from a Japanese detention camp.

After the war, he was ordained a United Church minister and married Adele Palmer. The couple met after being appointed the male and female sales representatives for a Toronto magazine.

"I think Ben was ready to get married right away," Adele said during an interview Thursday.

The couple moved around Canada before accepting a posting at St. Andrew's in Saskatoon in 1961. Smillie organized a co-operative lunch program for students and would host popular, lively "Talk Back" debating sessions following Sunday services.

The couple also "immediately got swept up" in the fight for medicare, said eldest daughter Christine, who was eight years old at the time.

When the province's doctors went on strike the following year, the Smillies worked tirelessly to recruit new doctors to the province and strengthened the community clinic system, she said.

Christine, who works as project co-ordinator for Station 20 West, said she and her four siblings remember attending countless meetings, demonstrations and other events with their parents. The Smillie children have spent most of their lives involved in community service.

"I'm very proud of him, very proud of my parents," she said.

Smillie authored and edited numerous books, including Visions of the New Jerusalem, a multifaith compilation used in Canadian university courses.

Following retirement, Smillie continued his activism in the peace movement and other areas. He spent his final years in the Sherbrooke Community Centre.

His funeral takes place at Knox United Church Saturday at 10: 30 a.m. - the day that would have been the couple's 60th wedding anniversary.

"Of course I was proud of him," said Adele. "We had a very full life together."

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