Then and Now: The Amazing Griers

By Robin V. Sears


Then and Now: The Amazing Griers” is a lovely tribute to Terry and Ruth Grier penned by their good friend Robin V. Sears

It is hard to imagine what life was like for New Democrats at the party’s founding convention in Ottawa in the summer of 1961. Many delegates could not afford hotels, so they were billeted at supporters’ homes. I remember four guests, including the later M.P. Doug Fisher, at ours.  The convention itself was mounted on a shoestring with very little sign of today’s extravaganzas - a few hundred NP posters and a few spotlights. The New Party became the NDP as a result of my grandfather Colin Cameron, M.P. and many others declaration that the original name would look silly in a few years. Democratic was duly inserted. 

In those days there was no public financial support for parties or candidates. Indeed each were personally liable for any debts or outstanding bills. The new party had scrambled together enough money, with a heavy mortgage, to buy Tommy Douglas House at 301 Metcalfe in Ottawa. The staff was tiny. Originally, Terry Grier and one secretary. Terry started at the princely sum of $6000 a year. 

Then he had to turn around and raise tens of thousands more for elections that rained down regularly like punishing hurricanes: ’62, ’63, ’65 and ’68. They were each disappointing, and each left significant debts. As the Party’s first Federal Secretary Terry had to hold out his begging bowl to union leaders and a few affluent supporters, again and again. All the while trying to nurse a new national political party to life, riding by riding across Canada.

Terry and Ruth soon had to support a family of three children, in addition to all that. Their children today remember their early days as one described it “Like living in a sanctuary, protected from the outside world, safe and  happy.” I cannot even imagine how they managed that. In 1966, Terry handed the baton to Cliff Scotton and returned to teaching at Ryerson. 

His students and colleagues each describe him in glowing terms as a thoughtful, empathetic teacher, but one with high standards and expectations. He became the mentor and guide for many Ryersonians who went on to fame in many circles, many of whom he kept in touch with.  Moving back in Toronto, Ruth and Terry chose to settle in the small, close-knit community of Long Branch/New Toronto. Then at the southwestern edge of the city now Etobicoke. 

That was the beginning of a most unusual life for a political engaged couple - they each went into elected politics. Ruth was elected to municipal council in 1969 and Terry federally 3 years later. Ruth became a very effectual “people’s voice” type of councilor juggling a half a dozen causes at the same time. Terry’s one term in office was in the famous David Lewis minority government. It was an eventful and challenging two years. 

Terry helped massage the serious tensions in the caucus, over what demands to make of the Trudeau government. The wounds of the Waffle battle were still raw and hung like a shadow over the party still. B.C MPs wanted to bail out as early as the summer of ’73. Terry is remembered as one of the few focused on both caucus unity and political wins. He helped push through Canada’s first election finance law.

He was an early supporter of the Douglas-Coldwell Foundation following its birth in 1971. Terry was always unhappy about the breadth and depth of the party’s policy development process and believed that the Foundation could be one remedy.

After his defeat in 74, he returned to Ryerson, his first love. He slowly climbed the ladder from professor, to dean, to vice president academic and finally president. Ruth continued to lead in bringing up three children while becoming a powerful and respected municipal politician. Terry did not stay away from federal politics long, fighting to help Ed Broadbent become the new party leader in 1975. I had become Federal Secretary in 1974, and Terry quickly became a source of wisdom, caution and a protector for me, as a very scared and anxious 23 year old. 

By 1977, Terry was both rising at Ryerson, but leading the election planning process and then campaign chair for elections in ’79, ’80 and ’84. The run-up to the ’77 campaign was over two years, as Liberal grandee Keith Davey kept teasing a date, then pushing it back. Terry and I traveled back and forth across the country for months running training schools, recruiting candidates, and raising money. Those many hours alone on a plane or in the bar of yet another hotel were powerful learning years for me. Terry, along with Cliff Scotton, taught me everything I knew about campaign management. I could not have had better mentors. 

Ruth was urged by Ontario New Democrats to consider running in the strong NDP riding of Toronto Lakeshore for the ’85 election. I can only imagine how difficult their conversations were about that decision. Ruth was happy in municipal politics, and Terry wanted a break. She ran in Pat Lawlor’s riding on his retirement, and won. 

On the election of the Rae government she became first Environment minister and then Health. In each role she helped to change the political agenda, blocking endless landfill growth, and an absurd effort to move dozens of trainloads every week filled with Toronto garbage to an abandoned mine in Northern Ontario. She helped change the conversation on re-cycling and reuse more than three decades ago. Among her successes was the Environmental Bill of Rights, and the creation of an Environment Commissioner

At Health, she pushed through the pioneering Trillium Drug Programme, providing assistance to those who could not afford their medications. It played a powerful role in helping  keep AIDS/HIV alive. Bob Rae described her as one of his most important ministers.

Having helped to give birth to the NDP, Terry then led the push to win full university status for Ryerson. It was not an easy battle, and some competitive institutions made serious efforts to block Ryerson’s elevation. But with Bob Rae’s sympathetic ear, and Terry’s relentless lobbying, he pulled it off. One of his colleagues, a Ryerson leader at the time, said, “Simply put, without Terry we would not have become a university.”

Terry and Ruth were pioneers in pushing women’s role in politics. In the Broadbent campaign years every senior official in the federal office - except me! - were women. As Mary Ellen McQuay, my Deputy and a later Federal Secretary, put it, “ We were young and ignorant, and many of us were women. And yet, from the first day I remember Terry treated us as peers, and with the greatest respect. I have never forgotten how liberating that felt all these years later.” Ruth pushed dozens of women onto the stage as elected politicians, political staffers and organizers. 

For young political activists today, struggling to manage family, the long hours and days of a political life, and perhaps a partner who may or may not be so keen about that sacrifice, there could surely be no better role model about how to do it all with empathy, impact and class than the amazing Griers. 

--

Sadly Terry Grier passed away on Monday March 13th, 2023. Ruth Grier continues to be a beacon of kindness and hope to all who have the pleasure of speaking with her today.


Robin V. Sears - March 30, 2023

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