Tribute to Hugh O'Neil

Mr. Todd Smith: I’d like to welcome all of our guests from the Quinte region who braved the winter weather to get here this morning. It’s a long drive as it is through the Toronto commute on a nice day, but to be here in the wintry weather it’s great to have you with us today. I think it speaks volumes to Hugh O’Neil that the Speaker’s gallery is packed with his friends and family.

We rise today to pay tribute and say goodbye to Mr. Quinte. The best politicians, the best people in this Legislature rise above the petty partisanship that sometimes accompanies this profession, and so it was for Hugh Patrick O’Neil. The respect he commanded from his constituents transcended politics. He was their constant champion and a pillar for his community in Quinte, Trenton and Belleville.

The list of honours is long. He was an honorary patron of the Quinte Symphony, an honorary chair of the Loyalist College Foundation board of directors, an honorary colonel at 8 Wing CFB Trenton, an honorary chair for the Quinte Ballet School and a co-chair for the Afghanistan Repatriation Memorial committee. He was a former cabinet minister, and that’s why we’re paying tribute here today. He was Minister of Industry, Trade and Technology, tourism and recreation, mines and culture and communications from 1985 to 1990. He spent 20 years in this Legislature.

But, first and foremost, he was Donna’s husband, David and Cathy’s dad and grandpa to four beautiful grandkids.

Even after leaving politics, Hugh was still doing his best for the community in both Trenton and Belleville. It was his efforts and those of then Quinte West Mayor John Williams, who joins us today with his beautiful wife, Heather, that brought the Afghanistan Repatriation Memorial to town.

He was also still active here at Queen’s Park as well. He was on the board with the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the Ontario Arts Council. He was quiet about that. Hugh was active in causes in Trenton that were at the core of the community that he loved so much. While respect for Hugh knew no party lines, Hugh remained a Liberal to the last. Any time the two of us were at an event where I had the opportunity to speak as the MPP for Prince Edward–Hastings—and there were a lot of times where we would rub shoulders at events at 8 Wing Trenton or other charitable events throughout the community—when I was done speaking, Hugh, putting his good heckling skills that he learned here probably sitting next to Jim Bradley for a number of years, in his Irish baritone would always say, “Pretty good, MPP Smith. Not bad for a Tory.”

I also had the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with Hugh an many commemorative events in and around the Quinte region. I always made sure, though, Mr. Speaker, that if I could, I wouldn’t stand next to Hugh if the national anthem was to be sung. I would always try and stand next to Donna. She is the real talent when it comes to singing in the family and part of the St. Peters Catholic Church choir in Trenton and a beautiful angelic voice. Hugh not so much but definitely Donna.

Hugh O’Neil was a man and also, at times, a monument. He was a touchstone for every politician in the area. Being a new politician sitting on a dais next to Hugh O’Neil was kind of like sitting down the bench from Gordie Howe. I know my colleague from Northumberland–Quinte West would agree. His presence was enough to instruct you on how it was supposed to be done. Regardless of your political stripe, Hugh O’Neil could teach you how to be a pro.

Now I’d like to do something that probably doesn’t happen all that often here, but I’d like to pay some homage to the legacy that my departed friend left on the history of the party opposite. Anyone who stares at the structure that is the first two terms of Dalton McGuinty’s terms of office should be encouraged to dig a little bit below the surface, and if they take a second look at the foundations, they’ll find that one of them is Hugh O’Neil.

In the gallery today we have two of Mr. O’Neil’s former staffers. They’re men who are no strangers to this House. One is the former Premier’s chief of staff Peter Wilkinson, and the other is the former Deputy Premier George Smitherman, who’s with us today. I suspect, Mr. Speaker, that a quick conversation with either of these men will reveal the lessons of public service—character under fire and love of your community—that were so central to the Hugh O’Neil that we all knew. Hugh O’Neil’s legacy extends well beyond Quinte to the profound impact he left on those who worked with him, and the lessons they took from their time with him and applied to how they serve the people of Ontario.

As I tried to think of some way to close this out, I wanted to highlight an example of Hugh getting to his feet in this place and representing the people and the place that he loved so much: Trenton. So I decided to read his last question that he delivered in this House. It was the last opportunity as a member of the official opposition, probably right down here somewhere, that he had to question the government of the day. It was November 30, 1994.

Just to set this up, the day that Hugh O’Neil left this earth, he was protecting Trenton Memorial Hospital and his community as a part of a rally that was going on there. Keep this in mind as you listen to his last question to a minister on November 30, 1994.

Mr. Hugh O’Neil from Quinte in Hansard: “My question today is for the Minister of Health. Minister, back in June of this year, approximately 500 people travelled to Queen's Park from the Trenton area to voice their concerns about the future of the Trenton Memorial Hospital and to ask for your help. At that time we came away feeling hopeful that you would make things happen. It is now the end of November, and we still have not heard from you….

“Based on reports from the fire department, the city's building department, architects and unions, Trenton Memorial Hospital is in critical condition and the health and safety of staff and patients are at risk as a result. Minister, I ask you to address these matters immediately. What do you intend to do?”

Until his final day, Hugh O’Neil was standing up for his community, and that’s why he’ll forever be known as Mr. Quinte. Thank you.

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