– By Nea Maaty –
The following is a summary of a conversation with George Smitherman about his personal struggles.
George Smitherman was born in 1964, one of four children, and spent his early years growing up in central Etobicoke. His parents were from a middle-class working background and were not very educated. His mother managed the family as his father worked very hard managing a trucking business. Smitherman was 11 or 12, when his parents got divorced.
Smitherman went to high school at Burnhamthorpe Collegiate Institute and became the student council president at the early age of 15. He left high school to work in his father’s business but his interest in politics drew him back. He moved downtown and got involved as an organizer for the Liberal Party.
Moving downtown was instrumental to the budding politician. Here, he was able to express himself more openly and come out as a gay person. Continuing to nurture his interest in politics, Smitherman climbed the party ranks and worked as Chief of Staff and as Senior Advisor to Ontario cabinet ministers as well as to federal ministers. It was during this time, Smitherman admitted, that he got involved in the Toronto Party scene and got addicted to drugs.
“Quitting anything can be tough and cocaine had a real grip on me. The lowest point came when my cocaine tastes trended from powder to crack … In my experience, the crack-cocaine high is unrivalled in its euphoria … I had many false starts on the path to sobriety aided by professional help, willpower and cardio exercise.”
Free from addiction, in 1999 Smitherman was nominated as the Liberal Party candidate for the Toronto Centre riding — and won. As the area MPP from 1999 to his resignation in 2010, Smitherman had the opportunity to meet and work with many residents and groups in the St. James Town and the Regent Park areas, who were working to make the neighbourhood stronger. During this time, Smitherman also became Minister of Health, Minister of Infrastructure and Energy, and Deputy Premier.
In 2010, Smitherman stepped down as a MPP to challenge Rob Ford for the mayoralty of Toronto. The campaign for mayor was a hard fought and bitter battle and Smitherman narrowly lost to Ford. However, the most difficult struggle that the ambitious politician had to contend with would come three years later and had nothing to do with politics.
Smitherman married his partner Christopher Peloso in 2007 near Elliot Lake, in Ontario. Two years later, they decided to raise a family and had been approved as adoptive parents of two young children by the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. Tragically, Peloso, suffering with chronic depression, took his own life in 2013.
Photo taken from @G_Smitherman
“I had no choice but to survive,” said Smitherman, speaking about the tragedy. “I had two children 3 and 5 and they woke up the next day and I had to explain to them that dad is not coming back home. They still needed to be fed. If they hadn’t been there who knows…but they were and we soldiered on and we had that love and support of people and community.”
In talking about his loss, Smitherman strongly believes that openness and discussing issues like mental health and addiction is the best process to start recovery and fight against stigma. As his children grew older, the father of two, discussed the issues of mental health with them and let them know that Christopher died by his own hands.
Retired from politics, George Smitherman’s family is fully central to his life. He expresses joy in raising his children and finding love and companionship with a new partner named Ronaldo. Smitherman also let us know that he loves the diversity of St. James Town and having purchased a condo in the neighbourhood, he will be returning to St. James Town as a resident.
View our full conversation with George Smitherman here:
Adonis Huggins contributed to this report.
Nea and Adonis are staff journalists with the FOCUS Media Arts Centre.