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Don Cousens: "A tremendous leader"
Markham hosts tribute March 1 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Markham Civic Centre
Feb. 28, 2017
Simone Joseph  

Donald Cousens was more icon than mayor — a fixture in the Markham community.

The former Markham mayor and member of York Regional Council died Feb. 23 at Markham Stouffville Hospital.

“Don will be remembered for his commitment to public service and genuine ability to lead change,” York Regional chairperson and CEO Wayne Emmerson said in a statement Friday. “As one of the founding members of the Character Community Foundation, his dedication and belief that good character makes a positive difference in building strong communities will live on.”

Cousens was 78.

He served as a mentor to Markham deputy mayor Jack Heath.

“I am really going to miss Don,” Heath said in an e-mail Friday.  “The first Mayor I worked with – he offered guidance and leadership to me as a new councillor when I came on council in 1997.  A super guy, always working to better Markham”.

According to Heath, Cousen’s biggest contribution was getting the IBM research facility to relocate to Markham on Warden Avenue, south of Hwy. 7 in about 2000.  

“He negotiated with IBM to ensure the facility would be located in Markham.  We were in competition with several places around the world,” Heath said.

Having IBM in the community meant jobs and economic development. Cousens also helped create Markham District Energy, Heath said.

Cousens also played a large part in creating York Region’s character community concept. This concept was conceived at an international education symposium hosted in 2001 by the York Region District School Board. At that symposium, Cousens took on the challenge of hosting a forum about building cities of character.

But Cousens did not work on serious concepts, like building character all the time. It was pretty easy to tell when Cousens was having fun, according to Heath. 

“On occasion, he would say something which you would think was outrageous and then you would glance over and he was quietly chuckling at his joke”, he said.

Heath also recalls how Cousens was constantly counting votes on important issues in council. “When I sat next to him from 2003 to 2006, he was always making little lists of who was for and against.”

Cousens represented Markham and York Regional council for 12 consecutive years, from 1994 to 2006.

“Don Cousens was a real force at the York Region District School Board, the Province of Ontario and here in Markham," said Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti.

An ordained Presbyterian minister, an officer of the Canadian Forces, Cousens had also been an executive at Honeywell Ltd., before entering politics in 1972.

Cousens was elected to the Ontario Legislature in 1981 and re-elected in 1985. He was past chair of World Vision Canada and was involved in the founding of the York Technology Network, now known as TechConnex.

On June 1, 2006, Cousens announced that he would not seek re-election as mayor of Markham due to on-going health problems related to the need for a kidney transplant.

His first transplant was in August 2004; the second in October 2006.

While waiting for a donation in 2004, he spent several months on dialysis. When his kidney failed, he was back on dialysis for eight months.

But Cousens was thrilled when this issue began attracting more attention in Markham.

The town proclaimed April 18 to 25 as National Organ and Tissue Donation Awareness Week.  

News of Cousens' passing quickly spawned reaction, especially on Twitter. Here’s a small selection:

*Markham Stouffville Hospital tweeted: “He did so much for our community and our hospital.”

*MP, Markham-Stouffville and Minister of Health Jane Philpott: “A tremendous leader in Markham, a model of grace and generosity.”

*Chris Emanuel, former Newmarket councillor: “A wonderful person with incredible integrity”.

Donald Cousens Parkway in Markham is named after Cousens. There is also a public school in Markham, named after him.

Cousens was proud of the Don Cousens Public School because of his interest in education. “It’s an honour he took to heart, more than anyone knows,” Cousens’ son Paul said.

Paul says he admired his father’s ability to maintain work-life balance, calling him “an amazing dad. He was so present and engaged,” he said.

“Going to baseball games, Mary’s skating and playing cards. He had a neat balance. He didn’t miss a thing,” Paul said.

He admires his father’s character, saying people have come up to him since his father died and talked to him about what an honest, stand-up guy his father was. Paul pointed out this is a tough reputation to attain in politics.

A book of condolences has been set up in his honour in the Great Hall of the Markham Civic Centre.