Western is remembering the life of philanthropist Sonia Labatt, an indefatigable supporter of the university and the Faculty of Health Sciences.
Sonia Labatt passed away March 14 at the age of 84.
“Sonia led an extraordinary life, one filled with opportunities to make a difference in the world,” said Western president Alan Shepard. “Her generous spirit was an inspiration and leaves behind a legacy that will benefit all of us at Western for generations to come. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Arthur and his family as they grieve their loss.”
The entire Western community – and a generation of students and alumni, and their patients and clients around the globe – have benefited from the philanthropy of the wife-husband team of Sonia and Arthur Labatt.
Their gifts to Western total more than $20 million – gifts that have funded numerous scholarships and student awards as well as academic positions, chairs and research in health equity, social inclusion, nursing, virtual teaching and rural women’s health.
“Sonia’s generosity, vision and leadership impacted so many lives,” said Jayne Garland, dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences. “Her commitment to helping others, and to making the world a healthier, more equitable, and more just place, created a legacy that will not be forgotten.
“She believed deeply in the importance of lifelong learning, modelling that in her own life and setting an example for others to follow. I am deeply saddened by the news of her passing, but my spirit is lifted by thinking about the better world she left behind.”
Sonia and Arthur were married for 63 years.
She was a powerhouse in every sphere where she applied her considerable talents: environmental leadership, teaching, sports and community involvement.
She and Arthur received honorary doctorates from Western in 2012 and, in her address to graduating students at the time, Sonia highlighted the importance of education and change-making.
“One should accept meaningful challenges as they present themselves because many challenges are accompanied by many great opportunities,” she said at the time.
“I believe that higher learning is critical to Canada’s future. It makes us, as individuals and as a country, more competitive and prosperous, and more interesting. It opens up potential for all sorts of original thought. We all need people and institutions that think differently.”
Having earned her bachelor’s degree in food science in 1960 from the University of Toronto, she returned there in 1987 to earn a master’s in environmental studies and then a PhD in 1995.
Sonia was recognized nationally and internationally as a specialist in environmental economics: authoring two influential books on climate change and teaching as an adjunct professor at what is now called the School of the Environment at the University of Toronto.
“Look at today as a stepping-stone to further education. As you can see from my experience, you can do it all – but you don’t have to do it all at once,” she told Western graduates during that 2012 convocation address.
She served at various times on the boards of the National Ballet of Canada, the Wellesley Hospital Foundation, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
As a family, Sonia and Arthur’s philanthropy led to the creation of the Arthur and Sonia Labatt Brain Tumour Research Centre and the Labatt Family Heart Centre, both in Toronto. They have also funded a number of organizations in Africa and Asia, and supported L’Arche London’s Gathering Place, a centre for adults with developmental disabilities.
Sonia’s impact at Western continues to ripple through nurses and patients whose lives she influenced through her determination to grow and support health research and education.
Western’s Arthur and Sonia Labatt Health Sciences Building was named in their honour in 2005.
In 2008, the Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing was named in recognition of the couple’s generosity, which has continued for decades, and in 2020 included a further $5 million donation to help researchers seek and remedy the causes of global health inequities.
Vicki Smye, director of the Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing, described Sonia as “a woman of incredible strength with a great mind,” and as a person “of humility who was determined to help make the world a better place.”
The Labatts’ generosity enabled the launch of a unique 16-bed simulation suite, where nursing students can learn the profession on high-tech mannequin patients, Smye noted.
It has brought to life a faculty fellowship in health equity and an endowed chair in health equity – faculty positions that help shift policies and practices, and promote solutions for people experiencing homelessness and marginalization.
“And this all happens in the most beautiful of buildings – with its state-of-the art labs and simulation suites – all a tribute to Sonia and Arthur and their philanthropy and their belief in providing students with the best education possible,” Smye said.
Sonia is survived by her husband Arthur, their children Sheila, John and Jacquie, and six grandchildren.
The family has planned a funeral service in Toronto on April 19.