Les Horne was passionate about his commitment to children. He believed that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was not simply a political document but represented real promises to children, promises they should be able to count on. He also believed that children’s voices should be heard particularly those children who are most vulnerable or at risk. He acted on these beliefs every day and inspired those around him to share his commitment.
From 1981 to 1990, Les Horne was the first Child Advocate in Ontario. Prior to this appointment, Les had a long history of dealing with some of the most challenging children in the Province. In days when children as young as seven were sent to training schools, Les was given the task of establishing a new facility, White Oaks Village, to separate these children from older offenders and to provide the intense level of care needed in a family-like setting. He also was responsible for Sprucedale Training School, where he demonstrated the value of programs such as Positive Peer Culture and set a high standard for training schools across the Province.
Les was a strong advocate for community supports rather than institutional care and when he was asked to participate in a task group on the future of corrections in Ontario, it was no surprise that the group recommended the closure of large institutions in favour of smaller community-based homes. He then went on to act as a consultant to the resulting provincial Group Homes Program.
One of the most significant contributions Les made in the Province of Ontario, was the development of an individualized approach to “hard to serve” youth whose needs could not be met by any single agency or Ministry program. For each of these young persons, an individualized plan was developed, often across several ministries, with a single consistent worker to provide support within a relationship of trust.
In addition to his formal work, Les led a very active volunteer life. He was a founding member of Forestview Church and was often sought out for his wisdom and advice. For many years he wrote a prayer for each Sunday morning service, sometimes with words of joy, sometimes reflecting the pain and confusion he felt around him.
Les loved music and he was a regular visitor to a number of homes for seniors, with his guitar and songs. He was always ready to jump in when anyone needed his help or support, whether that meant advocating with an institution, offering a shoulder to lean on or a kind or funny word, Les’s faith was his life and he lived his faith rather than preaching it.
As a member of Circles of Support and Accountability with the Mennonite Central Committee, Les was part of a support group for Charlie, a young man who had spent a brutal childhood in Huronia Regional Centre for the developmentally handicapped followed by long years in the prison system. Charlie’s life changed with his relationship with Les whom he regarded as a father figure. He frequently called Les late at night or multiple times the same day. Les was always there for him.
Les was also a founding member of the Coalition on the Rights of Children, bringing together a number of NGOs to strengthen support for children whose rights were being abused. The Coalition resulted in an amplification of the voices raised on behalf of children.
Perhaps Les’s greatest volunteer achievement was his dedicated work with Defence for Children International, an international organization committed to promoting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and working towards its full implementation across the world. Les was present at the United Nations General Assembly when the Convention was adopted and joined others in urging Canada to ratify the document. A founding member of the Canadian section of Defence for Children International in 1989, Les remained as its Executive Director until his recent death.
It is impossible in a few short paragraphs to capture the extent of Les’s work on behalf of children. He was an advocate who understood that advocating for kids meant allowing their voices to be heard rather than imposing the views of “experts”. While he worked to change systems, he was at his strongest and most tenacious when faced with the pain or injustice felt by an individual child. He refused to give up even when the task seemed impossible.
Les had an amazing ability to connect with people. He was that rare person who really listened to others, hearing both the sense of the words spoken but also the emotion behind the words. He seldom took credit for achievements, most often attributing successes to others. He had a warmth and sense of humour which put both children and adults at ease and his enthusiasm and generosity of spirit were well known.
We will miss Les. With his passing the children of our world have lost a true champion and we have all lost a wonderful friend.