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Hundreds turn out for Peloso memorial

‘A man has taken his life because the pain in his brain was unrelenting’: Smitherman

George Smitherman pays tribute to his late husband, Christopher Peloso, with their children, Michael and Kayla, and Peloso’s daughter, Morgan Morrow, at Peloso’s memorial Jan 3. Credit: Rob Salerno

More than 500 people gathered at the Wellesley Community Centre on Jan 3 to pay tribute to former deputy premier George Smitherman’s husband, Christopher Peloso, who was found dead Dec 30 after being reported missing the previous day.

To a soundtrack of jovial pop music taken from Peloso’s playlists, the celebration of his life drew many friends and family members, who openly shared happy stories of better times without shying away from the fact that Peloso committed suicide.

Christopher’s father, Reno Peloso, praised former premier and MP Bob Rae for writing a guest column in The Globe and Mail that called on the government to create a national suicide prevention plan in response to his son’s death.

“It’s going to be easier for us to say Chris suffered from depression and he committed suicide, and there’s no shame in that,” Peloso said.

Peloso revealed that his son “struggled with his sexuality” in his teens and admitted that he was “ill-informed and unprepared” to help him. He says Christopher later took him to Sudbury’s only gay bar during a Christmas visit.

“It opened up my eyes to see who he really was,” Peloso said.

Smitherman spoke mostly off-the-cuff, eschewing the notes he said he’d need his new glasses to read. Many of his remarks touched on his gratitude for the support of the gay community and the Village neighbourhood where he and Peloso met.

“We really liked this building [the Wellesley Community Centre],” Smitherman said. “It’s not where we live now, but it is our neighbourhood.”

Smitherman choked back tears as he recounted the horrible day when he learned that his husband was gone and he had to tell their children, aged five and two.

“Michael ran to the bathroom and brought me some tissues and said, ‘Don’t be sad,’” Smitherman said. “Then the circumstances went through his mind and he asked, ‘Who’s gonna make me dinner?’

“It’s an indication of what a five-year-old mind can process and a sense of the deep shit I’m in,” Smitherman said with slight chuckle. “That kid can identify four different types of mushroom and eat them with relish.”

Michael’s refined palate is just part of the legacy Peloso leaves his children.

“His legacy is a four-year-old who knows which guests should be greeted with ‘asalaam alaikum,’” Smitherman said, noting with self-deprecating irony, “My greatest legacy is helping to create Rob Ford.”

Though Ford did not attend, numerous political figures did, including current and former premiers Kathleen Wynne and Dalton McGuinty and Toronto Centre MPP Glen Murray.

Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Barbara Hall, a long-time family friend whom Smitherman worked for when she was mayor of pre-amalgamation Toronto, spoke of the difficulties Peloso faced as a gay father and as a man suffering from mental illness.

“Christopher was proud of who he was and his family, but sometimes societal attitudes got in the way,” Hall said. “He was challenged by community services that seemed just for moms, or moms and dads, but not [for dads alone].

“In recent months, he talked often of the stigmas and fears about his condition,” Hall said. “As we gather and celebrate to say goodbye, let us accept the challenge to create a legacy for Christopher — a society without stigma and stereotypes.”

Smitherman said his experience of coming out as a gay man leads him to believe that being honest — including about Peloso’s illness — is best.

“There is no hiding the reality of what we face. A man has taken his life because the pain in his brain was unrelenting,” he said.