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'He's the soul of what's good about our community': Tributes pour in for Windsor labour leader

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Gary Parent, 77, died Friday after a brief battle with cancer, according to friend and long-time union brother Ken Lewenza.

“I knew leaving him last night at the hospital may be the last time I see him,” Lewenza told CTV News Friday. “It’s a blessing.”

Lewenza said Parent was in pain in recent days and it’s a relief that he is no longer suffering.

Parent leaves a wife and two adult children.

“It is with great sadness to inform you my dad, Gary Parent, passed away early this morning. He is the strongest person I have ever known and I am so proud to call him ‘dad,’” Jason Parent, Gary’s son, posted Friday on Facebook. “I will miss you tons but I have so many wonderful memories.”

A sentiment shared repeatedly Friday as word spread of Parent’s passing.

“He made me grow up, quite frankly,” Lewenza told CTV News.

The men worked together for years with the Canadian Auto Workers union Local 444, with Parent helping Lewenza when he became National President of the union now known as Unifor.

“Gary's the soul of the community; the soul of the labour community,” Lewenza said. “He's the soul of what's good about our community.”

“This was a man who believed in helping the disadvantaged, fighting for the underdog, a champion of social causes and social justice,” Mario Spagnuolo said Friday.

He is the current president of the Windsor and District Labour Council, following in the footsteps of Parent, who served as president for 35 years.

Spagnuolo recalls when he was in high school hearing Parent speak at an event, never dreaming he would one day hold the very same position.

“He stood up to his principles and what he believed in, even in the most difficult of times, and even if he was in a room of people that necessarily didn't agree with him, he stuck by what he believed in,” Spagnuolo said.

Parent is credited with helping to bring a medical school to Windsor, the creation of the Unemployed Help Centre, and establishing a Hospice in Windsor, to name but a few of his achievements.

“He was working hard to make sure that the quality of life for everyone - irrespective of whether or not you were a member of a labour union - that your life was better,” Lorraine Goddard, CEO of Windsor-Essex United Way told CTV News. “He performed his work with compassion in that he really genuinely cared about people; cared about the community.”

Goddard said Parent was also the first labour representative on the national board of directors for the United Way.

“I mean, that's just what kind of reputation Gary had in terms of his leadership,” said Goddard.

Parent was also the recipient of countless awards and tributes, including the Queens Jubliee medal and the Charles Brooks Community Award, in addition to honorary degrees and diplomas from the University of Windsor and St. Clair College, respectively.

“I can't think of one thing in our community that Gary Parent has not touched,” Lewenza concluded. “Which means he's touched every household in some way, whether you met him or not.”

Other tributes

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said he was saddened to hear of the passing of Parent, a ‘giant’ in the labour movement.

“Gary Parent was one of those true leaders who helped to ensure that Windsor-Essex is a strong community, and we were lucky to have him with us,” Dilkens wrote in a statement to CTV News.

"He's tough and he's kind, he's honest and he's always been on the side of not just working people, but everyone in Windsor," Windsor-West MPP Lisa Gretzky said in a social media post.

Windsor-West MP Brian Masse praised Parent Friday in the House of Commons.

“In my 25 years of working with Gary, I want to thank him as he is a mentor and continues to inspire,” Masse said. “Without Gary’s advice and guidance I wouldn’t be standing here before you.”

Stellantis also payed tribute to the former employee with 44 years experience, “His work and leadership extended far beyond Windsor Assembly, and his legacy and contributions will be imprinted on Windsor-Essex for generations to come.”

Lana Payne, president of Unifor National, told CTV News Parent was kind and generous but also a true champion for workers.

“Gary Parent exemplified the kind of leader and trade unionist we all aspire to be,” Payne wrote in a statement to CTV News. “He was relentless in his pursuit of economic and social justice for workers and he knew a strong union meant being a social and community union.”

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