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Barrie community mourns 'passing of a legend'

Former MPP, alderman, lawyer, music lover, and active community member Bruce Owen died Monday at age 90

Barrie has lost a former MPP, alderman, lawyer, music lover, and active community member.

Bruce Owen died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack on Monday at the age of 90.

“Up until last week, he was still working,” said his son and law partner Trevor Owen, adding his dad was also still organizing concerts. “The loss is overwhelming. He was my best friend, all my life.

“We worked together at the law office every day for the last 34 years. … To not have that source of guidance is breathtakingly awful," he added. 

Bruce Owen continued to work in the law practice and was in the midst of organizing more concerts for the spring, which was his life’s passion.

He was predeceased by his wife, Anne, in 2018, but continued to live in the same Shanty Bay home where the couple raised Trevor and his sisters, Valerie and Pamela.

Mr. Owen was very active politically, having served two terms as an alderman on city council during the 1960s.

He also ran in the Barrie riding as a Liberal both federally and provincially eight times, but was defeated by Conservative party members in what was considered a Conservative stronghold. He finally had success during the 1987 election, carrying the Liberal ticket to Queen’s Park.

During his three years as MPP, Owen successfully attracted funding for the development of more than 1,000 non-profit housing units, saw renovations to the downtown area, secured funding for Barrie’s new hospital and helped to bring the Honda manufacturing facility to Alliston, said Trevor.

The Liberal government was defeated three years later when the NDP was swept into power with Paul Wessenger replacing Owen as the local MPP.

“He was a good Liberal. There were only two of us around at one point,” former Barrie mayor Janice Laking said with a chuckle. “He’ll be missed. He was always working on things for the city.

“One thing that he worked really hard on is to find a site for a music hall, a theatre space that would accommodate special things coming to Barrie,” she added.

The two had admired the facilities in Kitchener and Guelph and hoped to develop something similar in Barrie, but it never came to fruition, something Laking is still hoping to see.

That work of fulfilling his longtime dream of a performing arts centre in Barrie continues and is coming closer to realization, said Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman.

“I’ve known Bruce since I was a kid… as this tireless advocate for music in Barrie,” said Lehman, acknowledging his political involvements as well. “It’s the passing of a legend.

“Whatever he did, he threw himself into it. We lost (former local MP) Ron Stewart a few weeks ago as well. There’s sort of a generation of very fine gentlemen who served the city, served the province, served the country and they just don’t make them like that anymore," the mayor added. 

The lack of a performing arts centre didn’t deter Owen. He developed a workaround, using several community venues to present musical performances.

As the arts reporter for the now-defunct Barrie Examiner, Susan Doolan followed much of Owen’s work on the local music scene. While he enjoyed classical music, his passion encompassed a wide range of genres.

Owen, a vocal soloist for several churches in Barrie, was chair of the Barrie Concert Association, presenting a series of classical music programs in the city including through the Colours of Music festivals. 

“He made a huge contribution to the community,” said Doolan. “He was one of the most kind, thoughtful men I knew and at the same time he was also passionate about music and driven to bring it to everyone.

“That’s his legacy really, bringing that kind of music to Barrie," she said. 

Owen believed in the healing power of music and watched it change people, Doolan added.

The Colours of Music was a 10-day festival presented in various churches and venues across the city attracting an audience from well beyond the city’s borders.

The community also continues to benefit from his work to bring two nine-foot Shigeru Kawai grand pianos to the city. The pianos found homes in two local churches, which serve as their caretakers but were used for various musical events.

Doolan recalls seeing Owen in the summer, discussing the concerts he had in the works.

Owen was recognized for his ongoing commitment to bringing music to Barrie in 2000 with the National Arts Centre Award for Distinguished Contribution to Touring, an award that honours exceptional achievement in fostering the touring of live performing arts in Canada. Other awards included the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award and the Province of Ontario’s June Callwood Leadership Award.

Many of his concerts had a focus on classical music, but he also presented jazz, blues and a mix of varieties.

Tributes from the musical world have been pouring in, said his son, Trevor. His dad also sang in churches across the city, had a handful of recordings and was a soloist during the 1984 papal visit to the Martyrs’ Shrine near Midland.

Owen also had a strong faith and was founder of the local Christian businessmen’s association and Barrie Prayer Breakfast, which his son has chaired for the past two decades.

On the legal front, Owen served as a small claims judge and maintained his practice focusing on wills, powers of attorney and estates and real estate law, often going out of his way to help families, even as recently as the past year, said his son.

Visitation will be held at Trinity Anglican Church on Collier Street on Friday from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m., and on Saturday from 1 p.m. until the 3 p.m. memorial service, at which time the flags are expected be lowered to half-mast at Queen’s Park. Bookings for visitations must be made in advance as part of pandemic precautions.