A Life's Story

October 08, 2022

The wise, supportive, calming shelter from the political storm

People were drawn to Ron Wasylycia-Leis, who tirelessly kept family matters on track and built his own career while his wife of 50 years served in the legislature, in Parliament and twice campaigned to become Winnipeg’s mayor

By: Jim Timlick

Ron Wasylycia-Leis was never one to crave the limelight.

That’s not to say he was inconspicuous. After all, he was always at the side of his wife Judy, a prominent former provincial and federal politician who also ran to become Winnipeg’s mayor in 2010 and 2014. He also had a successful career of his own, gave freely of his time to numerous charitable causes across the city and was an attentive father to the couple’s two sons, Nick and Joe.

While he never felt entirely comfortable being in the spotlight, he had an uncanny ability to draw people in, according to those who knew him.


Ron Wasylycia-Leis with his sons, Joe and Nick, and wife, Judy Wasylycia-Leis. Ron died in May at the age of 70.

“The hallmark of Ron, which you came to learn, is he was not the loudest voice in the room, but he was always very sage,” says Ralph Guy, who served for nearly a decade with Wasylycia-Leis on the board of directors of the Epic Opportunities Foundation, which supports people living with intellectual disabilities to live and work independently in the community.

“He was really wise. When he spoke, you found yourself drawn in and you found yourself listening because of what he had to say. Some people are very loud and they’re the bright light in a room and then there are others who just naturally draw you in. Ron fell into that latter category because of his character. You thought, ‘I should be listening to Ron because his advice is going to be very useful.’”

That quality of character was something people started taking notice of in Wasylycia-Leis at a young age. Born and raised in Wellesley, Ont., he attended Elmira District Secondary School, which is where he first met Judy. Both were members of the school band (he played tenor sax, she played clarinet) and travelled with the band when it performed at Expo 67 in Montreal, and again three years later at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan.

“It was quite wonderful,” Judy says of performing at the two international exhibitions. “We were very privileged to have done that and we were so proud.”

By that time, Ron and Judy had become a “thing” and continued to date while they attended university, Ron at Waterloo, where he studied math and computer science, and Judy at Western Ontario, where she enrolled in political science. They soon realized that their paths were destined to intertwine and were married on Aug. 26, 1972. Interestingly, it wasn’t Ron who popped the question.

Wasylycia-Leis playing tennis.

“We’d been dating for a while and I suggested to him that we get married. He said, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea, especially because it will save us money with our student loans,’” Judy says, laughing. “I think it was just a logical step in our relationship. We both… knew we could manage better together.”

It was about that time that one of the most tongue-twisting surnames of all time came into being. Ron’s family name was Leis while Judy’s was Wasylycia. Since they were going to be joining forces, Ron thought it only made sense they combine their names, something that wasn’t exactly a common practice at the time.

“It was Ron who actually suggested we do it. I think you could say he was a feminist from the get-go. He had those values right from the start,” Judy recalls. “I think that’s why we clicked and why we dated and why we got married. We shared the same values. It was so evident over the next 50 years as he supported me in all of my political endeavours. I think those values of inclusion and equality and diversity and respect were a big part of the student movement at the time and I think that’s where it came from.”

He completed his degree in 1974 and accepted a job as a computer technologist with Metropolitan Life soon after. By then, Judy had joined him in Ottawa, where she attended Carleton and earned a master’s degree in political science in 1976.

The couple moved to Winnipeg in 1982 after Judy was asked to work on former NDP premier Howard Pawley’s election campaign and was subsequently hired as his executive assistant.

Wasylycia-Leis as a young man.

“Neither of us really wanted to put down roots in Ottawa, and saw this as a great opportunity for the next stage in our lives, a great community with a history of being an inviting city,” she says.

A short time later, Ron joined the IT department at Centra Gas, where he would remain for the next decade. He also spent time at IBM before landing his dream job: setting up and managing PeaceWorks Technology Solutions’ Winnipeg office. The company provides technology solutions to smaller companies and non-profits that can’t afford the services of larger IT providers. It was certified as a Canadian B Corporation in 2011, which requires companies to meet rigorous standards for verified social and environmental performance and demonstrate a desire to not only be the best in the world, but the best for the world.

“He was just over the moon when PeaceWorks got its status as a B corp,” Judy says of the company where her husband remained until his retirement three years ago.

While he was regarded as a savvy IT guy, it was his ability to connect with people that distinguished him, she recalls.

“The thing with Ron and work was he had this way of always being this co-operative, collaborative guy. He was always affable, always personal. He was never overbearing or dominating. He had that reputation wherever he went. People loved him for it.”

Ron Wasylycia-Leis as a young boy

Family and friends often marvelled at his seemingly endless supply of energy. In addition to his full-time job, Ron also managed to find time to sing in a church choir, play guitar, help a number of local non-profits and served on the hearing panel of the Manitoba Vulnerable Persons Commission for more than a decade.

He also helped as a key member of every one of his wife’s election campaign teams over the years and often took care of day-to-day household responsibilities while Judy was away in Ottawa as an NDP MP from 1997 until 2010, which included caring for eldest son Nick, who was born with a rare disorder known as band heterotopia that causes uncontrollable seizures.

‘It’s really hard for women to make the decision to run politically to begin with, but it’s doubly hard when you’ve got kids and family responsibilities,” Judy says. “I could not have done what I did, both as an MLA and as an MP, without Ron playing that strong, supportive role and being the primary caregiver and willing to co-ordinate all the family activities and medical appointments and celebrations. It would have been impossible.”

That near-limitless reserve of energy proved to have its limit. Ron died suddenly and unexpectedly on May 21 at the age of 70, the result of an aortic dissection that slowed his heart and eventually stopped it. The news caught everyone who knew him by surprise. He was in sound health right up until the end, playing pickleball three times a week and enjoying long-distance cycling trips with Judy that began and ended at the family cottage at Betula Lake in the Whiteshell.

One of his last passion projects was the Bannerman Green not-for-profit housing co-op, where he served as the agency’s communications co-ordinator. Formed by friends and neighbours in the St. John’s area, it will see the construction of as many as two dozen new affordable and energy-efficient housing units by 2024. He and Judy were so passionate about the project they agreed to sell their own home to the co-op prior to his death; it will eventually be transformed into several additional units.

The couple married in 1972 after Judy popped the question.

“Ron wouldn’t want this project to fail. He believed in it absolutely,” she says.

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