Irene Atkinson, a blunt advocate for educational causes, was feted at a union party last December. It was the 40th anniversary of her first being elected as a Toronto District School Board trustee, a job she still holds today.
But now, Ms. Atkinson's supporters are shocked and sombre, as she lies unconscious in an intensive-care unit. A fire inside her High Park Boulevard home this past weekend has left her in hospital, on life support and in an induced coma, as she is treated for smoke inhalation. Her condition remained unchanged Sunday evening.
Toronto Fire officials say the cause is not yet known. "The fire was in the kitchen area, it spread a little to the hallway and is being investigated," said Stephan Powell, a district chief. Over decades, Ms. Atkinson, who is in her 70s, has made a name for herself as a force to be reckoned with in Parkdale-High Park circles. This weekend, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, and many other prominent politicians issued statements expressing hopes that she will pull through.
Compared to more polished politicians, she doesn't mince words. Fourteen years ago, she was routed in her one bid to sit in the provincial legislature.
And when she briefly served as TDSB chair in the early 2000s, she was assigned a communications specialist to lend her words some added polish.
"It was determined we needed someone from communications to help me deal with the media," she frankly told The Globe and Mail at the time. Months later, she said she would not be seeking re-election as TDSB chair. "It's a thankless task," she told the Toronto Star. "I have never worked so hard in my life and there's no financial recompense."
Yet, for decades she has remained a tireless trustee, sticking to the role that she was first elected to in 1972. A Progressive Conservative at first, she grew alienated by the 1990s-era budget cuts championed by then-premier Mike Harris. She has embraced New Democratic policies ever since.
"She's a fighter, so I know she will continue to fight," said Shaun Chen, the vice-chair of the TDSB, in an interview Sunday. "She holds firm to what she believes in, and that is why her community votes her in, year after year." Mr. Chen said his colleague has been pushing – forcefully – in recent months to secure funding that could reduce overcrowding in West Toronto schools. Ms. Atkinson is the mother of three adult daughters, including one Toronto school teacher. Friends and family remain anxious to hear any kind of good news about Ms. Atkinson's health status, Mr. Chen said. "I understand she was placed in an induced coma as part of the recovery," he said. "To be frank, I don't know the technicalities around it."
With files from Kate Hammer