Legendary Kingston business owner, lawyer, veteran, philanthropist, and community builder Arthur Britton Smith — known to many as “Brit” — has died at the age of 103.
Smith was a prominent member of the community, donating millions of dollars to various charities and other local causes, which made him one of Kingston’s most recognized and generous philanthropists.
“Deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Britton Smith this past weekend. The impact that Brit has had on Kingston is hard to put into words,” Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson wrote on X (formerly Twitter), early Monday morning. “I remember the first time I met him at my office in City Hall, and how impressed I was by his sense of humour and how down to earth he was. His humility and giving nature led to unparalleled philanthropy over the years, enabling countless affordable housing and health care projects to help individuals and families.”
A lifelong Kingstonian, Smith was born on May 13, 1920, to local lawyer Cyril Middleton Smith and his partner Edna Madeline Smith (née Spooner). Smith grew up on Stuart Street and attended both Victoria School and Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute (KCVI). In his early years, Smith was a dedicated member of the Canadian Armed Forces; he first joined the military while in high school, enlisting as an army reservist with the 32nd Kingston Field Battery.
Following his time at KCVI, Smith elected to stay in the Limestone City as he enrolled as a cadet at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC). Upon his graduation from RMC in 1940, Smith immediately shipped off overseas, as the Second World War was already underway in Europe. In England, Smith served as part of the 8th Field Regiment.
One of Smith’s most noteworthy moments during the Second World War came in July of 1944 when he arrived at Normandy with the 4th Field Regiment, as part of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. During the Battle of Normandy, Smith participated in the capture of Verrières Ridge as part of Operation Atlantic. Several days later, during Operation Spring, Smith took part in the breakup of the German defensive cordon, helping drive back four enemy attacks.
For his role in Operation Spring, Smith was awarded a Military Cross, which is a third-level military decoration awarded to officers of the British Armed Forces as well as the militaries of Commonwealth nations. In addition to his Military Cross, Smith received a number of other service awards, including the 1939-1945 Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defence Medal, and the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal. In 2014, as part of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy, France honoured Smith with the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur, or the National Order of the Legion of Honour.
Following the end of the Second World War, Smith returned to Canada as he began to study law at Osgoode Hall in Toronto. Smith eventually returned home to Kingston to practice law after he was officially called to the bar in 1948. Smith’s law office in Kingston remained open for over 50 years.
After establishing his legal practice in Kingston, Smith began to involve himself with local residential development projects in the city, including the construction of Strathcona Park and other subdivisions, following the end of the Second World War. In 1954, Smith incorporated Homestead Land Holdings, which is now one of the biggest residential rental companies in Canada.
Due to his success with Homestead, Smith was able to contribute large sums of money to local charities and other important causes, and he eventually established the Britton Smith Foundation. Over the years, Smith contributed millions of dollars to local organizations, including the United Way of Kingston Frontenac Lennox and Addington (KFL&A), the University Hospitals Kingston Foundation (UHKF), Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC), Queen’s University, the YMCA of Eastern Ontario, St. Lawrence College (SLC), the Boys and Girls Club Sout East (BGC), and many more.
Following the news of Smith’s passing, many of the organizations he supported issued statements acknowledging his decades of generosity and community support.
“Mr. Smith leaves behind a legacy that has not only made a lasting impact on the Kingston community but also the United Way KFL&A,” wrote Kingston Police Chief Antje McNeely, Board Chair, United Way of KFL&A.
The United Way KFL&A was one of Smith’s favourite causes to support. In 2016 he contributed $1.2 million to help build a new home for homeless youth in Kingston aged 16 to 19, which eventually opened in 2017. To date, the donation remains the largest single gift the United Way KFL&A has received.
“Mr. Smith has received numerous accolades and awards for his amazing philanthropic work over the years and always focused on supporting and giving to his community in any way he could. As United Way’s Honourary Patron, he also welcomed leadership donors into his home each year during the summer, including this past summer in June, to thank them for their generosity and support, greeting each donor at the door and playing the trumpet before his speech,” McNeely’s statement added.
Smith’s philanthropic zeal was “inspiring,” said Rob Adams, CEO of YMCA Eastern Ontario.
“While Britt achieved tremendous success in the world of business, it is his commitment to using this success to benefit others that I believe will be his greatest legacy. His philanthropy was wide-reaching, from homelessness to healthcare, from education to social services, Britt made a difference to so many, yet he never expected or asked for recognition,” he said.
“[Brit] has been a great friend to the YMCA and RKY Camp, and has been instrumental in our capital projects including our lap pool, as well as helping countless kids, seniors and others access healthy programs through our annual campaign, helping to enhance the lives of many and we thank him for this spirit of community.”
Smith’s donations often exceeded the usual gifts received by the organizations he chose to support. His contributions often served as the “single biggest gift” for various charitable organizations in Kingston, including BGC (formerly Boys and Girls Club of Kingston & Area). In 2017 Smith donated $700,000 to the local club; the single biggest cheque ever written to the organization.
“Brit Smith is a critical piece of our organization’s history and success. Nearly 25 years ago, he contributed to turning the Robert Meek Public School into a Boys and Girls Club home. Donations along the years have also allowed our programs to expand tremendously, serving 6,700 children and youth last year,” said Jacqueline Collier, President of the Board of Directors for BGC South East.
:The Homestead Foundation created the Kids Zone at our West End location, which now provides over 20,000 annual healthy play opportunities for young kids in our programs. Brit’s generous and tenacious spirit have become an indelible part of the history of the Club and our community, and will forever positively impact us.”
While Smith contributed to many different causes in the community, he is perhaps most remembered for his incredible generosity and countless donations to the city’s local healthcare network. One of Smith’s largest single contributions came in 2014, when he donated $10 million to Queen’s University, including $4.5 million each for the School of Nursing and the Department of Surgery.
Smith’s legacy is “one of generosity and transformation,” said Dr. Jane Philpott, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Queen’s.
“His gifts have contributed to groundbreaking research, academic excellence, and student success, including the creation of three chair positions in our Department of Surgery and School of Nursing. Ultimately, he has helped impact patients and communities and supported our faculty’s mission to build a healthier world,” she added.
In honour of his support to the School of Nursing, the Faculty of Health Sciences established the Sally Smith Chair in Nursing, named after Smith’s wife of 68 years, Sally (née Edith Carruthers), who passed away from cancer in 2012.
“Both of their legacies will live on in the innovative research that comes out of this important position,” noted Dr. Erna Snelgrove-Clarke, Vice-Dean of Queen’s Health Sciences, and Director of the School of Nursing.
Over the years, Smith donated more than $10 million to UHKF, including $3 million in 2015 to purchase a new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine at Kingston General Hospital (KGH) and $5 million in 2018 to support the construction of the new Providence Manor long-term care facility.
“It is with heavy hearts that all UHKF staff, board members and volunteers extend deepest condolences to family, friends and community members upon the passing of Mr. Smith, a true beacon of generosity and a remarkable man,” said Tom Zsolnay, President and CEO of UHKF.
“His legacy of giving resonates in every corner of our community from education to healthcare advancements and beyond. His donations have and will continue to have positive impacts on the lives of many in our community for generations to come.”
In 2016, Smith donated $3 million to St. Lawrence College which helped support a new behavioural research centre.
“As the largest donor in SLC’s history, Brit’s belief in our mission and willingness to stand behind it mobilized many others to follow suit and support our students,” shared SLC President and CEO Glenn Vollebregt. “We are proud to have part of his legacy permanently on our Kingston campus through the A. Britton Smith Centre for Behavioural Studies, which was named in his honour in May of 2021.”
Not only did Smith contribute financially to the organizations he supported, but he also got involved wherever else he could, serving on boards and in other ceremonial positions; he was also a familiar face at many important community events. Given his longstanding support of the Canadian Military, Smith served in several honorary positions with the Princess of Wales Own Regiment from 1968 to 1995, including the role of Honourary Colonel. From 1949-1955, Smith served three terms as an Alderman on Kingston City Council.
Aside from his military honours, Smith won countless awards for his work as a lawyer, business owner, and philanthropist. Select honours include the Order of Ontario (2018), Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012), the Kingston Chamber of Commerce Business Person of the Year Award (1990), and a spot in the Kingston Business Hall of Fame (2006). Smith’s highest honour came in 2019 when he was awarded Membership in the Order of Canada.
Smith also received countless honourary degrees and other titles, including honourary degrees of Doctor of Laws from both RMC (1989) and Queen’s University (2009).
In his later years, Smith was a passionate local historian, writing two books on the subject: Kingston! Oh Kingston! An Anthology (1987), and Legend of the Lake: the 22-gun brig-sloop Ontario, 1780 (1997).
Despite Smith’s passing, the Britton Smith Foundation intends to continue his legacy of philanthropy and community support, with the help of his friends and family.