Shirley Dysart

Shirley Dysart

Shirley Dysart (born Shirley Theresa Britt) hailed from Boston, Massachusetts, as the oldest child of Leslie John Britt and Mary Agnes (née Donovan) Britt’s eight children. She frequently looked after her younger siblings while her parents were at work.

The family moved to New Brunswick, where Shirley attended public schools and then St. Vincent’s High School in Saint John. After graduation, she continued her education at the New Brunswick Teachers’ College and the University of New Brunswick. A Beaverbrook Scholarship allowed her to study at the University of London.

Upon completing her education, Shirley Dysart returned to teach at her high school alma mater, St. Vincent’s High School in Saint John. In 1967, she joined the school board for District 20, eventually becoming its first female chair for three years.

Shirley Dysart

Encouraged by Liberal Party leader Bob Higgins, Dysart ran for and won a seat in the Legislative Assembly in 1974, representing Saint John North. She became the first female Liberal and second female overall to serve in the Legislative Assembly. In 1976, she participated in the Bi-Centennial Celebration Committee for the Province of New Brunswick.

Dysart successfully defended her seat in 1978, 1982, 1987, and 1991, serving for twenty years. She remains the only Liberal politician to achieve five consecutive victories in Saint John.

Appointed interim Leader of the Opposition in 1985, Dysart became the first woman to lead a political party in New Brunswick. After the 1987 election, she was named Minister of Education, another first for women. As Minister of Education, she spearheaded the introduction of a universal, full-day public kindergarten program throughout the province, earning the title “architect” of New Brunswick’s kindergarten system. She also played a significant role in various community projects in St. John, including the restoration of the Imperial Theatre.

Shirley Dysart

In 1991, Dysart became the first female Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. She retired from politics in 1995, opting not to seek re-election.

Dysart also held numerous community leadership roles, serving as president of the Catholic Women’s League Council and the University of New Brunswick Alumni Council, and as a board member for the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, New Brunswick Music Festival, Theatre New Brunswick, University of New Brunswick Alumni Council, Saint John Family Services, and the Irish-Canadian Cultural Association.

In October 1996, the University of New Brunswick Saint John awarded Dysart an honorary LLD. She received a Red Cross Humanitarian Award in 2000 and was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2004. In 2012, she was honored with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.

The Learning Partnership, a national educational charity, named her a Champion of Public Education in 2015. She also received the Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada and the Paul Harris Fellowship from the Rotary Club of Saint John.

Shirley Dysart was married to H. Eric Dysart, and together they had one son, J. E. Britt Dysart.

On December 14, 2016, Dysart passed away at the age of 88 after a period of declining health. She was survived by her son, daughter-in-law, two grandchildren, two sisters, two brothers, and a large extended family. As a mark of respect, flags at Saint John City Hall were lowered to half-staff following her death.

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