Shirley Dysart (born Shirley Theresa Britt) was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the eldest of eight children born to Leslie John Britt and Mary Agnes (née Donovan) Britt. She often cared for her younger siblings while her parents worked.
The family relocated to New Brunswick and Shirley attended its public school system and then St. Vincent’s High School in Saint John. Upon graduating she studied at the New Brunswick Teachers’ College and the University of New Brunswick. She was awarded a Beaverbrook Scholarship and studied at the University of London.
After graduating college, Shirley Dysart taught at her high school alma mater, St. Vincent’s High School in Saint John. In 1967 she became a member of the school board for District 20. She later served as chair of the board for three years, the first woman to hold the position.
In 1974 the leader of the Liberal Party, Bob Higgins, suggested she run for a seat in the Legislative Assembly; she won the seat of Saint John North, becoming the first female Liberal, and second female of any party, to serve in the Legislative Assembly. In 1976, she served on the Bi-Centennial Celebration Committee for the Province of New Brunswick.
Dysart was re-elected in 1978, 1982, 1987 and 1991, holding her seat for twenty years. She remains the only Liberal politician to win five consecutive elections in Saint John.
In 1985, she was appointed the interim Leader of the Opposition, becoming the first woman to serve as the Leader of a political party in New Brunswick. Following the 1987 election, she was appointed Minister of Education, becoming the first woman to hold the position. While serving as Minister of Education, she led the introduction of a province-wide universal, full-day public kindergarten program, becoming known as the “architect” of the province’s kindergarten system. She was also responsible for a number of community projects in St. John, including the rebuilding of the Imperial Theatre.
In 1991, Dysart was elected Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, the first woman to hold the position. She retired from politics in 1995, not seeking re-election in the general election of that year.
In addition to her political career, Dysart held a number of community leadership positions. She was president of the Catholic Women’s League Council, president of the University of New Brunswick Alumni Council, and a member of the board of governors of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. She served on the boards of the New Brunswick Music Festival, Theatre New Brunswick, the University of New Brunswick Alumni Council, Saint John Family Services, and the Irish-Canadian Cultural Association.
In October 1996 Dysart was awarded an honorary LLD by the University of New Brunswick Saint John, and in 2000, she received a Red Cross Humanitarian Award. She was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2004. In 2012 she was a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
In 2015 she was named a Champion of Public Education by the national educational charity The Learning Partnership. She was also the recipient of 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 had one son, J. E. Britt Dysart.
Dysart died “after a period of failing health” on December 14, 2016 at the age of 88. She was survived by her son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren, as well as two sisters, two brothers, and a large extended family. Following her death, flags at Saint John City Hall were flown at half-staff as a sign of respect.
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